Memory palaces are where it’s at. Can a person have more than one? Spurred by this inquiry, I begin to read Frances A. Yates’s famous book The Art of Memory. “It was as a part of the art of rhetoric that the art of memory traveled down through the European tradition in which it was never forgotten, or not forgotten until comparatively modern times, that those infallible guides in all human activities, the ancients, had laid down rules and precepts for improving the memory” (Yates 2). Okay, I think to myself — but does it work? And must we follow the ancients regarding sight as the strongest of the senses? What role does ocular imagination play in the mind’s capacity to store and retrieve information? And why is it always Legacy of the Ancients that arises from my past when I try to imagine a near equivalent of one of these structures? I guess I’ve never labored seriously at any mnemonic gymnastics. Of the memories I possess, most are externally stored or unconscious. One doesn’t “retrieve” these; they arrive as gifts. I imagine sets and galleries of images, some of a kind one can enter, others locked, available only to those who through play earn coin or key. One could do the same, I suppose, with the flotsam from “Waters of March.”
The verb I’m searching for to name the act I wish to practice is close to, but not quite synonymous with, “to occupy” or “to establish,” but it entails as well something like “settling in,” allowing oneself time to sit, lean back, hold space, find comfort. Of course, even this is sometimes more than our powers permit — in which case, look around, take note. Writing can occur anywhere, as long as we relax and let it. Close eyes, listen. Where do we go: figures stretching? Lying on one’s back watching TV as a child? Or maybe sitting at a computer playing a videogame, one’s avatar moving through an imaginary neighborhood on one’s Commodore 64. Computers entered my life offering generationally-novel, semi-private play space: bulletin boards, text adventures, programs stored on floppy disks. My parents weren’t able to keep up with my forays into virtual environments; they were busy working, cooking, cleaning. I could wander off unsupervised, sometimes for several hours at a time, playing peculiarities like Ghetto Blaster, where I’d speed along a maze of streets collecting cassette tapes while dodging psycho killers and junkies.
(It’s a remarkable game, well worth a walkthrough, even if just to hear chiptune originals like “Macrobiotic Brown Rice Lentil Blues,” or the moment when, like a forlorn Werner Herzog, the player narrating the walkthrough mutters, “Don’t know where to go. Ah, that’s the trouble with time. Give 25 years and you don’t remember what you’re supposed to be doing.”) Why do moments of uncensored thought lead me here? Why do images of this sort arise into consciousness when I seek to enter an enlightened state? Perhaps these images are ones I need to consult when learning to face my shadows. Simons and Chabris awaken me with their Selective Attention Test. Back to the task at hand.
I witness evidence of the world renewing itself, sprucing itself up in preparation for new rounds, new chapters, future happenings, life proceeding on its way. Birds tend a lovely little nest, tufts of grass sprouting from a neighbor’s rain gutter. A glance at Zillow, however, and the day takes a turn toward the absurd: surrealist homes splintering apart at Cabinet of Dr. Caligari angles. Zillow allows users a networked, Sim City interface for “playing” the local real estate market. After exploring a few neighborhood listings, I shake my head in mock bewilderment and close the browser. As I do so, my eyes flash on my brother-in-law’s Warhammer 40K screensaver. Warhammer features a fascinating mythos: fantasy and far-future sci-fi fused into a single, deeply pessimistic, supernatural clash-of-alien-civilizations cosmology. My sister-in-law and her husband spend a lot of their time in gameworlds. They play Pokémon and Warhammer — and lately, they’ve been playing Zillow. Like Pokémon, Zillow presents the user’s city — sensed remotely, filtered through a game interface. Real estate markets have been aggregated and gamified, reality routed through the “Warp” into the wired weird of digital capitalism. (The Warp is Warhammer’s version of what Borges called “the Aleph,” a magical orb granting sight of all points in space in a “single gigantic instant” [Borges 26]. It’s also like access to the real-time evolving collective unconscious rendered as visionary dream-state.) Or so I gather from conversation over the course of the afternoon. What desire-structures, I wonder, drive my countrymen to want to fashion themselves members of an “Imperium of Mankind” besieged by hostile aliens and malevolent supernatural beings? Where is the delight in that? Why would one want to go to such extreme lengths to estrange oneself from nature? Instead of communing with the weird and the wild, Warhammer enthusiasts project themselves into a cosmos riven by antagonism, humanity locked in struggle with hallucinated forces of chaos. As if in answer to my query, my nephews arrive later in the day. One of them rushes toward a swing set and to his brother shouts, “What the heck are these bugs? When the girls come, let’s hide.”
Thought seeks an object suitable to its aims as the one who thinks departs from procedure amid distractions posed by others. How best may I advance my cause? Perhaps by listening to “Session Add” by Skee Mask — a track that evokes IDM of the kind promoted around the turn of the century by labels like Mille Plateaux.
The track puts me in mind of some relatives of mine visiting from out of state — probably because these relatives happen to be “digital natives” obsessed with the game Pokémon Go. Upon their arrival a few days ago, these relatives immediately invited me to tag along with them as they met up with fellow players IRL in order to conduct a “raid.” Because I’d never played Pokémon Go before, the relatives had to explain to me that a raid is an event where players gather in public and collaborate with one another to take down powerful “boss” characters. Intrigued by what I consider to be the as-yet-unrealized potential of augmented reality games, I assented to the invitation. I’ll play Tom Wolfe to these Pranksters, I told myself. I’ll fashion myself for an hour or so as a kind of amateur ethnographer. And so, there I was, watching as a diverse group of strangers came together in the streets, a bit like a smart mob or a local chapter of the direct action cycling group Critical Mass. Unlike the latter, however, “raids” and “community days” offer little by way of direct action’s collective pursuit of demands, given the profoundly indirect, cellphone-mediated nature of players’ interactions with one another. Minus a few references to how many times players had seen the new Avengers film, conversations at the event I witnessed revolved almost exclusively around the game itself. “How many points have you earned?,” players asked one another. “How many creatures have you captured?” This on a day when, elsewhere in the country, students were being gunned down in their classrooms by a self-described “incel,” or “involuntary celibate.” So much for new media and its promise, I thought to myself on the drive home afterwards — at which point, as if in reply, Spotify’s algorithms selected for me the old Bad Religion song, “Fuck Armageddon, This Is Hell.”
Petting a neighborhood cat, admiring the color of its coat, rescuing a spider cricket from permanent incarceration in my basement by cupping it in my palms and carrying it outdoors, dancing in my office to the sound of “Nature,” a fast and easy shuffle from a James Brown album released the year of my birth, giggling with Sarah over a children’s book by Remy Charlip: to these and all of the other events from my day I say, “I love you, each and every part.”
The further I advance in Écrits, the more convinced I am of Lacan’s role as “vanishing mediator” in the lineage of my arrival to thought. With my kaleidoscope eyes, I repay the debt I owe him by redoubling my attention. At the heart of my pedagogy is the basic Lacanian belief that, in today’s society, most human subjects are spoken, authored into discourse by a Big Other, instead of being granted time and space with which to think their own liberated parole. And then there’s Lacan’s actual prose, loaded with purloined letters, clues hidden in plain sight. From a page in Écrits, for instance, I’m led to an illustration on my phone depicting a structure from Neolithic times. In this structure, which archaeologists call a “cursus” monument, I recognize a level from Rygar, an NES game I used to play as a child. The imprint from Rygar strikes me now as would a remediated memory from a past life. From these memories, and from the prose that spurs them, rises the potential to form a groupuscule — a community of belief, one as much at variance from hegemonic reality as were the cursus-bounded ceremonial spaces of the ancients.
Walking has been a theme of late. Sarah and I on a walk delight in a burst of edgeworthia that edges a sidewalk in our neighborhood. Walking brazenly onto our campuses, meanwhile, alt-right groups push, harass, assault Marxist professors. Let us care not that these self-styled “alphas,” the members of white supremacist organizations Kool Kekistani Kids (KKK) and Identity Evropa, think us “betas.” What care we what they call us, as this mind-murdering culture of ours steers us into a setting sun? Let us rally, though, to demonstrate solidarity with those comrades of ours who have been assaulted in their places of work. Darkness now. Binaural beats transport me to enchanted lands, where voices sing to me with flute solos and light percussion. Waves are heard crashing, seagulls crying. A violin and a cello duel one another as per the anxious pace of animated film composer Carl Stalling. Lightning-quick odes to speed. My mind, hanging like a weight behind the back of my head, hears snippets of voices interspersed with the sound of a finger compressing a rectangular plastic button on an old car stereo. Did the flickering lights of old video game cabinets stimulate Dreamachine-like hypnagogic states? Video games and cartoons: because of how, when, and where I was raised, these are the languages of my unconscious.
An assortment of tasks, given a spin, directs force toward its center. Bound together thus, like a top or a Tasmanian Devil, these tasks are made harmless, the rooms they occupy cleared for better acts of enjoyment. Luck having turned for once in my favor, a turn for which I shall remain eternally grateful, I now possess the opportunity to teach three sections of a literature course of my choosing. What shall I choose? Given how wary I am of loading myself too heavily with work, I’ll most likely just opt for some variant of my present course. There will be time enough to experiment next spring.
Eyes closed while listening to Grand Ulena’s Gateway to Dignity, I imagine a pair of animated graffiti high tops stepping frenetically across a generic late-80s-videogame-graphic brick wall. Perhaps what I have in mind here is Ghetto Blaster, a computer game I played on my Commodore 64 when I was a kid. Minds orient themselves otherwise than toward disaster.
Operators were warned early in the game that their minds would one day melt under the pressure of neoliberal operant conditioning dispersed across the gameworld through takeover of the phenomenon known as work. Foreknowledge of a danger lacks consequence, however, when one is powerless to change one’s course. Several well-received monographs have already been written on the subject. Yet here we are—integrated into the narrative despite ourselves. An enterprising young cartoon skateboarder rolls up and says, “Feel free to customize the pipes on your virtual persona!” Practicing a few simple laws, our overseers have grabbed and conquered. “Just like that,” says the skater, fingers snapping. His friends arrive and line up beside a food truck. “Welcome to Biscuit Town,” mutters one of them. We roll our eyes and look grimly upon the scene ahead. To a rhythmic interplay of xylophones, triangles, and cowbells, they tie us up, they weigh us down. Their employer, from another hemisphere, gives a command like so. Push/pull. A scuffle. “Nobody move,” shouts a man in a mask, “it’s a stick up.” And like that, they rob us blind.
My countrymen turn to one another. “Is this the apocalypse?” they ask. “I thought it would be a bit louder.” They see the world entranced, fragmentary mirror images morphing and quivering as in a kaleidoscope. Observation of beautiful forms. Symmetry is a special kind of doubling. The repetition begins at an imaginary center point. “Somehow it’s all connected,” we tell ourselves. We just don’t know how. We need keys to unlock other parts of the game-board. Study maps, search for Ariadne’s thread. Do we wish to escape our prison, or do we wish to know ourselves to be bound to a plan, our every step designed? All I know is, 4:20 comes around and it’s like I’ve leapt levels. The mind-world is mine to do with as I please, or so it seems, the object-world confronting me but for money like a floor laid out with puzzle pieces and Legos, or like a playroom, an amusement park from my youth. Or better yet: a forest or a beach or a library. As part of me rejoices, however, another part of weeps, for the world melts and drips. I take action upon reading Denise Levertov’s “The Unknown.” “The preparations,” she writes, “are an order one may rest in. / But one doesn’t want to rest, one wants miracles.” So out I go for a walk. Some part of me announces, “Any politics that has recourse to Law is of no interest to me.” I gasp for breath at times, the pressure of my workload crushing me. I feel better about being alive, though, upon watching the 11-minute Oscar-nominated trailer for a new videogame called Everything.
Players toy with object-oriented ontology, a mix of identification and detachment as one directs one’s focus among multiple scales of being. I feel it may be time for me to learn about the game’s creator, David O’Reilly. We have arrived at the precipice of a new teaching, now that we’ve devised a way to think it: the Interactive Nature Simulation. Philosophy’s new frontier.
I sometimes pray silently to the equivalent of a program, a ghost in the machine, in hopes that it will take pity on me by unlocking invisible doors onto other quadrants of the game-board. And it does, language leading me to Ian Bogost’s “The Metaphysics Videogame.” Finally — a theorist of videogame ontology. Weed is a kind of rhetoric that delivers its arguments not with words or images or programs but through chemical reprogramming of neurons. It alters perception so as to dodge any system the General Intellect might try to impose onto Being. I wish to operate free of rules devised by others. This is why I’m writing and blogging. Games too often feel to me like a distraction from whatever aspect of Nature is described in terms like grounded, earthy, and wild. My fellow Marxists don’t take the Romanticist theory of Nature as seriously as they ought to. Even if just for the sake of personality and mental health. I like sunlight. I like sitting outdoors. Dr. Andrew Weil takes me on a “sonic journey to where healing happens.” Profound states of relaxation lead listeners down into a realm Weil calls “the Deep.” Of course, it’s all just schmaltzy classical music. A total betrayal of psychedelia’s revolutionary beginnings, the latter co-opted and, in true bait-and-switch fashion, replaced with something tacky and false. I want videogame theorists who, rather than trying to sell me on games, are instead able to help me better understand how videogames have influenced the way I think. The warring halves in me cause my ego formation to vacillate back and forth between an outdoor nature associated with public pools and summer camps, and an indoor nature associated with comic books, paperbacks, and videogames (but also movie theaters, roller rinks, and malls). Against both of these natures stood the culturally imposed tedium known as “school.” That boredom I experienced in classrooms as a kid makes me deeply cynical about my profession. If corporations weren’t the ones funding it and shaping the content, I would happily watch Viceland’s “The New Classroom” and say, “Yes, we should all integrate VR technology into our classrooms.” But really I’m more of a back-to-the-lander. I like to sit in the woods and read books.