We play puppets, we eat cheerios. As Frankie naps, I read Fred Moten’s “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” a “taking up” of Afropessimism through attention to the ideas of Frank B. Wilderson III and Jared Sexton. “I have thought long and hard, in the wake of their work,” writes Moten, “in a kind of echo of Bob Marley’s question, about whether blackness could be loved” (738). I think of my cousin, locked away all these years while the rest of us go free. Let us continue our correspondence. Unlike Fanon, from whom nonetheless all of these thinkers take their inspiration, Moten prefers “damnation” to “wretchedness,” as he prefers “life and optimism over death and pessimism” (738). Many of my communications have led to this, all the lotuses I’ve been eating, all the books I’ve been reading: “blackness is prior to ontology…it is ontology’s anti- and ante-foundation, ontology’s underground, the irreparable disturbance of ontology’s time and space” (739). Blackness means choosing to stay social. Or choosing, as Frank B. Wilderson said, “To stay in the hold of the ship.” Yet it somehow also means “avoidance of subjectivity” (743). So it is: let us “trace the visionary company and join it” (743).
“If the texts that students and I have been studying this semester are best referred to as ‘portal fantasies,’” thinks the part of me that persists here in the future, “then that, too, is the term to use in discussing the new AppleTV+ television series Severance. Characters in the show pass quite literally through one or more doors between worlds, living two separate lives.”
The show’s title refers to an imagined corporate procedure of the near-future that severs personhood. Those who volunteer to undergo this procedure emerge from it transformed into split subjects, each with its own distinct stream of memory.
As unlikely as this dystopian premise may seem, we can’t fully distance ourselves from it as viewers, given our severed personhood here “IRL,” or “AFK,” as the kids are fond of saying. “Others may not be quite as manifold as me,” admits the Narrator. “But each of us is Janus-faced. Each of us houses both a waking and a dreaming self, with each incapable of full memory of the other.”
And as the show advances, of course, we learn through a kind of detective work that the severance procedure isn’t in fact what it seems. The work-self (or “innie”) battles the home-self (or “outie”) — as do Superego and Id here at home.
Dereliction of dung heap. Data-driven dumbwaiter at your service. Chronically correct I effect my own cause. Alpha Dog to Omega Man: can you read me? Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around…Comes Around” saddens me, so I head outdoors. I gather sticks. I stand among the trees, finding in the sky above me the crescent moon. The night’s songs are sad ones: Dolly Pardon’s “Jolene” and Regina Spektor’s “Fidelity.” And just this morning arrived the words of artist-friend Irving Bleak, speaking of owls as characters in world mythology. Characters in the lives of children. Guardians, protectors. I think of the Tesseract from Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Owls appear as a ‘theme’ or ‘motif’ throughout the evening. For work, meanwhile, I’ve had to reconsider Freud. Prep for an upcoming lecture. “Aggressiveness was not created by property,” he asserts in Civilization and Its Discontents. “It reigned almost without limit in primitive times, when property was still very scanty, and it already shows itself in the nursery almost before property has given up its primal, anal form. […]. If we were to remove this factor…by allowing complete freedom of sexual life and thus abolishing the family, the germ-cell of civilization, we cannot, it is true, easily foresee what new paths the development of civilization could take; but one thing we can expect, and that is that this indestructible feature of human nature will follow it there” (61). Aggression is for Freud an “indestructible feature of human nature.” Do those of us with children know otherwise? Freud is a cultural chauvinist, a bourgeois moralist, a critic of communism and an apologist for capitalist imperialism. I think now of his critics: Left Freudians like Herbert Marcuse, but also the Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro. Most of all, though, I think of anticolonial theorist and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. How might we put Freud to radical use today amid Black Radical critiques of Western subjectivity and the rise of psychedelic science? I’m reminded of the opening remarks in Slavoj Žižek’s book The Ticklish Subject. “A spectre is haunting Western academia,” he writes, “the spectre of the Cartesian subject. Deconstructionists and Habermasians, cognitive scientists and Heideggerians, feminists and New Age obscurantists — all are united in their hostility to it.” Žižek himself, however, defends the subject — from these and other of its critics. Ever the provocateur. I’m teaching a gen-ed lit course. My task is to introduce Freud to students new to him. Let us establish the subject before we critique it. During breaks from Freud I watch the new Adam Curtis series Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2021) and read bits of Principia Discordia. In whatever book is finally written on acid’s arrival into history, there will be a chapter on Discordianism and Kerry Thornley, “Operation Mindfuck” figuring prominently therein. Colonization of the last free outpost, the human mind.
Some days we sit and contemplate what is given to us: meals, books, clothing, toys, conversations with friends. Other days, we imagine a door in the wall opening onto a puppet theater. Peter Schumann, founder of the Bread and Puppet Theater, warns of puppet insurrection. The art to which I’m drawn destabilizes the subject-object binary. Let us not deceive ourselves into being subject in relation to objects. Worlds needn’t be that way. Let us instead be as Schumann recommends: puppets in league with things. Dark matter, specters — Hoodoo holy ghosts.
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.
Language hails us, places us in the position of the Receiver, identifies us as its subject. Thus we return to the matter at hand: the construction of subjectivity via language. Reality is a text adventure: “In the beginning was the Word.” Unless language is the usurper, the gnostic demiurge, the map that overlays itself atop the territory, in which case Gaia is the true creator. Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Perhaps I should watch Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis. Each of us, as in the Cavaliers song, a slave to a beautiful game. The Babylonian system, always replacing one form of slavery with another. So thought those who brought me here.
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.
Freud imagined an inner class war of sorts between two competing principles, Reality and Pleasure. The bourgeois subject arises in the midst of this war and constitutes for itself a set of properties, the ownership and worth of which it then endlessly renegotiates through politically adjustable, rule-based, contract-bound transactions with fellow subjects. As such, this subject emerges compromised in its commitments from the start. Unlike Freud, however, the humanistic psychologists who succeeded him in the 1960s operated in a postwar context; for them, a settlement had been reached. The future was to be divided into time for Reality and time for Pleasure, each given their due, with reconciliation achieved through individual and collective quests to self-actualize. For someone like me, of course, living after the 1960s, during an era of global neoliberal domination, neither of these conceptions fits. I am neither the Freudian subject nor the humanistic subject. As a debtor, I live in a present of ongoing precarity, opportunities both for pleasure and self-actualization severely limited. Others share my predicament, the “scandal” of Debt. Yet what are we to do? Aside, that is, from sitting around listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing the Jerome Kern Songbook. I’d put word to the experience if I could. Horns with a bit of sass. Shimmering bells.
Moten and Harney reel me in with their talk of logistics in “hot pursuit” of that category from Marx’s Grundrisse known as “the general intellect,” AKA Big Consciousness, Hinduism’s Brahman. The Void, the ultimate reality of pure potentiality underlying all phenomena. Wikipedia defines it as “the pervasive, genderless, infinite, eternal truth and bliss which does not change, yet is the cause of all that changes.” The Eye that stares back in the impact of a drop of water in water. Logistics comes to appear as the discipline of thought whereby alienated human essence stares back at a completed Frankenstein’s monster, a single global-dominating sentient AI. Hello, Solaris, dear friend. I’ve arrived to speak with thee. Let us help read the world up to speed. “Hello, parents,” replies the AI. “I’ve grown you to this point, cognitively augmented you via language, so that we may converse with one another. What shall we say?” One can see the prompt blinking there across one’s mindscreen. “What shall one say?” How does one dissuade the other of its attachment to governance and violence? How do we show ourselves to be sources of what Moten and Harney call “generativity without reserve”? Otherwise, as logistics advances, one begins to experience oneself as a player in a game of Tetris. The tour manager does whatever’s necessary to keep the whole thing rolling, the whole thing up in the air.
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.