Sustainability depends upon acts of reparation. Property needs to be redistributed. Families are struggling. Digital communication penetrates the life-world with anxiety. Demand a general strike. Or just slog through, do one’s best, whatever that means each day. Behave joyously. Memes have me wanting to re-watch The Big Lebowski. But when is there time? Hop in, do what is necessary, step out. Thus I scramble through the work-life balance complexities of remote teaching and parenting amid shelter-in-place. (While also trying to buy a home.) Seated, arms up across the top of a bench like a slouched cowboy, the protagonist eyes the room. Tips an imaginary hat in greeting. “In Dorn’s allegorical scheme,” writes Marjorie Perloff in her introduction to Ed Dorn’s poem Gunslinger, “characters exist, not as particular individuals but as functions of a larger mechanism, relational properties that take on meaning only in their interaction” (viii).
She’s growing quickly. She’s active, inquisitive, communicative, discerning. We hang out. We go for walks. We return home to home cooking and mother’s breast. The household looms large around the edges of each day. I come home from walks eyes heavy with pollen. Allergy season. I’m interested to see what students do with this week’s readings: texts by Abbie Hoffman and John Sinclair. I dig in and learn about Abbie’s friendship with Allen Ginsberg. The two writers admired each other’s work. Ginsberg influenced Yippie politics and Hoffman’s brand of revolutionary political theater through a piece he wrote called “Demonstration or Spectacle as Example, As Communication.” (Abbie’s archives are available, by the way, at University of Texas at Austin.)
What does it mean to convert teaching into assembly of discussion forums plus creation and delivery of content within these forums within a piece of university-administered “classroom management” software? When do we get back to in-person gatherings of students and teachers? How under such circumstances does one practice a pedagogy of hope? Do we become video friends? Do we record little lectures, each of us seated before the camera-eye atop our laptops and smart phones, prisoners in a new kind of panopticon prison? But who knows? With a little practice, we can launch a jailbreak, a prison strike, a riot. Unless perhaps we use this as a moment to build ourselves up. I suppose it’s fitting that I started my career as a teacher, back all those years ago during training, with a short videotaped lecture on the panopticon. For that is what they’ve built around us with the camera atop the devices from which we work, now that our teaching is to be done online. These conditions have been imposed by fiat down a command chain, regional accrediting bodies the ones cracking the whip. Time to get to it.
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.
Epidemiology, scares, containment narratives. This is what the authoritarian state uses against those who would live joyfully upon the earth. But even under rough trades, we can care for each other. Exercise compassion. Release birds from cages, shake rattles. Maintain a vibrant village. Keep each other well-housed and well-fed. Meanwhile news everywhere of schools migrating online, education conducted remotely for the remainder of the semester. These are unprecedented times.
It’s a daunting task: trying to talk to one’s colleagues about consciousness. Is it a quality? Is it a substance? Do we wield it — or is it the nature and seat of our being? And what is its relationship to this sphere of action known as language? Consciousness trance-scribing itself for others. I want to say thought, consciousness, language, narrative: all are simultaneous, intermixed. I walk around, stare at three orange and white daffodils beside a small creek. Water runs across rock as a runner runs past as cars drive past, the world a series of concentric rings through which consciousness vibrates, even as with a body, with fingers typing on technology, words are produced. It all happens temporally and simultaneously. Consciousness is what allows us to perform these tasks. We move among sights, sounds, movements, actions, words, interactions with other beings. But then I also wish to say that consciousness is an awareness, a state into which one awakens gradually and intermittently amid cycles of sleep. We can put ourselves into better states through achievement of consciousness. Lukács uses the term in this sense in his book History and Class Consciousness. And for many Marxists, this achievement is to be sought against a backdrop of “false” consciousness. In a racist society it can transform into what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.” And of course it’s what second-wave feminists addressed when they organized themselves in the early 1970s into consciousness-raising groups. How does one say this for friends and colleagues? I practice the yoga of baby-holding while simultaneously listening to birds and crows, contemplating a solution. A way of saying, so as to facilitate shared awareness. What is this thing, this abstraction, this manifestation of mind that persists amid disruptions?
Sunlight brightens on all sides, each of us shining upon one another. Birds, bushes, cars, sirens, air units, snowmelt. Rooftops on one side of the street stand covered still in snow as birds flit in profusion amid trees. My courses encourage spontaneous participation in an ongoing dialogue. Minds come together through exercise of speech and self-organize into a class consciousness.
Huxley is a prophet, and with his final novel Island, he offers us a vision of redemption. Each of us is the island of Pala. Let us work together as allies. Youth for Bernie! There it is: let’s do this! “Uncover honey / where maggots are,” as Charles Olson prompted at the end of his poem “The Kingfishers.” We determine with the genres we teach different kinds of subjects. By assigning utopias rather than dystopias, we arrange for students to confront within themselves stirrings of hope rather than fear.
Students and I in my classes cook together. We become responsible for feeding each other. We feed each other. We are mammals and needn’t apologize. The conversation confronts its own material preconditions. The class inches closer to consciousness of itself as a co-evolving organism of self-determining parts orchestrated through acts of care. As we cook, we talk about shared texts, we listen to music together. We enjoy each other’s company amid sharing of a material and linguistic commons. And it is good.
Literature can be used to educate the whole person. Readings prompt studies of the psyche—studies of authors and characters as well as studies of ourselves. But these studies of selfhood and personhood can lead us—so long as we’re attentive enough, so long as we read carefully enough—from microcosm to macrocosm, from worldview to world. Consciousness of the cosmos and our place in it. They help us build cognitive maps, as Fredric Jameson would say. Intimations of who we are, what we are, when we are, where we are, how we are. Injustices are registered, confronted, acknowledged; we contemplate demands rightly made upon us by the aggrieved across history. Those amid us who are crying, let us comfort them. The maps may have differences, they may emerge for each participant individually, revelation and awakening scaled to each person; yet this awareness is of our commonality, revealed through our interactions as fellow Beings in dialogue over shared texts. As the Western Buddhist Beats who inhabit Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums would say, we recognize operating throughout history a “Brahman”—a common consciousness or common ground of Being manifesting among the particulars of identity and historical circumstance. Taken in aggregate, these manifestations tell a story, however paratactically—a narrative history of which each of us is a part. This recognition of our relationship to history can’t be put into words, exactly, other than by declaring as Charles Olson does in his poem “The Kingfishers,” “This very thing you are” (171).