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.
I feel strangely related to the “Uncle Matt” character on Fraggle Rock, as if he and I were kin. “I’m traveling on my greatest adventure,” writes the bearded ethnographer toward the beginning of the show’s first episode. “So much to explore.” Part of me wishes to adopt as my handle from today onward the name “Traveling Matt.” After all, the first creature this character discovers along his journey into “outer space” is a four-legged beast named Sprocket. A light bulb goes on in my head: Fraggles are post-scarcity acid-heads! Characters like Gobo are like me. They seek advice not from the I Ching, but from a conglomerate entity known as the “Talking Trash-Heap.” Isn’t this similar to my use of the bins at the local Goodwill? (Trash-Heap, by the way, would be the Halloween costume to end all Halloween costumes.) Consider, though, the many psychedelic dimensions of Fraggle Rock: the Fraggles themselves are all stoners and acid-heads, their hair tie-dyed and frazzled. The Beast is asleep, whispers Gobo as he tiptoes past the upstairs inventor’s canine companion. Dogs, by some synchronistic logic, keep cropping up everywhere I turn. The show, I either realize or decide, is the script of my auto-psychobiography. I watched many of its episodes multiple times as a kid. Each episode begins with the mobile prosthetic consciousness known as the “camera-eye” gliding invisibly through the glass threshold separating exterior reality from its interior. Like Plato’s Cave Allegory, in other words, the show’s narrative unfolds across multiple levels. In Episode 2, a bongo-playing Fraggle sings about migration of consciousness via the magic of the jump-cut along that looped, ‘Möbius-Strip’ continuum that lesser minds divide into discrete domains denoted by the terms “here” and “there.” I know, too, from Brian Jay Jones’s biography that Henson “enjoyed a little grass” from time to time. Henson is also reported to have taken acid once, in the company of his friends Don Sahlin and Jerry Nelson — though he claimed in retrospect that the drug never took effect. Jones notes that the musicians featured in Henson’s short film Youth 68 praised acid’s positive effects when Henson interviewed them. After seeing Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane (the long-haired dude with the toy pistol) suggest, mid-film, that the baby boomers will have to “do an Oedipus on their fathers,” I believe it.
The book also recounts how Henson planned to create a psychedelic nightclub called Cyclia in the late sixties. The idea for it came to him, says Henson’s wife Jane, “during the first wave of psychedelia. Jim went to see Jefferson Airplane and he was very intrigued with it — the light shows and the psychedelic graphics.” The nightclub, which Henson imagined housing in a geodesic dome or an inflatable structure at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge, was to have walls, floor, and ceiling “broken into faceted, crystal-like shapes onto which films would be projected” (Jones). Alas, none of these plans ever came to fruition — but I like to think that there’s a parallel universe — an “outer space,” so to speak — where they did.
A colleague and I headed out into the woods for a brief weekend retreat, our shelter a cross between a tiny house and a cabin, loaned to us by a friend of a friend. But when I woke early yesterday morning, I learned that my dog — my companion of nearly 15 years — had fallen ill. Receiving a text from my wife about Daphne’s condition, I packed my things and rushed home, the world on the horizon reduced to a pure gray ambiguity as I stared intently at the road ahead. Eberhard Schoener’s Trance-Formation soundtracked my grief.
When the fog cleared, I witnessed a wake of turkey vultures picking at the remains of a young deer, the latter’s removal from the world of the living no doubt a consequence of some passing motorist. The destruction of alternative lifeways and nonhuman modes of being is an ineradicable component of capitalist reality. Look around: this system is cancerous. Unable to tolerate and coexist with radical difference. As I approached home, some algorithmic power operating through Spotify tried to console me by churning out 801’s cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
“It is not dying,” Eno assures us, “it is not dying.” By mid-afternoon, Daphne’s condition had stabilized — but even now, as I write this, she lacks her usual appetite and seems confused and lethargic. It breaks my heart to see her this way, lying on her side, her face white, her tube-shaped dachshund body covered in lipomas and skin tags. She has a meeting with her vet scheduled for later today. My fear, though, is that he’ll say she’s in pain — in which case, we’ll have to put her down. All I can do in the meantime, I suppose, is kiss her neck, rub her belly, calm her, comfort her as best I can. I try to comfort myself by imagining episodes of We Bare Bears as conversations between the dog equivalent of Superego, Ego, and Id taking place within Daphne’s psyche. She and other wildlife dream the animal equivalent of proletarian revolution. Humor is the only way we can save ourselves from Seasonal Affective Disorder’s black pit of despair. So sayeth Broad City. It, too, spits up phrases suited to the tinfoil light of my condition. “Seratonin rising, dopamine flowing.” Ilana turns to Abbi and, making light of her proneness to depression, snarls, “So I get sick sometimes and need medicine — who cares?” The trouble is, I think of Daphne as being somehow a part of me — a link between me and my past — and I don’t want that part of me to die. Death is for me the destruction of all sense and meaning. How will I bear this loss?
The star of a popular TV show paints dollar signs on her fingernails to demonstrate her love for former US president Barack Obama. She and her fellow Democrats don’t seem to have learned much since last year’s election. Insulated by their money and their privilege, they remain clueless as to why they’ve lost control of all branches of government.
My mind, however, is elsewhere. I continue to dwell upon psychedelic imagery from one of the performances I caught this weekend. Washed Out teamed up with Brainfeeder-affiliated visual artist Timeboy to create music videos for each track on the band’s latest album, Mister Mellow. The videos utilize several forms of animation: everything from stop-motion and claymation to hand-drawn cartoons. The band projects and modifies all of this dynamic imagery in real-time during live performances using Kinect 2.0 devices: motion-sensing “depth” cameras, basically, designed by Microsoft for use with Xbox One. Sarah joined me for a beautiful late-afternoon stroll through a garden yesterday, where we were graced by magnificent monarch butterflies, a pink wildflower anemone named “Queen Charlotte,” a fence post covered in flowering snail vine. We imagined ourselves entering and exiting zones filled at once with the romantic drama of the strolling couple, and at a different scale, observable only when the couple peers down on occasion, a world teeming with ecosystem narratives: complex interactions between predators and their potential prey. Perceived at this level, suffering and decay seem almost painterly in their abstraction. I realize that I spend too much of my life torn between warring impulses. Should I spend my life immersed in texts or in nature? I commit myself fully to neither speech nor phenomena. Broad City more than makes up for past crimes, by the way, with its latest episode, an animated shroom-and-cannabis-fueled extravaganza by artist Mike Perry.
The alarms, the intensities, objects melting and reforming: together, it amounts to a grand de-reification of reality. So much more pleasurable than the gritty nicotine-crack-alcohol police-and-criminal-class hustle-drama dished out by David Simon’s The Deuce.