Adjusting to the work regime, hours clocked responding to emails, the subject muses upon what it means to be “COLLEGE RULED,” the phrase atop his notebook. One would rather dwell among gyres, vortices / brightly drawn in chalk. Gazing into one, I dream of fugitive study: texts read and discussed in the secret gatherings of an Undercommons. I read poems and hear them as they speak to me, their voices flitting about, “quick-winged / with women’s faces” (4), as in poet Alice Oswald’s Nobody. “It’s not all about you, Dad,” they say with a touch of vocal-fry (as do the rich college girls in Mike White’s HBO miniseries The White Lotus). “It’s time to recenter the narrative.”
“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.
I listen to Julius Hemphill’s “Dogon A.D.” as tree-friends dance in the evening air. Push and pull of many forces: sadness, loneliness, anger, disappointment. All amid boredom: relentless repetition, until a friend recommends Prince Far I’s “Free From Sin.”
Digital flânerie leads on two separate occasions to The Time Tunnel, an Irwin Allen production that aired on ABC from September 1966 through April 1967. G-men work in some top secret underground facility in the desert, a sequel of sorts to the Manhattan Project. More than 12,000 personnel in their own self-contained city. A brash scientist accelerates the program, sends himself into the time tunnel. His friend goes in after him. Two men tumble helplessly through time as colleagues and friends work to rescue them and bring them home. Allen went on to fame as the “Master of Disaster” in the 1970s with The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974)—films I discussed at length in my dissertation.
Mow the lawn
goes the tune
of much of the afternoon.
And when not mowing,
I watch a show of discovery:
outing and moving out
via cauda pavonis—
prima materia transmuted,
grass a kind of catalyst.
The Unconscious talks across the divide. Through dreamwork it produces aspects of itself, events and encounters of each day “affected,” given to rise amid the lifeworld of the Ego, the Cogito, the “Subject.” Facets of the Akashic records surprise as they arise like flowers from the soil of routine. The process I’m describing is a bit like “hyperstition,” CCRU’s term for the way fictions make themselves real. (One could also liken it, though, to those acts of “time-walking” or “time-spinning” practiced by the creatures in the Deborah Harkness-inspired TV series A Discovery of Witches. Bodies of past selves inhabited by future minds.)
Sarah and I celebrate her birthday by beginning A Discovery of Witches, a British television series based on the first book in author Deborah Harkness’s “All Souls” trilogy. It’s a fantasy series, magic a central facet of its world.
Sarah reads Frankie the story of the Gingerbread Man as I mow the lawn. Earlier in the day Frankie and I watched an episode of the Comedy Central series Over the Garden Wall. The episode is called “Tome of the Unknown” and features a guitar-playing vegetable man named “Mr. Crops.”
The series title “Over the Garden Wall” reminds me of the next book I teach, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, as the book’s protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina flees her family’s gated community after the latter comes under attack from a group of “crazies” — people addicted to a drug called Pyro. Lauren quite literally escapes over the garden wall.
Literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. appears as himself in the recent Watchmen series on HBO. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo figures prominently as a primary object of study in Gates’s groundbreaking book The Signifying Monkey. Watchmen is a work of alternate history, as is Mumbo Jumbo. Both works help us remember our history, parts of which have been buried in the white political unconscious. The Tulsa Massacre, for instance, is an event dramatically reenacted in Watchmen‘s opening episode, and the US invasion and occupation of Haiti reappears to consciousness in much the same way as one reads Mumbo Jumbo. The two works rhyme with each other — “repeat with a difference,” as Gates would say — in other ways as well. Reed’s secret, conspiratorial white-supremacist Atonist Order finds its correlate, its contemporary near-equivalent, in Watchmen‘s secret “Cyclops” conspiracy. Each work also features as its hero a black detective: PaPa LaBas in Mumbo Jumbo, and Det. Angela Abar, aka Sister Night in Watchmen. Yet there are differences. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Attribution of that saying to Twain appears in print in 1970, as in “A Said Poem” by Canadian artist John Robert Colombo. But Twain’s actual words appear in The Gilded Age, a novel Twain co-wrote with his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner: “History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.” The old legends and their systems of order are in pieces due to migration, diaspora, forced separation of people from the lands of their ancestors. The crack in the cosmic egg. With these multicultural fragments let us assemble a mosaic — something colorful, like the drawing by Cuban-born artist Alberto del Pozo on the cover of The Signifying Monkey.
Time to delve into Cosmos as a first-time viewer, even if the series is some sort of anamnesis, some remembering of the one by the one. Who is this charioteer who captains our journey? We are all space brothers and sisters, soulful star people cruising around in outer space — can you get with that? The voice of Reason beams via television satellite into the Library of Alexandria, and just like that, we begin to communicate across time, in many languages, awakening into freedom. From Alexandria, the General Intellect pulses consciousness out into space. Time to do something, we say to ourselves, with our knowledge of the cosmos. As Sagan’s series shifts into a second episode on evolution of life through natural selection, however, it begins to sound grossly eugenicist. I hear June Tyson singing in reply, “It’s after the end of the world. / Don’t you know that yet?” I keep wondering to myself, “Where is phenomenological reality? When and where is consciousness? Who is the ‘you’ hailed by Sagan’s speech?” By the show’s astrology-debunking third episode, I’m nodding off, in search of better dreams. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Sagan’s philosophy.