Our method will be: shine light onto darkness and find keys. One person’s projection is another’s evocation. Radical action groups, experimental microsocieties. “Flicker”-induced visions and voices. Among these keys is the story of the Transmedia Explorations commune, initially called the Exploding Galaxy. Fall, tumble, head over feet, like Alice down the rabbit hole. The psychological “science” of Mindhunter, the way it attempts to depict the theorization of deviancy, fails to fill the show’s void of meaning as its shit-bag state-actor protagonists hunt its non-state-actor villains. The mind, bombarded by a rush of images from its glory days, succumbs to sadness and pathos. It returns to old riddles, old haunts. Helicopters, push notifications. The riddle of revenge.
I imagine myself as unconscious author of or at least central cause for all characters in my life narrative. This is the scene where we don’t know where we are. This is what it feels like to get yanked out of a tree. Reach out and touch a universe of signs predicting system shutdown, life finding its way amidst racing velociraptors. I switch on the light and laugh my way through a double-take of Laura Dern’s bizarre style of acting in the classic 90s fear-drug stimulator flick, Jurassic Park.
I imagine viewers of the film participating in a testosterone cult initiation ritual. Kids are taught here to believe in computer technology as part of the way they can rescue themselves from their parents. A few people get eaten — always — but always, the kids survive. I was from an early age not just a kid, however, but a kid who wandered off from his parents. What can I say? I have always despised Superego personas like Judge Judy. The Christmas season reiterates itself as a time of moralism and worry about parental accountability. Keep eyes unfocused, says the experience, and trust in closeness to family, and the healing power of psychedelics. Sitcoms like Seinfeld, I realize, are portraits of a cultural psyche: the apartment as interior of the skull, like the control room from Inside Out. Personas interacting within a single brain. The anxious one, the lackadaisical one, the clumsy one, the peculiar one — the whole of it unrehearsed and at least spontaneous-seeming. I am ready to dream the future, says the one who sits before the screen. I am ready to prospectively live out in my nervous system my imagination’s greatest, most optimistic hopes for the species as a whole.
I relish the multimedia composites featured at the start of Wormwood, the new Netflix series from Errol Morris about the mysterious suicide of CIA employee Frank Olsen, one of the casualties of Project MK-Ultra. The series makes abundant use of screens within screens, the mind left straddling levels. In this act of mirroring, we find ourselves. My sister-in-law and her husband, however, unimpressed by Wormwood, recommend I watch an anime series called One Punch Man. Eventually we settle on Gremlins, as if choice of film is of some moment. I listen bewitched to the song of the Mogwai: a metaphor, no doubt, for the importation of drugs and electronics devices from the Far East into American society. Revenge via “gizmos” and heroin. With Wormwood weighing on my mind, I find myself projecting onto Gremlins a “War on Drugs”-era narrative of the psychedelic revolution gone haywire — drug culture as national nightmare. This was of course one of the key allegories hammered home to me during my childhood via D.A.R.E. and Narc. But like so many films of the 1980s, it also emphasizes the cruelty of the rich and of people in general. Think of the father character as Daddy CIA, bringing home to his teenage son a shiny, brightly-wrapped package, gotten at a “junk” shop in Chinatown. After an explosion of Orange Sunshine, kids like Corey Feldman start running around dressed like trees. Like a wired artichoke, out pops the comic book Id.
The term “mogwai,” remember, refers to a kind of “devil” or “demon” in Chinese culture. So sayeth the purveyors of ancient myths. What happens, though, when the African-American scientist character starts to inject these mogwai with hypodermic needles? It’s as if someone left the culture’s brain exposed in a darkened laboratory. “Do you hear what I hear?” asks the television. “Do you see what I see?” Coming this Christmas: Takeover by foreign power. All the invaders need do is suspend the postal service, fuck with traffic signals, and seize the airwaves, and the nation is theirs. Note, though, that in the movie, the forces of anarchy don’t succeed at overpowering the community until the gremlins find their way to the water supply.
At night, jigsaw puzzles. The doors have been blown off their hinges, the world behind this world revealed in the process of setting the next part of this one into place. Imagine two selves: the planner and the performer. Smoke clouds emerge from our lips. A ball rolls across a wooden floor and my eyes observe bodies burned in the BBC’s retelling of the Gunpowder Plot, this latter formed into images of middle-aged male heads of competing households marching into one another’s rooms and antechambers and exchanging taunts and threats. I hardly recognize history in this meaningless quarreling, this bargaining and scheming, men standing around in elaborate period costume. History is a story of warring families acting their parts in scripted sword-fights. Men go around bullying, torturing, and murdering one another on behalf of ancient, petty, angel-on-pinhead, political-theological grievances. The night confronts me as a blank screen; as opposed to those men of yore, I can do with my nights (though not my days) as I please. I sit on a sunny hill and play a harmonica, gazing downward at the world below. Before I can help it, though, my gaze trades itself for something dazed, stoned, sleepy. I wish instead to imagine communities of mutual care, self-organized into improvised, voluntary, no-rules-but-the-ones-you-and-I-here-and-now-invent-for-ourselves, service-trading commune-congregation-encounter-groups. Behavior in this wished-for place is like that of radical theater troupes of the late 1960s: tentative, experimental, invented on the fly, in absence of any cause for enmity, competition, or hostility. Subjects of such polities get high and love one another. Unless, of course, will to power is not mere arbitrary imposition but rather an inner imperative. ‘Tis a wager we make; but better to make it and fail than to wonder what might have been.
Sarah pulls up a new Netflix original series based on the Margaret Atwood novel, Alias Grace.
The series begins with an epigraph from Emily Dickinson: “One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted / One need not be a House / The brain has Corridors — surpassing / Material Place.” How are we, each of us, so many different things at once? Stories within stories — but common to all, a fiery red anger, which keeps us wide-eyed, awake, and watchful. In Atwood’s world, characters do little but advance plot, their hard lives shortly the ends of them. Character is a device for the transmission of historical circumstance. Eyes open, little time to pretend. Systems that employ persons as servants or slaves are things to despise. Stars blink down at me. An acorn falls from a tree. I am seeing as if montaged across my forehead a cloud of imagery. We are headed toward the bad future: hierarchical, inauthentic. “Where any view of Money exists, Art cannot be carried on, but War only. […]. Art Degraded, Imagination Denied, War Governed the Nations.” So reads Blake’s engraving of the Laocoon. I find in this work words uttered as if by a prophet. Light and shadow. Eyelid movies all my own. Voices, too, telling stories of things not visible. One of these days I should try to design a course on either Noble Savagery or the idea of the wild. The failure of the hippie counterculture over the course of the 1970s signaled the decline of these ideas as significant components of American identity. Wildness is no longer a major trope in the American national-political unconscious — and I regard this as a great tragedy, a decline we ought to mourn. Atwood’s character says, “God is everywhere. He can’t be caged as men can.” Yet the world is all predators and prey. When the weather is like that, one’s heart pounds in one’s ears, make of that what one may.
How do we go about building the Commune? Does George Ciccariello-Maher know the answer? ‘Cuz I don’t. Not off the top of my head. I wish the “venue of the mind” would turn forth instructions in an hallucinatory rush. Spill the beans, a voice insists. Don’t just pen a bunch of commentary. Enough! Focus! Come on! Resurrect mythopoesis to combat logos. Debt permits, sanctions, ensures the perpetuation of the daily torture of compelled labor. The body and mind dragged for long stretches through thoughtless routine. When I woke yesterday, though, the world seemed imbued with elusive but occasionally-glimpsed strings of coincidence, or what others have seen fit to call “grace.” I happened upon a passage in Arthur Koestler’s The Challenge of Chance where he speaks of “l’ange distributeur des pensées,” or “the angel who distributes thought” — a phrase he attributes to the nineteenth-century French writer Xavier de Maistre. This seems as good a name as any for that invisible power that time and again intervenes on my behalf, aligning me with my surroundings, delivering up small, unexpected bounties, arranging physis and psyche into a synchronistic, meaning-bearing whole. The angel, observable only through its effects, guides us with maps and instructions toward evil’s undoing. In its place, pleasure’s pursuit. Speaking of which: Sarah and I have been watching the new season of Mr. Robot, where dystopia appears as global capitalism itself, not some national subset thereof. The live drama of terminal class rule, as narrated by a uniquely gifted schizoid myth-hacker worker-subject. Reality is far greener, I tell myself. One can approach it as alien terrain, a vast mystery. One’s life can hang on the assumption, the expectation, of eventual revelation. Why can’t we as persons intervene in Being? The system allows for the flourishing of some, while condemning the rest to privation. Get rich quick the hope of all. How do we change that? How do we reprogram?
“The mind attracts to one whatever the mind dwells upon,” reads a page I flip to in a college-ruled notebook pulled from the bins at Goodwill. The moon, waxing gibbous, pulled Sarah and I toward a Halloween party the other night. Appropriately heady, for sure, and with major magic. An altar-top arrayed with small bones. Conversations washed over me, though, to little effect. Appalachian Southern witches. Symbols of an arcane sort. It was the party of my coming out as a wizard. At one point, Sarah turned to me and read me my horoscope from her Witches’ Almanac. Apparently I’m on the verge of making a big decision which will “raise a lot of dust.” The horoscope also promised “nice aesthetics” this month. But as much as I enjoyed the care and attention to detail that went into the night’s revelries, Daphne’s death weighed solidly on my mind. It was hard to muster enough will to speak with others. Speaking of speaking: My students love to speak highly of their parents’ “hard work” launching pizza chains and amassing fortunes on Wall Street. Whenever I hear this shit, I think to myself: One could say the same about vampires. They, too, work hard sucking blood from their victims. But that doesn’t make them admirable. A hardworking vampire is still a vampire — and as such, deserves to get a stake shoved through its heart. And that’s how I feel about rich people. But I’m also no Van Helsing, so to ease my temper, I binge-watch the new season of Stranger Things. Eleven wanders alone in an Upside Down labyrinth. Thresholds between dimensions look like body tissue: uterine walls, placentas. The show relishes and savors the textures, tropes, and technologies of the 1980s. But it’s also fully absorbing in its sympathies and its use of outdated media to elicit a sense of the strange or the uncanny. New Age “psychic” or “telepathic” spaces — astral planes, other dimensions — these were very much a part of that era’s narrative universe. It’s a relief to watch a show that can once again broaden my sense of the potentials of genre. The latter, because sticky with the residue of an era’s affective investments, can reawaken phantom media antennae, exposing subjects to ghost sensations and histories half-submerged.