Like a squirrel pausing on a high branch to admire a nut retrieved from below, I return home from office hours savoring a day well-spent in joyful, growth-oriented dialogue with students. Work in such moments seems capable of being harmonized with utopianism and individual and collective jubilation. My approach to reality coincides with my approach to students: infinite wonder, infinite passion, infinite forgiveness, infinite care. I can do this. I can bring spirited delight to conversations about consciousness, history, reality, and being, and still have time afterwards to recline and reflect. Students and I through study seed each other’s minds with new language sequences, new hopes, new possibilities. “What about plants?” a student and I wonder. Do they, too, possess consciousness? How do I eat with minimal undue suffering, minimal deconstruction of the order of the Oikos? A version of me tells another version of me across a distance of years to compare the “sacred river” referenced in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium-induced poem “Kubla Khan” with the “stream” metaphor employed in the poem’s preface. Consciousness appears in the work as both non-reflecting pool and mirror. Or more precisely, as Coleridge writes, “The pool becomes a mirror” (emphasis mine). But which the surface, which the depth? I grow frightened of the implications. Suddenly I worry that the poem carries within it a warning about drug use as a sinful act of hubris, God’s creation (the mind, the soul, consciousness) purposed, put to use, instrumentalized, enslaved, the eternal Adam damning himself out of Eden by trying to “finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him” — living for an augmentation, a “more,” a heavenly end of time that is always and forever “yet to come.” The infinite deferment or postponement appears mysterious in its implications in the final lines of the poem’s preface — made all the more complicated by annotations about modifications of the text made by Coleridge at different stages in his career — and thus different stages in the evolution of the author’s political sympathies and related worldview. The poem, wistful and tragic in its unreconstitutable, permanently fragmentary form, gestures toward its parent texts, Paradise Lost and the Book of Genesis. I hope students write papers comparing garden imagery in “Kubla Khan” and Pearl. “Kubla Khan” appears equally in this light as ultimate psychedelic metatext and prophetic anamnesis of the destiny of humankind. Gardens and enclosures, experience-bounding laws and hedonistic transgression. Plenty and the desire for more. Drug use is disruption of the stream of consciousness, the sacred river Alph — language, alphabetic reality. The Symbolic. Coleridge likens the altered state of consciousness to “images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast,” whereas in Pearl, the dreaming narrator imagines himself as the cast stone, trying to cross the uncrossable stream dividing Earth from Heaven, only to find himself awakened from his dream and returned to the site of his misfortune.
The mind is, in the words of The Dhammapada, “the beast that draws the cart.” Mind is the primary operator, the seat of agency, occupied simultaneously by self and other. Teaching plays a pivotal role in one day’s shaping of the next. Mind in real-time recreates self and other. Our goal shouldn’t be reason asserting itself over passion. The non-human, daimonic dimension of reality is not to be tampered with. It is a realm of inexhaustible wonder. It is to be revered. A dimension of dynamic unrest: concealment, de-concealment, discovery. Good News. Truth alongside the Mountain of Seven Vultures. Can reverence and wonder co-exist with the kind of wish where you write it down and make it happen? Ralph Waldo Emerson seemed to think so. “Once you make a decision,” he claimed, “the universe conspires to make it happen.” Let us wish for Jubilee. Or whatever leads to Satchidananda. The Dhammapada, however, counsels me to conquer thoughtlessness by watchfulness. “Tell the Truth,” commands a sign on a wall. Speak a few words and then live them.
Westworld’s second season serves as a staging ground for consideration of the VR / neural net escape plan. The show pursues one flight of fancy, my thoughts another. “If we want to be heroes,” the show says, “we mustn’t sacrifice ourselves for the merchandise.” Hear in that word “merchandise” a term of contempt for the lackluster NPCs (golf management bros, exercise scientists, arbitragers-in-waiting) outputted yearly by the neoliberal academy. “Sacrificial toil” versus “whatever happens happens”: these are the sides in the conflict I stage each semester in my classes. “Why the grotesqueries of capitalism,” I thunder, “why this miserable global monoculture, US military bases and McDonald’s franchises loosed like a plague across the whole of creation?” At the very least, I offer them tools with which they may think if they so choose along their journey.
Something new begins now, bursting forth in kaleidoscopic profusion. Neoliberal governance reaches new heights of absurdity through the invention of “lunch debt.” But the teacher strike in West Virginia points a way forward, a first win, to be followed as early as next month, perhaps, with a strike by teachers in Oklahoma. The path for wildcats intersects there with a key choke point for social reproduction: tests that qualify states for federal funding. By placing federal funding into jeopardy, the strike jumps levels and has the potential to capture full national attention. Together, teachers, parents, and students can dictate the terms of a new deal. For the Trump administration, the goal will be to crush teachers the way Reagan crushed PATCO, while maintaining a semblance of economic populism among the base. Notice the administration’s reluctance to engage the West Virginia action’s illegality. They’re wary of trying to uphold an unpopular and unenforceable law. But of course, they’ll have to intervene eventually. His fans already love watching him say, “You’re fired.” Yet this runs the risk of intensifying antagonisms and contradictions. With solidarity walkouts, one could begin to imagine coordinated strikes, extension of wildcat tactics into public higher ed, systemwide stoppages, the reactivation of class power among the dispossessed.
After 15 years of teaching, all I can say with confidence is that education dooms itself to the circular reproduction of an empty formalism the moment it becomes compulsory. To extract myself from complicity with these and other compulsions, I walk alone on a sunny day, and whenever else the spirit moves me, listening to “Catfish Blues” by Alexander.
Crows and squirrels appear into consciousness and greet me on my way. As I crest a hill, I imagine myself happening upon a serene alpine lake. Plants offer me high fives, along with other, as-yet-unnameable signs of congratulation. Aye, crow, I hear ye. Greet me here in my true guise, the god of layaway and roustabout. Itinerant wanderer, upswept in a quest narrative that, through its inward-pointedness and self-invention, defies the tropes of conquest-oriented heroic fantasy. I look down at a pile of papers I’m supposed to grade and wonder, “Why am I here, again?” “Before being a worker,” I exclaim, “I am a person, perplexed by an alien imposition, the compulsion to work. Why should I complete tasks imposed by others, given this society’s open, gun-brandishing contempt for the only freedom that matters, the freedom from want?” To my students who complain only of Isis, of terrorism but not the terrorism of capitalism, I want to reply, “Relax. You are a non-subject, a non-event. A non-player character. History operates despite you.” Other students, thankfully, mine included, are organizing as we speak. OUT OF THE SCHOOLS AND INTO THE STREETS.
An assortment of tasks, given a spin, directs force toward its center. Bound together thus, like a top or a Tasmanian Devil, these tasks are made harmless, the rooms they occupy cleared for better acts of enjoyment. Luck having turned for once in my favor, a turn for which I shall remain eternally grateful, I now possess the opportunity to teach three sections of a literature course of my choosing. What shall I choose? Given how wary I am of loading myself too heavily with work, I’ll most likely just opt for some variant of my present course. There will be time enough to experiment next spring.
Eyes closed while listening to Grand Ulena’s Gateway to Dignity, I imagine a pair of animated graffiti high tops stepping frenetically across a generic late-80s-videogame-graphic brick wall. Perhaps what I have in mind here is Ghetto Blaster, a computer game I played on my Commodore 64 when I was a kid. Minds orient themselves otherwise than toward disaster.
The bullies are in charge. That is the principle fact of my world. The semester began on a somber note yesterday in an upper-floor classroom looking out on a gray sky. Through an epigraph by Günther Anders, I led students into a conversation about the war on the utopian imagination. We discussed cynicism as a defensive shell that subjects of capitalist realism raise around themselves, an emotional armor borne of disappointment. Staring at an image of myself on my computer screen in the moments before the start of a WebX interview, I uttered words of encouragement, imagining my attempt to improve my life as a tribute of sorts to Daphne. She would have wanted me to do this, I told myself. Remembering an image of the dog’s pained final hours, though, made me wince. Let us ascend by discarding our bearings. Tell stories of dolphins leaping from crystal seas. Monkeys arrive, as if their being were a plot device introduced to startle the narrative. One tries to re-imagine primate consciousness. Body as rage machine, apprehending the world through a fish-eyed lens. Mind not yet bound by words. Whereas now, we cower, listening as choppers cut lines through space.