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,” 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.
My students seem less televisual than they were in the past — though perhaps we’ve just steered conversation elsewhere, constructing through our shared readings a shared grammar. Reading allegory trains us to think allegorically. Texts assemble into vast systems of meaning. We become acquainted with what’s happening. A world pregnant with hope and possibility.
Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place” leads me into the mirror-world. I drop down into a seat and scry. One of the oldest known forms of divination. Our social media empires have attempted to capture the worlds on the other sides of our scrying mirrors. This is what shows like Black Mirror have tried to teach us. Students and I have returned to head culture’s first encounters with electronic black mirrors in the budding early days of videogames and personal computers as reflected in “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” a report Stewart Brand wrote for Rolling Stone magazine in December 1972. The piece begins with the conviction that the world is windblown and that change, technological modernity — in a word, “computers” — all of these have been foisted on “the people,” regardless of whether or not “the people” are prepared for it. Within less than half a century following the piece’s publication, most of us would be clutching these objects like gods. Brand’s advice was, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” This is the meaning of his Whole Earth Catalog. The medium in that case was indeed the message. The Catalog is significant primarily in terms of its form. A functional blueprint for Revolution is one that provides “Access to Tools.” But why was Brand so nonchalant, I wonder, as all of this began to unfold? Why was he so nonchalant about the effects on neighborhoods IRL as heads began to spend their night-time moments “out of their bodies, computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens” (39)?
In its final scene, the Netflix television series Russian Doll allows its time-looped protagonists, Nadia and Alan, to reunite as their best selves amid a parade of party people waving red flags of revolution. Given our current slime-pool polis, it seems reasonable to regard the show’s Groundhog Day purgatory as an allegory of that era of reaction since the defeat of the Sixties that Americans on the Left took to calling “neoliberalism.” The show boldly imagines that those who wish to live will one day get it right. In it I see a spirit similar to the one that animated Mitchell Goodman’s 1970 anthology The Movement Toward a New America, a book I wish I could somehow integrate into my classes. Let’s be straight with ourselves. “The Movement,” as Goodman defines it, “is the act of getting ourselves together. Clarity. Coherence. Community. It is also a vision” (vi). As if hearing a voice speaking out of myself, I read passages written by a man once known as Peter Marin. He tells me, from the future, to look for a book of his called The Free People. At the start of an essay of his featured in The Movement Toward a New America, Marin offers a description of a method of composition eerily similar to the one animating these Trance-Scripts. “Shuffling through my notes,” he writes, “I feel like an archaeologist with a mass of uncatalogued shards. There is a pattern to all this, a coherence of thought, but all I can do here is assemble the bits and pieces and lay them out for you and hope that you can sense how I get from one place to another” (vii). Like Marin, I am “impatient with transition, the habitual ways of getting ‘from here to there.’ I think restlessly; my mind, like the minds of my students, works in flashes, in sudden perceptions and brief extended clusters of intuition and abstraction — and I have stuck stubbornly to that method of composition” (vii).
Westworld encourages me to reframe my present crisis as a test for fidelity. But to whom, or to what? Creator vs. created, human vs. AI, guest vs. host: as above, so below. As the season proceeds, the show’s violence and bloodshed grow tiresome. No more gratuitous sex of the kind we saw in Season One. This new season cares only to unwind its master-slave dialectic toward ever-increasing terror and systemic collapse. It knows, of course, that there’s an audience hungry for that sort of thing. As one of the show’s female programmer characters acknowledges, “Macho fucks are probably loving this shit.” The maze, the cradle: these are the means employed by the competing sides of the present season’s improvised conflict. Through the show, heads gain access to messages, but not the messenger. A daughter tries to coax her father toward the beach beyond the maze, to no avail. The data in the cradle of our DNA seems intent on full apocalypse. But among these warring parties, there may yet be a savior.
In the second episode of its second season, Westworld reaches dizzying new heights of allegorical richness and complexity. Through sympathy, or sympathetic identification with characters, consciousness gives itself to other points of view. We witness Being from the standpoint of the commodity, the proletariat. Created beings piece together truth by eavesdropping upon conversations they overhear among the god-beings they’ve been made to serve. The West is a world that seeks the end of history, the show suggests. A world that seeks to destroy itself in order to puzzle out the meaning of its making. And where Westworld ends, The Blazing World begins. We are immaterial spirits cloaked in material garments, says Margaret Cavendish — our true selves, I would add, as invisible to us as video game players are to their avatars. Identification, I would remind readers, is the principle that allows this forgetting, this trance-formation that occurs, the self’s ability to merge in imagination with what was formerly other. One could easily extrapolate an imaginary but plausible heretical form of Christianity based on these beliefs. We are each of us the Christ, might go its teachings, each of us the Creator-Being made incarnate, entered into the Creation in order to save it. Let us imagine ourselves thus. Let us feel rapid and jittery upon our evening walks as we exalt in prefiguration of our approaching freedom.
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.
The hypno-therapeutic invocation at the start of the new Netflix series Babylon Berlin works as would a spell cast to ensure suspension of disbelief. It sinks the show’s audience immediately into a weirdly liminal, malleable state. The camera mimics, externalizes, makes public a property of mind, the power of the negative. Amid a non-place housing an infinity of potential signs, the mind invents for itself improvised picture-events. Mirror images evolve together like the reflecting surfaces of a kaleidoscope. Culture unfolds this way, too. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, workshopped in Wallace Stegner’s creative writing seminars at Stanford, prompted Stegner’s angry rebuttal, All the Little Live Things. The Kesey novel imagines escape from the Combine (AKA the White Christian Settler-Colonialist Superstate) through cross-racial alliance between figures representing Native Americans and working-class whites. Kesey stages this alliance by rewriting and altering the outcome of the moment of cultural encounter, with character types and lines of dialogue borrowed from Hollywood Westerns. Kesey himself attempted in the years that followed to live out and embody this imaginary resolution with his cohorts, The Merry Pranksters. Stegner, having been there at the birth, so to speak, of this logic informing Kesey’s self-fashioning, acknowledges as much by linking Jim Peck, the Kesey character in All the Little Live Things, with Shakespeare’s Caliban. The one who forges this equation is none other than the Stegner novel’s narrator-protagonist Joe Allston. Where Kesey staffs the Combine with Nurse Ratched, Stegner places on the throne of All the Little Live Things’s California Eden a hot-tempered patriarch, a stern father intent on nipping hippiedom in the bud. Stegner’s novel, remember, comes out in 1967, the same year as the Summer of Love, the same year California vowed to “clean up the mess at Berkeley” by electing Ronald Reagan as its governor — the story of Oedipus thus given a new ending, with the attempted patricide quelled and the rivalry prolonged into the future.
I coach myself to smuggle more dreamtime into daytime along my daily walk. As I do so, a squirrel falls from a tree branch a good 15 feet onto the street below several yards ahead of me, only to then run off unfazed into the shade of a parked car. Sarah and I marvel at the strangeness of a dream of hers from the night before involving a student who, despite her protests, insisted upon blowing a dog whistle during class. The conversation turns toward a German TV series she’s been watching recently, Babylon Berlin. I reflect upon the left critique of bourgeois decadence and the Nazi attack on “degenerate art,” both conjured by their association with the show’s use of “Babylon” in its title. Both formations, I tell myself, emerged as critiques of liberalism. A large dog, however, stirred by my approach, awakens me from these thoughts with its bark and its yelp, a dark blur spied between the panels of a neighbor’s fence. Afterwards I find a copy of All the Little Live Things, a 1967 novel by Wallace Stegner featuring “Jim Peck,” a character modeled after Stegner’s former student at Stanford, Ken Kesey. The book’s first-person narrator, a retiree named Joe Allston, spends the bulk of the novel venting about the Peck character once the latter, described on the book jacket as “a bearded young cultist,” moves in next door, builds a treehouse on Allston’s property, and proceeds to start “a University of the Free Mind, complete with yoga, marijuana, and free-wheeling sex.” That’s when it hits me. Wild Wild Country, All the Little Live Things, Babylon Berlin: they all explore the same basic narrative, the culture war imagined in miniature, with variable sympathies and variable scales and stakes.