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.
I sometimes pray silently to the equivalent of a program, a ghost in the machine, in hopes that it will take pity on me by unlocking invisible doors onto other quadrants of the game-board. And it does, language leading me to Ian Bogost’s “The Metaphysics Videogame.” Finally — a theorist of videogame ontology. Weed is a kind of rhetoric that delivers its arguments not with words or images or programs but through chemical reprogramming of neurons. It alters perception so as to dodge any system the General Intellect might try to impose onto Being. I wish to operate free of rules devised by others. This is why I’m writing and blogging. Games too often feel to me like a distraction from whatever aspect of Nature is described in terms like grounded, earthy, and wild. My fellow Marxists don’t take the Romanticist theory of Nature as seriously as they ought to. Even if just for the sake of personality and mental health. I like sunlight. I like sitting outdoors. Dr. Andrew Weil takes me on a “sonic journey to where healing happens.” Profound states of relaxation lead listeners down into a realm Weil calls “the Deep.” Of course, it’s all just schmaltzy classical music. A total betrayal of psychedelia’s revolutionary beginnings, the latter co-opted and, in true bait-and-switch fashion, replaced with something tacky and false. I want videogame theorists who, rather than trying to sell me on games, are instead able to help me better understand how videogames have influenced the way I think. The warring halves in me cause my ego formation to vacillate back and forth between an outdoor nature associated with public pools and summer camps, and an indoor nature associated with comic books, paperbacks, and videogames (but also movie theaters, roller rinks, and malls). Against both of these natures stood the culturally imposed tedium known as “school.” That boredom I experienced in classrooms as a kid makes me deeply cynical about my profession. If corporations weren’t the ones funding it and shaping the content, I would happily watch Viceland’s “The New Classroom” and say, “Yes, we should all integrate VR technology into our classrooms.” But really I’m more of a back-to-the-lander. I like to sit in the woods and read books.
Where realism often prompts sympathy, fantasy often prompts empathy: full, emotionally immersive engagement. Is it still possible, though, to construct aesthetic foundations for empathy across current divides in American society? And would we even want to? After teaching China Miéville’s “Floating Utopias,” a devastating Marxist critique of the proposed right-libertarian “Freedom Ship” venture, I overhear a wealthy female student of mine turn to her roommate and fellow classmate and say, without a hint of irony, “Doesn’t that just make you wanna go on a cruise?” At which point I drag myself home and pretend I’m Rodney Dangerfield.
How long before a thing loses its novelty, its precognitive wonder? I take shelter by reactivating the experimental leftist music-affect-subjectivity of my early twenties: jerky, spastic, militant, navigation of social space soundtracked via Fugazi’s album The Argument.