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.
Sarah and I listened to Ought’s “Beautiful Blue Sky” off their album Sun Coming Down while driving to see Godspeed You Black Emperor the other night, the last moments of sunlight shining through the rear window, warming the backs of our necks. Standing at the show afterwards, I wondered: “Who today are my countrymen? Who today stand opposed both to machines and to those who make them?” Recalling these thoughts now, I wonder: is the true power of witchcraft and sorcery their ability to provoke consciousness-alteration in oneself and in others? Those affected vape and dance despite their dehumanizing professions, as nonhuman nature finds its springtime groove. A television in the corner of a Chinese takeout disturbs my peace of mind with an infomercial hawking beauty products: some sort of ‘Cindy Crawford’-sponsored age-defying skin treatment super-serum. The ex-‘global supermodel’ collects a tax, even if just as burdensome interruption of one’s soundscape and field of vision. I’d rather lie around all day in a state of jouissance. Kicking up dust, reading old reports, watching The Godz, a short work by psychedelic filmmaker Jud Yalkut.
I busy myself with psychedelic reassembly of cultural memory. Reshuffle the game-pieces and remember differently. The Rajneesh community, occluded for so long, re-enters political consciousness. Our society, drenched in capitalist realism, has no way to conceive utopian aspirations these days beyond “getting from day job to dream job,” as reads the text on a billboard in my neighborhood. This is the great virtue of the Netflix series Wild Wild Country: it reminds us not just to dream big again, but to demand everything.