So thinketh one of our time travelers. The one who relives the past. Let there also be a traveler who seeks and conceives here in the dailiness of his lived experience a utopian future. As Joshua Chambers-Letson, Tavia Nyong’o, and Ann Pellegrini note in their foreword to the 10th Anniversary Edition of José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, “Hope is work; we are disappointed; what’s more, we repeatedly disappoint each other. But the crossing out of ‘this hoping’ is neither the cancellation of grounds for hope, nor a discharge of the responsibility to work to change present reality. It is rather a call to describe the obstacle without being undone by that very effort” (x). The obstacle is a challenge we must both survive and surpass, Muñoz argues, “to achieve hope in the face of an often heart breaking reality.”
As a thought experiment, let us take seriously a current of twentieth century thought that regarded Marxism and Utopianism as “political religions,” and more specifically as “Gnostic heresies.” This current arose in 1930s Germany among thinkers of the right like the philosopher Eric Voegelin. It also found articulation in the work of the Martinican surrealist sociologist Jules Monnerot. I write as a Marxist or some derivation therefrom — yet upon my first encounters with these writers, I admit recognizing something of myself in their accusation. “The shoe seems to fit,” I reasoned. “Perhaps I’m a Gnostic!” The term had been applied as a slur when used by Voegelin, but the qualities of thought that he linked to this alleged heresy against church orthodoxy were in my book virtues, not vices. What it comes down to, basically, is suspicion of the system. It’s a heresy that persists, says Voegelin, well after the suppression of the OG Gnostics of late antiquity. Gnosticism is perennial; it reawakens to haunt Christendom every few centuries. Movements that purport to be secular like Marxism and Nazism, argued Voegelin, are in fact upstirrings in the twentieth century of this same ghost, this same spectre, this same political-religious “archetype” or “mytheme.” For these movements all share the same goal, Voegelin warned: they want to “immanentize the Eschaton.” What happens, however, when we read Voegelin’s hypothesis in concert with Black and Indigenous authors: figures like Leslie Marmon Silko, Russell Means, and Ishmael Reed? Each of these authors narrates a secret, “occult” history of the West similar to Voegelin’s. Yet unlike Voegelin, the writers of the left recognize that capitalism, too, is part of the Gnostic current — as is Western science.
Indigenous ways of knowing; Black Radical thought; Surrealism; Afrofuturism; Zen Buddhism. All have been guides: blueprints for counter-education for those who wish to be healed of imperial imposition. All provide maps of states other than the dominant capitalist-realist one. Hermann Hesse describes one such line of flight in his short novel The Journey to the East, a book first published in German in 1932, unavailable in English until 1956. Timothy Leary’s League for Spiritual Discovery takes after the League in Hesse’s novel. It, too, is but a part of a “procession of believers and disciples” moving “always and incessantly…towards the East, towards the Home of Light” (Hesse 12-13). Two of Leary’s psychedelic utopias, in other words, take their names from books by Hesse: both the League for Spiritual Discovery and its immediate precursor, the Castalia Foundation.
Frankie’s down for a nice nap after a morning at the pool. Sarah saw to matters related to the air unit — so I remove my feet from my socks and think. The narrative we write is important, yes? For narrative is the stuff of which cosmologies are made. World-pictures. Cognitive maps. The shape of the world is determined at the quantum level, much like Schrödinger’s Cat, by the struggle to determine the shape of the world-picture. Unless, of course, struggle and determination are not part of that picture. By “shape of the world” I mean the mutable present’s arrangement toward the imaginal realms we call “past” and “future.” Origin and telos. The present’s mode of appearance alters according to the previous night’s dreams, and the previous night’s dreams are shaped by memory and desire. Those who wish to steer the world toward Utopia take these latter as the prima materia of the great work. Kim Stanley Robinson, meanwhile, steers us back to work of a more literal sort. The climate crisis demands reorganization of labor. Certain chapters of Robinson’s 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future are written in the style of “notes,” “minutes” kept by an international working group: the Ministry, the book’s actant or protagonist. Work thus finds its way back even in our hours of leisure, as this is what we read when we read by the pool. The book itself is work; its utopia begins with a disaster, a heat wave that kills several million people in India. From this disaster come a pair of nova: the Ministry itself, of course, but also a direct-action group called the Children of Kali. This latter group intrigues me, given its alignment with the famous Hindu goddess of time, creation, destruction, and power. After the disaster, it is she who speaks to us: “I am a god and I am not a god. Either way, you are my creatures. I keep you alive” (13). Kali is the persona Robinson dons to give voice to Nature. Kali, with her long terrible tongue. Kali, with her necklace of severed heads. Several of the book’s experts prognosticate “civilization kaput” before century’s end (55). It’s all rather bleak: countless species facing extinction in the years ahead. Against the backdrop of that abyss, the book conjures its hyperstitial alternative future of geoengineering and rewilding.
“For my next act” I think as I stare at trees, their upper branches bathed in the orange light of the setting sun. I feel like a magician having built boxes, four wooden raised beds, conjured them in the midst of a field of clover here in the yard behind our home. In these beds, we’ll plant our garden. Yet the utopian in me (or the Faust in me? the Gnostic in me? the “slow sick sucking part of me”? same difference?) is already restless, ready to set sail (as per Wilde), ready to walk away (as per Le Guin), wishing for something other than what is here, wanting in its stead some other bower of bliss (this not that): a vertical garden, say, in the midst of a food forest.
In the pop milieu wherein the culture does its work, gets its shit together, or doesn’t, writers like Kim Stanley Robinson rise up to insist that the doom that we’ve been asked to accept is false. Robinson offers in its stead The Ministry for the Future. Friends reading it ask me to join them, their enthusiasm for this new discovery of theirs visible on their faces. Defenses down for a time, I climb the book’s first hundred pages. Yet I find it to be ground I’ve trod before. Where once I had enthusiasm enough to write a chapter of my dissertation on Robinson’s Mars trilogy, now I find his outpourings bothersome — each work ever more salesmanlike in its pitch to budding technocrats. Read several such books, and alas: you’ve read them all.
Pranksters run loose across the country, reversing the journey West by heading east, unsettling what was settled. The future advertised at the 1964 New York World’s Fair: that was the destination toward which the Pranksters drove. Yet the Fair was just a ploy. They were also heading to New York for the launch of Kesey’s second novel Sometimes a Great Notion. With their doors of perception “cleansed,” however, the Fair appeared to them as it was: lame. The future as designed by clueless technocrats. And just as the Fair was a bummer, so was Millbrook. So they drove home and, as if in reply to the Fair, launched a series of “blissful counterstrokes”: the Acid Tests and the Trips Festival.
“Against work, for utopia,” announces a podcast I’ve listened to of late. Give it a try: sex worker Conner Habib, the show’s host, interviews Marxist-feminist Kathi Weeks, author of The Problem with Work. Weeks is an investigator of “Antiwork Politics” and “Postwork Imaginaries.” See especially her book’s fifth chapter, “The Future Is Now: Utopian Demands and the Temporalities of Hope,” where Weeks proposes “a utopianism without apology” (175). To defend the latter, Weeks draws upon the ideas of the great German Marxist “philosopher of hope” Ernst Bloch. Her account of Cold War anti-utopianism covers ground I covered in my dissertation: Karl Popper, Francis Fukuyama. All of it now dust in the wind. Let Utopia rise again from the sea of the possible as it did for More.
There were deer in the yard when I arrived home from “the Teet.” And a stinkbug that needed rescue, and a toilet that whines and may need a new valve. Tomorrow, weather permitting, I’ll mow the lawn and grade. In the days ahead, we hope to build our garden. As Roy Morrison said of the Mondragon cooperatives: “We Build the Road as We Travel.” Let these trance-scripts be spaces of hope. Signposts to an alternative modernity, like the one reported from firsthand by Richard Fairfield, reports gathered in his book The Modern Utopian: Alternative Communities of the ’60s and ’70s. If I could time-travel, the countercultural communes would be a destination to which I would journey. Let us be drawn toward collective living, enriched by conversation with others. We can begin by taking Fisher’s course on Postcapitalist Desire. Read the assigned readings, including work by Ellen Willis. Fisher gets his assessment of the reasons for the failure of the communes from Willis. Fellow ’60s rock critic Richard Goldstein included Willis among Emma Goldman and Abbie Hoffman as members of a lost tradition of “radicals of desire.” Somewhere in my basement is a collection of Willis’s writing on rock music, Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Also the book with the material Fisher assigned: Beginning to See the Light.
Are we genres of people, as Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter argues? Or do we contain multitudes, selves morphing and genre-shifting? Could capitalist realism reality-shift? It could become a romance: a “scientific romance” as per Wells, with a time machine. And it could do this with or without the horrors of weird fiction. It could be a detective comic. It could be a portal fantasy. It could be all of these. Even at times, under game-like conditions, a dungeon-crawl. Let us remake ourselves as magical realists. The story that contains is a story of love. It can get smutty, as Sarah says of Bridgerton. Persons in their many phases, including altered states of consciousness: some higher, some lower. Let us imagine time machines, war machines, starships. Revolution occurs, a revolution of consciousness. Heads awaken to higher states: romantic comedy, utopian fantasy. Genres combine, as do gods and archetypes in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Paradise is both the third book of the Divine Comedy and a novel by Toni Morrison. The latter begins with a call to sobriety.