Two women walk past chatting about a celebrity chef as I float on my back at the public pool. Here is the Multitude: friendly, assembled for play, with lifeguards instead of cops. From it we scale upward: from the playground to the festival to the tent city with gardens. Children blowing bubbles, adults reading and tanning, seniors lounging in the shade cast by an umbrella. Through the scene floats a yellow butterfly. Afterwards, trees silhouetted by the setting sun, I sit on my stoop listening to cicadas. Neighbors play Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” as a bat flies overhead.
I perambulate the lush pages of Gerald Heard’s AE: The Open Persuader (1969), a work of gay transhumanist utopian science fiction — surely one of the most peculiar books I’ve yet encountered, published under a pseudonym (“Auctor Ignotus”), read I’m sure by at most only a few hundred people planetwide. In certain ways, the narrative is fairly straightforward. As is common to the genre, a traveler arrives to a previously occulted utopia and, after being sketched in biographically in a bewildering first chapter titled “The Interviewer Interviewed,” receives a tour from a mysterious host. Heard’s prose is so maximally cultured and so mannered, however, that one has a difficult time determining who’s who. The guest character, in his relative innocence a stand-in for the reader, responds to the name “Ulick Stackpole” (or, later in the novel, the name’s abbreviated form, “L”), his initials reflecting his county of origin, while the more experienced “host” character, dialoguing at length on the workings of the utopian creation, answers to several titles: Preter Praetor, the Lord Persuader; Arbiter Elegantiarum; AE. Because utopias are inherently political, consensus reality encircled, relativized, compared and contrasted with another, I find myself wondering at Heard’s aims. What is the nature of this utopia? In trying to imagine the evolution of humanity toward what he calls “total uprightness” (in which one should also hear “erection”), Heard seems to have crafted a secret gay separatist demimonde, home to a race of immortal or at least semi-immortal elites. As AE’s various titles indicate, there’s no great fondness for democracy or self-rule in this utopia. One should thus be wary as one reads, noting questions and concerns. Why is the utopia set in Uruguay, for instance? Why has the book’s author invented elaborate fictions about money manipulation featuring European refugees fleeing to South America during WWII?
Utopianism acquired a “eupsychian” cast up and down the West Coast of 1950s and 1960s California. Pursuit of the good society became bound up with alchemical transformation, design of new anthropotechnics, and experiments with human potential. Abraham Maslow created a mailing list to connect organizations and individuals participating in these experiments, thus forming what he called the “Eupsychian Network.” The members of this network, he said, shared a “humanistic and transhumanistic outlook on life” (Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 237), by which he meant an orientation that sought to help “the individual grow toward fuller humanness, the society grow toward synergy and health, and all societies and all peoples move toward becoming one world and one species” (237). Already in Maslow, there were hints that the humanistic orientation in the social sciences and the “human potential” movement that arose alongside it might contain a dark side — or at the very least, a potential for misuse. Maslow prepared the manuscript for Toward a Psychology of Being while visiting La Jolla, California, in summer 1961, supported by a financially generous fellowship from the newly founded “Western Behavioral Sciences Institute.” The fellowship was funded by engineer-entrepreneur Andy Kay, who invited Maslow to return the following summer to observe operations at Kay’s company, Non-Linear Systems (Hoffman, The Right to Be Human, p. 246). This collaboration with Kay culminated in Eupsychian Management, a book completed in 1962 and published in 1965. Non-Linear Systems was an electronics manufacturing company. Before founding it in 1952, Kay spent two years working at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. By the early 1980s Non-Linear Systems evolved into Kaypro, manufacturer of an early personal computer. The concept of Eupsychia never fully shed this marriage of convenience with management theory and West Coast tech, though other members of the Eupsychian Network helped to temper these tendencies.
Home again, stretching, settling in after seven weeks of travel. Initially I find myself needing to focus on nesting, repair, self-care, readjustment. Vacuuming feels like manual operation of a Photoshop airbrush. I get better results and greater satisfaction when I kneel down and clean the floor with a wet rag. If that’s what the life-world needs, then so be it. I give gladly. Throughout the day, I catch myself renegotiating use of will, contemplating my relationship to various entities and objects. Slugs, spiders, chairs, old bits of clothing, bottled water: all of these things require care and attention, as does Erik Davis’s High Weirdness, a copy of which I pluck from the pile of mail that arrived for me while I was gone. Also in the pile is a copy of Fredric Jameson’s new book Allegory and Ideology. Time to start reading, I tell myself. Both books feel weighty, but High Weirdness is the one that warrants immediate attention, I decide after some hemming and hawing, the Stranger Things soundtrack modulating through my head. The Davis book is the one I’ve been waiting for these last few months. It feels timely. It speaks to present hopes and concerns. As Jeffrey J. Kripal notes in his blurb on the back cover, “May this book, like a glowing UFO, land on your lap, and every other lap, and weird our world beyond all measure.” I approach it with a degree of trepidation — but also with great excitement. Across from me on the wall of my dining room hangs a reproduction of the famous Ambrosius Holbein engraving from Thomas More’s Utopia, looking suddenly like an emblem representing macrocosm and microcosm: Genesis, Paradise Lost, and Frankenstein woven into a single grand narrative, the figures down at the bottom reminding me of the debaters from the garden of branching paths. “The devil in the details,” as one commentator puts it. The figure I’ve imagined in the role of Adam wears the name “Hythlodaeus” in the engraving, referring to the character in More’s text whose name means both “God has healed” and “Speaker of nonsense.”
My favorite moments are those that allow me to experiment with novel forms of sociality and self-care. Hello, summertime: for academics, a T.A.Z., a seasonal utopia, release from bondage. Yet I feel so isolated and diminished, caught in an entropic well. Let there be good vibrations. Let us crush once and for all this miserly neoliberalism that rules everything around us. For there are reasons to celebrate, reasons to dance late at night, pasts to recast and futures to speak into being.
The problems hippie modernists proposed to address through their prophetic interpretation of the future have not gone away at all. The violence of capitalism is still all around us. We’re living amidst crisis. We’re living together amid these challenges. Utopia has already been modeled for us; those who modeled it waved to us from the past and asked us to come join them. What are we waiting for? Let’s do it. Each of us struggle for Utopia. It’s the same story for every individual life. Let us imagine the hippie modernist vision as our collective future. The members of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture have prepared us for what is to come. These are the two levels of historical and religious allegory. They’re shouting, “Join us! Join us!” with great joy in their hearts, like the crowd surrounding the police car at the dawn of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, remembered via Berkeley in the Sixties. The image reminds me of Bosch’s famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Bosch’s triptych is the global-cosmic totality unfolding all at once. Think of it as the map of an ongoing, universally participatory Oculus-style MMORPG. It contains within its ambivalent central panel reality’s mysterious core. As audience members, we get to choose our own adventure. Is the air of perfect liberty an intoxicant or a solution to the riddle? In all of Bosch’s triptychs, one can read the work allegorically by viewing it — exercising perception — either sequentially, left to right, each life played out between Eden and Last Judgment, or in toto, viewed abstractly, like the Whole Earth from space. Atlantis is another era’s name for the West Coast. Time is a mere alteration undergone and endured by consciousness. Sun Ra saw this, broadcasting his music from “after the end of the world.” Let each of us create within ourselves a world-picture of like nature, and interesting things start to happen. Contain all elements within a magical-circular perspective and one has a world-picture, a cognitive map, functional on a level similar to ancient devices of such nature like the Tarot and the I Ching. All are devices allowing us to toggle consciousness from local, timely perception to perception of a kind able to observe constellations of meaning, one’s inner spinnings aligned with the timeless, universal spinning of the cosmos. Let us all find our places amid the stars even as now we race apart.
Take the load off the self and place it on The Band (or, due to licensing issues, a band called Smith). The Easy Rider soundtrack remains for me a peak moment in 60s psychedelia. Despite decades having passed since its release, it still managed to turn me on to revolution and liberation when I first encountered it while rifling through my parents’ LP collection as a teenager in the 1990s. I picture every time while hearing it beautiful, peaceful people relaxing in nature. Let’s lie barefoot in the grass passing a joint. Fuck the system. Simply turn from it and walk away. Such has been my conception of Utopia ever since. Angel-headed hipsters singing, banging tambourines, harmonizing under umbrellas in a rainstorm, committing themselves eternally to growth and becoming. Tom Wolfe calls this ideal “Edge City” in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: a place where “it was scary, but people were whole people” (50). Theaters there play movies like Hellzapoppin featuring American midcentury comedy duo Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson. (Wolfe died, by the way, this past May. In a final interview with Rolling Stone in 2017, he insisted he never tried LSD.)