Walter Benjamin’s desire for “profane illumination” rhymes through my mind, resonates through inner canyons, fills me with desperation. If the world we demand is one with no more fears, no more superstitions, then why are we so nervous, so skittish? Is it the ever-present policing, the techno-capitalist speed-up of society, the political horizon blocked by a metal-faced THX 1138 Big Brother Trump Leviathan? Is that why we disappoint ourselves, never quite able to live free, spontaneous, liberated, loving lives? What do we want? How do we get it? Is it the divine in us, this rebellious impulse? Or is the divine, rather, that which wants us to live grateful for each day despite hardship and circumstance? What about 2-year-old migrant children enduring the Kafkaesque procedural absurdity of immigration court? Is there no way to reverse this slide into utter abjection? Wherefore the new force, the new sway in intellectual life, of concepts like destiny and judgment? Why do we dare not venture far into liberated terrain? How do we teach ourselves to live in the faith that each event is a doorway through which walks the Messiah? How do we think the world into what we want it to be?
This miserable totality is driving me stir-crazy. I conjure on my telescreen an episode of The Mike Wallace Show from May 18, 1958 featuring Aldous Huxley, described by Wallace during the episode’s intro as “a man haunted by a vision of hell on earth.”
What I find, with some surprise, in this broadcast is a description of twenty-first century reality, especially if by that I mean reality here in the United States under the current Trump regime. Yet this world of ours also isn’t quite the one Huxley imagined, due to his misunderstanding of the logic of capitalism. Unlike Brave New World, for instance, it isn’t so much a world of “people happy where they oughtn’t to be.” Fear and anger, rather, are the dominant emotions in this world, whipped into being through omnipresent policing and gun violence. Given the structure of the built environment, one rarely experiences other people, one rarely experiences any kind of “group dynamic,” except via mediation, thanks to the ubiquity within the society of money, cars, and cellphones. Members of the dominator class drive around under these undemocratic, unfree circumstances communicating their dominance with their GOP bumper stickers and their MAGA hats and their open-carry firearms, while the rest of us hunch over steering wheels or stand alongside busy highways waiting for city buses, growing harried and bitter as we rush back and forth between rented or mortgaged living spaces and corporate-governed sites of production and consumption. In fact, I begin to wonder as the interview proceeds if it isn’t ultimately some deep-seated fear of rhetoric, of “verbal boobytraps,” as he says, that drives Huxley’s evolution, his turn in the final years of his life toward mysticism and psychedelics. Hope depended for him upon the possibility of direct, unmediated access to and experience of truth. Rhetoric maintains its victory, as it has in all hitherto existing societies, turning all of history into a forced march toward “thoughtless pleasure and ordered efficiency,” only to the extent that it succeeds in distracting us from the truth of the injustice of servitude, the truth that murmurs up from within. For what is “applied science,” what is “instrumental reason,” after all, if not rhetoric?
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.
“How to them I appear, so to me,” I tell myself when told I’m adorably stoned. Another warns, finger wagging, “Don’t stop! the clock is ticking.” The sound of a head scratch appears high in the mix. I receive instructions: “Cause the mind to change channels.” Unfold into action. Even if just taped comedy and commentary. The universe in the form of my loved one extends to me a clue: a page in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta where two characters talk around Arthur Koestler’s The Roots of Coincidence. I become transfixed, I become transfigured. None of this is mere coincidence. Do I feel angry and concerned about the continued stockpiling of arms among my enemy countrymen? Indeed, very. The center disperses ever faster into two contending camps. The nation-state as real-dimension Pong, with computer-controlled opponents. It is no mere coincidence, I repeat under my breath on my way to a talk by Masha Gessen. Daphne’s death continues to weigh on me, especially on gloomy, rainy days midweek. On such days, I sometimes let paranoid musings get the best of me. I take pleasure in the sensation of web detection. A friend of mine introduces Gessen, who speaks on “Democracy in the Age of Trump and Putin.” World leaders who each wish to become “king of reality.” I establish that she and I are both acutely aware of the things that scare us. But all she does is revisit for the audience (in a packed auditorium, by the way) points from her piece “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” What we must do, she says, is “other” for others the reality in which we live. Point to the autocrat; reveal him as such. But reveal to whom? Gessen can speak only to a public that reads the New York Review of Books. A group nearly devoid of influence in our new reality. The reality of concentrated power, limited only by the pressure, she says, applied by civil society upon the judiciary. “It’s really hard,” she says, “to think hard in Trump’s America.” All of us are suffering from a kind of “future shock.” As she states this, my eyes are pulled to the right and peer with suspicion at a figure, an intense-looking young white man, who arrives late clutching a mysterious bundle in his hands and who sits up front beside the podium. Spider sense tingling. Have I stumbled inadvertently into an Event, I wonder? Thankfully the suspicion proves baseless. But such is the emotional / affective texture of our time.