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.”
“Planning” rather than “policy.” Planning is people power. All of us can plan. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney draw this distinction in their book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Planning means learning about vegetables that grow in heat, as we’re planting late here at the start of June. Sweet potatoes, peppers, sunflowers. Zucchini and summer squash. Okra, green beans, eggplants, cucumbers, tomatoes, mustard greens, spinach, corn, and Swiss chard. Other vegetables will fare best if we plant them later, at summer’s end. Radishes, for instance. Carrots.
What do we mean by rebellion? Government by election is illegitimate, the numbers and the games played with them suspect. Time for ontological rebellion, refusal of consent to another’s determination of reality. Time to write and perform alternate scripts. Take value-determination away from the money-form. Reject the count en masse. By that I mean the Census. That which can’t count can’t rule. Collectively, in groups, drop out of the count. Drop out of buying and drop into giving. Create an alternative narrative reality. Turn every house into a freehouse, a treehouse, an Undercommons, a tribal encampment. Those who have land, give land. Start communes. Queer language. Historicize it, romanticize it, poeticize it, improvise with it, cast spells with it. Disobey those who police it. Craft new states of being. Provide for the needs of others. Teach. Parent. Use love and generosity to coordinate local gift-exchange. And support those who take to the pipelines and the streets. Water defenders, metro fare protestors. Rise up, act out. Decolonize this place.
How might we of the Undercommons avail ourselves in light of Climate Strike? Do we have concepts we could offer, lessons we could share? What is this Magnificence all around us? How do we help it grow? Who do we want to become? Hardt and Negri have told us, in a “script that is by now familiar” (xiii), that for most powerful social movements today, “leadership” is a dirty word. One of us rightly asks, “Is the youthful movement against fossil fuels leaderless? What about Greta Thunberg?” She’s a sort of leader, certainly — but perhaps the leadership she provides is tactical rather than strategic, a distinction favored by Hardt and Negri. By this they mean leadership of an entrepreneurial sort, “limited to short-term action and tied to specific occasions” (Assembly, p. 19). Hardt and Negri craft openings for which we’re grateful. I appreciate their call, too, at the end of Assembly, for a Hephaestus, a three-faced Dionysus, and a Hermes of the common. Why those three, however, as the constituents of their pantheon of the common? And how do we get from there to putting the machines back in the hands of living labor? How do we mute the command of capital? What would it mean, for instance, to make “digital algorithms” common, a form of non-property open to use by the multitude? Perhaps it’s as simple as forging “an instrument endowed with magical powers,” like the shield Hephaestus forged for Achilles. This instrument would “depict in concentric circles the composition of the entire community,” thus giving expression to “a new civilization, new modes of life, a new figure of humanity, and new relations of care among living species and the earth, up to the cosmos” (Assembly, p. 274).
One of capitalism’s most effective tactics of late is its placement of knowledge workers into permanent states of emergency and precarity. Each day churns up a new threat, a new outrage, a new lame letter from the university president, lackey of the university’s racist alums and trustees, many of whom remember fondly the days when they used to pose with confederate flags hung proudly in front of their fraternities. I defend myself by meeting with workers and comrades, groups of us planning and strategizing over tacos. We who operate in the Undercommons. Somehow in the midst of this, I also find time to practice radical loving kindness: watching, hoping, reading cookbooks, cooking. As a character notes in a recent episode of High Maintenance, “Life is funny — bees make honey.”
What do Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call that act of “calling to order” performed by instructors each day in classrooms? What if I were to introduce into this act a degree of self-consciousness by discussing the theory with students? Perhaps it’s as simple as noticing things along the way. Refunctioning the space we hold together, structuring conversation differently. Freeing one another to speak. Perhaps it’s a matter of organizing improvised collective speech into story, as would a dungeon master, but with the dungeon reformed into a zendo. This is what Kerouac models for us in The Dharma Bums: space to be crazy and free in life and speech. Perhaps I can’t recreate that space in our classroom. Perhaps I need to advance further in my study of Buddhism. Perhaps a class is just a class, and it needn’t be a democracy. But then the same would be true of our lives. No, my sense is that the conversation is developing, people are finding one another as voices in the classroom. I prepare as they do: by coming to class having read and annotated the material, with questions for discussion.
Bang! I’ve got enlightenment. Time to use it and change the world. Augment storytelling capacity. Change consciousness. Otherwise it’ll be 40 years into what was once just Reagan’s “New Lame America,” but is now, at certain moments in our seeing, a 24/7 corporate-fascist, logistics-driven, policed and self-policed carceral state. Live differently, motherfuckers! At which point I remind myself, “Breathe. Let go of the anger. Release it. Forgive. Return to the Dhammapada. ‘Go far into the Void,’ as the Tao Te Ching counsels, ‘and there rest in quietness.'” Thus enabling us to act gratefully and compassionately toward others, as we “Flight of the Bumblebee” around town. In return, we get to learn about the meaning of “Mu,” a concept from Zen Buddhism. Moten teaches us to think of such concepts as props or toys. “If you pick them up,” he explains in his interview with Stevphen Shukaitis, “you can move into a new set of relations, a new way of being together, thinking together. In the end, it’s the new way of being together and thinking together that’s important, and not the tool, not the prop” (The Undercommons, p. 106). What matters now is what we do with concepts, how we use them in our relations with others. Intellectual exchange can be practiced, here and now. Come on, folks — let’s do this. Let us use these words and participate in study.
The camera-eye floats above the fray, appreciating despite distance the stakes of the fight below. “Below me are those I assess, as I am assessed by those above,” intones the character known as Subject. The command prompt. Let there be affect in the absence of duty. I stare down into a volcano filled with molten pop-cultural detritus. Unmoved, I walk away. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney introduce me to Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell, through whom I learn the meaning of “hapticality,” or “the feel that what is to come is here” (The Undercommons).
Stars tossed through space land in bins full of gold. I stop and sniff the branch of a redbud tree. “All the tasks one must perform for daily self-reproduction,” I sigh, “plus actions pursuant to well-being and self-actualization.”