I got really into mushrooms in my late 20’s because I like the drugs they make.
Antidepressants fuck up many psychedelics, which is to say, they fuck up getting fucked up. It’s a problem. It’s not that you can’t get high, but that you need to take quite a bit more (and I predict that this will be a significant problem when psilocybin is used clinically).
This is an economic issue for the consumer. You can go off antidepressants, which either hurts like hell or takes a great deal of time, or spend a lot of money. Being the intrepid renaissance man that I am, I decided to grow my own. It took a remarkable amount of time for me to do this successfully.
While I was trying and failing to grow mushrooms I grew increasingly interested in the organisms themselves. Gradually it turned into a hobby, and then an obsession.
The desert southwest is a weird place to get into mushrooms. In the valleys there are, to the best of my knowledge, only three species that occur with any regularity: A species of Ganoderma, the genus that houses the storied reishi; Podaxis pistallaris, the desert shaggy mane; and Battarrea phalloides, the desert stalked puffball. These mushrooms are all awesome. They grow in the desert. Buy them a drink if you run into them.
Surrounding Tucson, AZ are mountain ranges described as sky islands. Travelling from the base of the Santa Catalinas to the summit is, in terms of vegetation, the equivalent of driving from the US/Mexico Border to Canada. It’s an entirely different mushroom situation. During the Summer monsoons there’s a brief but stunning fruiting event. A few weeks later and nothing remains but woody conks.
After a few seasons of being way more interested in mushrooms than the stuff I was supposed to be paying attention to, I decided that I would defeat the hopelessness of my academic life and my rapidly declining mental health by pursuing a career as a grower of legal mushrooms. My girlfriend at the time told me that this was a profoundly stupid idea, which was correct, and that I didn’t have sufficient knowledge of the process, which was also correct.
I thought “I’ll show her,” and applied for an internship program with a large-scale spawn producer and manufacturer of medicinal supplements, also located in the Western US. The program was billed as ‘prestigious’ and ‘highly-competitive’. It was a hands-on learning opportunity that was hands-down the best thing a person could do with a month. I should have been skeptical when they accepted me. Nothing about my existence speaks to prestige or competition.
So I packed up my life and I went to this place. Everything looked like shit when I got there. The offices had gross carpeting and everyone looked miserable, which is standard for offices, and I waited for the arrival of the other participants with a woman who was a retired LAPD officer, which immediately makes one eligible for permanent residency in a mass grave.
After a while the other participants trickled in. A young guy from Iceland whose father had been a member of the Icelandic government and was prosecuted for some form of corruption; a lefty girl from the Midwest who crushed my dreams of being thought of as cool when she told me she had no idea what happened in Seattle in 1999; a Sikh woman, and a PhD as well; and a young man from Florida who was immediately and obviously living with a psychotic disorder.
We all lived in a shitty apartment for a month and worked ten hour days at the growing facility. It was like The Real World except none of us were attractive. The work was monotonous and difficult. In addition to spawn making, which is basically doing a bunch of stuff with millet, we also made supplements.
Supplements deserve some discussion. The way they were manufactured in this particular setting was that bags of mature mushroom spawn would be placed on baking sheets, dried in an industrial dryer, and powdered after drying. It ended up in huge barrels that would be sold on to formulators.
During the last hour of each day the five of us would be instructed in some actually relevant aspect of mycology by a charming Eastern European man. This was the only genuine learning that occurred and I’m grateful for it. It is also in this forum that the most glaring chicanery of this company was revealed. The Sikh woman was not at all stupid and was also reasonably pissed off that she’d travelled to the United States to work on an assembly line. She aired a thorough and well-informed argument against the company’s entire product line, which was a critique of the bioavailability of the supplements being produced.
Over the entire human history of medicinal mushrooms, never has it been the case that powdered mycelium grown on grain was considered medicinal. In every historical account and every clinical trial it was the spore producing fruits of the organism that were used. She went on to state that the mycelium-on-grain supplement being produced was very likely to have few if any bioavailable medicinal compounds, which was easily verified with a Google search.
Although I’d been fairly certain that the whole thing was bullshit, this was a convincer. Interestingly, depilated bear and mycological Joel Osteen Paul Stamets sells this very same snake oil.
I was also not-serious-but-serious convinced that the entire operation was a front company for the CIA.
Yes, it’s true, I am an insane person, but I think that there was a case to be made. The three highest ranking staff were, respectively, a former engineer of nuclear submarines; a former engineer of software systems for fighter jets; and a Green Beret. And they were always travelling: Nepal; Colombia; Laos; so on. When people with security clearances routinely travel to places that are or were the sites of US counterinsurgency activities it makes sense to be skeptical of their stated reasons for doing so. And they were scummy. The CEO was lecherous, observably and by reputation. An employee told me that “the company runs out of the tip of his dick”. The other two were less shitty but profoundly weird, and not in a fun way.
When I was there the president and other upper-level staff were busily working on retconning the company into a publicly traded corporation. I could see it being publicly traded for a single pure-bred dog or a very generous gift-card, but that’s about it. In order to make the company more attractive to shareholders, the president was trying to patent all sorts of fanciful shit, the most memorable of which was using rattlesnake venom to hybridize mushrooms.
Everything about the experience sucked, and I got through it by the power of weed. I’d purchased a large amount of hash in California and I smoked morning, day and night, which was status quo for me, except I did more of it. During breaks at the facility I would roll hash into cigarettes and get absolutely wasted before going back to work. And I wasn’t the only one. Weed smoke drifted out of truck windows as the full-time employees got ready for the second half of a shitty day.
The production workers were a mix of working class Latinos and Caucasians. Most were very young. Many of the Latino workers were women, while the Anglo production staff were exclusively male. Everyone was really racist and sexist which is, unfortunately, not an unusual thing in this kind of environment. And yeah, I should have said something, but I’d thrown my back out punching the ocean and I’d been told to take it easy.
The foreman was a gigantic white guy in his late 40’s who had done a long stint in prison for running guns. Anyone in this kind of position has to be sort of intimidating and he had it down. He also made one of the more interesting statements that I heard during this time. In a conversation about drugs, he stated that he had attended a Native American Church peyote ceremony and had learned that he was not a very nice person, which is honest and no doubt true. I’d learned the same thing about myself through a similar channel.
Toward the end of my time there I asked the former avionics guy what exactly the point was in bringing a group of people to the facility every month and he said that the President thought it would be a source of cheap labor. I already knew the answer to the question, but I asked him how it was working out. His reply: Poorly. Line work is considered to be unskilled, but that’s not true. For one, you need to be able to do it psychologically. Also, you need to be ergonomically graceful lest you fall on your ass.
I had been told by the President that the company had relocated to this inland part of the American West from a coastal city because (no joke) the medicinal properties of the fungi would be enhanced. This was a patent and obvious lie and I floated this assertion by one of the staff. They said no, that wasn’t at all the case. It was that the state offered a generous subsidy to businesses willing to hire former convicts. Not that I think people who have been in prison don’t deserve to work, but still, gymnast level lying needs to be exceptional to make it to the Bullshit Olympics.
I was ecstatic when the whole thing was over, and though nothing was going to get better after leaving I would at least be able to sleep past 5 A.M., which was another miscalculation.
“No one gets any respect . . . this is an industry that has traditionally preyed on minorities,” she added. “Once it was poor whites from Appalachia, then immigrant Italians and Irish, Puerto Ricans. Now it’s Mexicans.” -Linda Cromer, Director of Organizing for the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, May 30, 1993
Last week a thoughtful friend sent me an article from the New York Times about the fairly low-impact subject of mushroom grow-kits.
Perhaps you’ve seen one, or purchased one. They’re basically little plastic bags that the consumer cuts a hole in. Mushrooms fruit through the hole. With no exceptions of which I’m aware these are oyster mushrooms, and there are good reasons for this. Oysters are aggressive, they ‘run’ quickly, and they fruit rapidly in less-than-ideal conditions.
Understandably, the author of this article was very excited. And it is exciting. Most of us have a fair bit of fungus in our living spaces and underwear, but they’re not the kind that anyone would want to eat.
I think I’m expecting way too much from the style section of the New York Times. The author did some research. She called around to a couple of mushroom growing operations and they told her that mushrooms are amazing and wholesome. Fair. In some senses I agree.
People talk about mushrooms as a free gift of nature, even when they spend $20 on something that they’ll emerge from. It’s easy to think this. They’re just this thing that grows out of the ground. They’re like the trees lining the roadway. Nobody thinks much about them until they’ve fallen down on a power line and then most of us feel pissed at the utility company for failing to cut them down.
It’s harder to wrap our heads around the fact that those trees aren’t just trees. They’re leading a double life. They’re trees, no doubt. They emit pollen and oxygen. Birds live in them. A big-ass hornets nest is hanging over the road. Maybe they’re climbable and your kid can break their arm for the first time when they fall. But they’re a link in a commodity chain. Those guys up in the bucket of a cherry picker have sold their labor which moves down the line into the cost of a unit of electricity.
Nature doesn’t bend to our whims without a lot of punishment and finessing.
For people who love mushrooms there’s a weird disconnect between what we know the organism to be and what we want it to be. Those little bags are amazing, but they’re haunted. Not by spirits of the dead, but by shift after shift after shift of human effort.
For better or worse, Paul Stamets is the public face of mycology. Perhaps you’ve seen his TED Talk. I’d say he does everything but promise the viewer that mushrooms will save the world, but he even does that. It’s possible that he’s a great guy, but experience leads me to believe that most people who are very charismatic are engaged in close-up magic. They want you to look at one thing while they do another.
It’s not like he’s committing some kind war crime (yet). It’s just that he benefits from making us believe that somehow these organisms make it to a grocery store or a mail order company without anyone getting hurt along the way. His company, Fungi Perfecti, manufactures nutritional supplements, grows mushroom spawn for small scale production, and serves as a middle-man for growing supplies.
And they do another, weirder thing, which is patenting. Stamets figures out something novel to do with fungi and makes it his intellectual property. The most notable instance of this is the one he discusses in his TED Talk: He discusses an economic arrangement between his company and the Department of Defense, in which he submitted a potential antiviral compound as a candidate for deployment in the event of an act of biological terrorism that releases smallpox.
I have a hard time with this. It’s not that I’m into smallpox (though I’ve never tried it), it’s more that I’m uncomfortable with the model in which private capital cashes in on discoveries (in national forests) that might be lifesaving. And while the particular appendage of the DOD that he’s dealing with is mostly inoffensive, working with the war machine can take anyone down a dark path. Watch that slope.
If something appears on a shelf with a price tag, it’s not a free gift of nature. As much as we’d like to believe that just one thing that we consume isn’t contaminated with grief, it’s still not true. Mushroom production is fucking ugly.
The growing process (or at least the industrial growing process) goes like this: Spore – Strain – Inoculum – Grain – Bulk substrate – Fruiting – Harvest.
While most of us are told that mushrooms reproduce by spore, and this is true, industrial agriculture hates variables. Sexual reproduction is generally out of control and in mushrooms as with plants, growers don’t want some misfit child getting into the system. To deal with this, mushroom growers utilize strains, which are living samples of a mushroom with desirable characteristics. Strains can survive for very long periods of time if refrigerated, and get ‘grown out’ to be used in the growing process. Mushrooms grow vegetatively, and can be cloned and subdivided, though they do get tired over time.
There’s an interesting question here: If a strain gets divided for growth 1000 times, what is that like for the organism? While the subdivisions might encounter conditions that result in different trait expressions, if you were to reintroduce the ‘master’ strain to it’s various subdivisions it would happily reunite. What’s this like as an experience? Does it hurt? Or would it be an opportunity for information transfer? I’m not going to be able to answer this question. I’m not a mycological researcher. I’m just a loser who types fast.
It’s very easy for a casual lover of fungi to think of cultivation as something idyllic, but it’s not. Mushroom production is highly capitalized. To their credit, the mushrooms resist- those that haven’t been bred incessantly for traits that keep them from spoiling on their way to market will very happily rot. You’re basically their enemy. It’s in their best interest to deposit spore, and they get picked before that occurs. For most mushrooms insects are a very important avenue for spore dispersal, and an almost pathological concern with insects is necessary for any producer.
Mushroom production is industrial. While there are small producers out in the world who bring a few tills of shiitake to market, they generally don’t realize any profit. Big producers combine massive pieces of machinery with line work.
This is the production process, abbreviated and grossly simplified: A team of laborers prepares substrate in an industrial cooker. A team of laborers bags the substrate. A team of laborers loads the substrate into a massive industrial autoclave. In go the petrochemicals, transformed into heat. Every organism in the substrate dies. A team of laborers unload the bags. A team of laborers in tyvek suits inoculate the bags with living mycelium in a cleanroom. Then the bags sit, consuming space in a warehouse. After the substrate is fully consumed by the mycelium they are moved to a fruiting room where fans remove CO2 and introduce O2, and a computerized system monitors humidity levels. Once fruiting occurs another team of laborers picks, packs and ships. It is worth noting that for pickers and packers, they often get paid piece wages, a soundless kind of discipline.
Nobody’s whistling while they work. It might introduce bacteria into the process. The history of mushroom farming is full of labor strife, and for good reason. The work is grueling. The work is mindless. It requires skill, but it is line skill. Workers master an economy of motion, acting as a graceful biological robot between two other instances of the same. If they’re in the clean room they can’t go to the bathroom, and so they deliberately dehydrate. A manager of some sort is always checking their watch- it’s absolutely necessary to adhere to the production schedule, and the only real way they have to accomplish it is through bullying. Some people are better bullies than others, but they’re still bullies.
And as mentioned above, for pickers and packers piece work is the norm. The employer will definitely fire someone who falls below a certain productivity, but within the average, workers are incentivized and punished through wages tied to the pace at which they work.
Conditions can become hazardous. They work fast in an environment of sharp edges and hot metal. The floors are always wet. They use caustic solvents for cleaning. Pesticides are inevitable. For an operation that fruits mushrooms in-house, grow rooms can induce illness. When a mushroom sporulates it releases an incredible volume of spore. For pickers, this can induce an immune response called Mushroom Worker’s Lung. It is remarkably common. Basic safety equipment can do a great deal to limit its frequency, but it’s easier for the grower to just make people sick.
As much as growers are obsessed with sterility, mushroom production is a filthy business.
It’s common for neophytes to get excited about the fact that mushrooms can eat things in the waste stream. They’re amazed. Paper! Cotton! Coffee grounds! Cigarette butts! Plastic! And admittedly, it is pretty fucking cool. But everybody wants to see just one thing in this world lay a golden egg and mushrooms aren’t the goose to do it.
It’s true that many mushrooms are very happy to eat garbage. I’ve fed them t-shirts and newsprint and it’s cool that they’ll do that, but waste streams are only waste streams until people work on them, and then they’re not. For mushrooms to eat garbage on a large scale and end up as food, all of the conditions described earlier are necessary. Yes, mushrooms eat wood, but they don’t eat it indiscriminately. They have particular appetites and a mixed pile of woodchips is relatively useless commercially. Thermodynamic laws are still in effect. Fungus will eat literally anything made of cellulose and lignin, but most of the time they’re not edible.
The above applies to mushrooms that eat dead and dying plants. To varying extents they can be domesticated- the mycological term for the way they live is “saprophytic”. But this isn’t the way that all mushrooms live. A good portion of them are symbiotes, and this applies to all of the more expensive gourmet mushrooms. They’re unwilling to be tamed. They have interesting polyamorous relationships with the other plants and fungi that surround them, and if they can be cultivated no one’s figured out how to do it yet.
Mushrooms that live this way and that are also desirable to people command very high prices: Matsutake, perigord truffles, king boletes, chantrelles. These species coat the roots of trees, effectively expanding the surface area of the root system, and they assist with the uptake of minerals in exchange for sugars. Research shows that they also allow for communication between trees in a forest, carrying information about local conditions through the woods.
It’s one of many delights I get out of human efforts to cultivate fungus- so many people have tried so many times to domestic so many of these symbiotic fungi and it never works. All that failure has been inevitable, and plenty of excitable investors have been deeply disappointed at significant cost. People have gone so far as to transplant living trees from Europe to the U.S. and haven’t gotten a single truffle out of it.
This doesn’t mean these organisms don’t get commodified, it’s just that the labor is different.
In The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing describes the odd labor regime that lies beneath the global market in wild harvested mushrooms. On public lands throughout the Pacific Northwest a small army of the dispossessed gathers in the forest to hunt for Matsutake and other high dollar edibles. It’s a weird truth that the ranks of people who work as pickers are composed of those who have endured counter-insurgent violence, both as victims and perpetrators. Historically this has been the occupation of Hmong people from the high places of Vietnam or Cambodian refugees, and more recently there has been an influx of Central Americans, also highlanders, cast out of their homelands by several shades of violence. As well, American veterans whose capacity for sociality got shredded in whatever hellscape they occupied work as gatherers in the woods. It is those who have been damaged by war that tend to do this labor.
Like the pickers who work in the labyrinthine growing facilities that cultivate mushrooms, these people work for piece wages, but these wages are never fixed. The cost of the mushrooms rise and fall with the vagaries of the world market. If it’s a good year for marriages in Japan and the weather has been dry then the prices can climb, breaking as much as $1000 a pound for Matsutake, and then plummet the following year (or even the following day). Their wages are fixed when they gather around a buyer’s tent on the side of the road, and from there it’s out of their hands.
They confront different dangers and take different risks than people who work for growers. An injury could ruin their year and leave them destitute. They navigate strange boundaries of the forest and risk legal trouble and the rifles of property owners. And, unfortunately, sometimes they hate each other and have extremely heated territorial disputes. It makes sense. They’re always in competition, and this opens them up to strange iterations of racism and distrust. They do this in a soaking forest while people in some place they’ll never visit eat haut cuisine, oblivious to the generations of misery that flavor their meal.
At the risk of a gross misreading, Dr. Tsing asserts that this economy isn’t fully integrated into capitalist production, calling it a ‘salvage economy’. While I like the poetic turn, and I think salvage might be appropriate – these are people who’ve attempted to escape the formal economy, but you can only accomplish this (and then only partially) by clinging to the rim- no one gets to escape this system of misery unless they’re dead, and even then we’re subject to some weird recycling into the market. Even if we die in the forest we’re going to end up on some forensic pathologist’s table.
This is a fucking mess. Sorry. There’s some jokes somewhere in here. Also, fuck Glenn Danzig. And Jerry Only. And the Misfits. And a bunch of other people too.
I loved horror fiction growing up. I would buy all the “Year’s Best” collections and read them in a day. I’m not so thrilled with the genre in the present, or maybe it’s simply that I don’t keep up on it enough. I read Nightmare Magazine once a month and that’s pretty much it. I’m sure that devotees know the landscape of personalities writing in the field and could direct me to up and coming authors doing cool stuff that subvert the tropes. I think that’s why I got bored with it- the tropes have broken down.
It bears stating that genre is a troubled term. Literary conventions don’t work anymore, and for horror particularly. What was once scary is now a comforting, familiar filling in of types- nerd, tough guy, smart girl, kind girl, little brother or sister all set out to navigate a problem that somehow touches on the monstrous. Some of them die, they all change, and the end of the story is ambiguous. That’s it, right?
And ‘genre-bending’, a stupid term that can be applied to almost any fiction, is the norm. Love story + vampire story + apocalypse story + action adventure = Buffy the fucking Vampire Slayer. Twilight. True Blood. Underworld. I’m sure there are many, many others. And it makes sense. Vampires have been kicking around forever. Somebody has to fuck them. So it’s pointless to call something horror, just as it’s pointless to call something romance.
I’ve written about horror as a genre in the past, and specifically about H.P. Lovecraft, who is an easy target. Posthumous critiques of nebbish racists are cool, and I’m happy to fire them off while I’m prehumous, but as much as I’ve lost much of my love for this particular literary form, I guess I still care about it. Like an elderly dog?
I got pretty stoked the other day about the fact that you can still write short stories and get paid for it, and they don’t even have to be printed on paper. So I tried to think about what I find horrifying. Or what I find horrifying that can be translated to a supernatural template.
The answer I’ve arrived at is that there’s plenty I find horrifying. Myself, for one, and the things I’ve done wrong or failed to do right. That’s definitely top of the list. I’d wear a hairshirt (and I deserve it) but it wouldn’t make a difference to anyone, even me.
Violence, or at least inappropriately directed violence is horrifying. And most aspects of our society are casually violent. People get all sorts of mutilated all the time, and it’s just a thing that happens. It’s not even hidden.
Maybe this is key. Things that are horrifying are secret. A hellfire missile vaporizing a family in a minivan overseas isn’t scary because 1) people in America die in minivans because of text messaging, not from ordnance and 2) I can watch it on Youtube and it’s not even considered a snuff film.
A for instance: Serial killers are scary in a way that a mass shooter is not, and a mass shooter is scary in a way that a private military contractor is not.
Serial killers make an effort to conceal their identities and, in most cases, the fact that a crime was committed at all. We think of them working in basements, carving people up with a knife. It’s not so much that they enjoy what they’re doing but rather that they don’t let anyone know that they’re enjoying it. In our society you’re most terrifying when you hide the fact that you enjoy the suffering of others, and I’m subject to this failure of logic as much as anyone else. But as a literary device, it sucks. I don’t go in for torture porn, and it’s another thing that our government just does. Guantanamo Bay and CIA black-sites are their own genre of horror.
Mass shooters, they’re definitely frightening, and I by no means want to diminish the trauma that survivors of these events experience. But I don’t think it’s horrifying in the genre sense. I’ve read pieces of horror fiction that have used mass shooters as material, but often there’s some other thing beneath the act itself- a haunting, a mimetic infection, a possession, etc. So, speaking for myself, I find these things to be horrible, but I don’t know if I find them horrifying. It’s clinical. Generally, the person responsible dies, and frequently it’s by their own hands. The whole thing is a news event, after which we listen to people talk about gun control, and then we watch a commercial about Chile’s new Bacon Butter Burger, which will very probably kill more people than a mass shooting. Just slower.
In the case of private military contractors, they fit into the previously mentioned paradigm. Even if they’re murdering people extra-judicially, they’re doing it in a place that most of us deliberately avoid thinking about, and there’s nothing secret about their actions. They’ll do it in public and unlike a mass shooter (which I’m differentiating based on the legal sanctioning of the act) they have absolutely no expectation that they will die at the end of the slaughter, or even be prosecuted. And, as we’ve seen, they can apparently rest easy knowing that, were they prosecuted, they’d be pardoned. Again, ethically horrifying, categorically disgusting, but not something I’m expecting Stephen King to write about.
Apocalypse stories are a thing, and apparently a very popular thing. You can watch a million varieties of the genre on Netflix. They’re supposed to be horror, but it’s difficult to distinguish them from action movies. In many ways they are better than an action movie. Jason Bourne doesn’t get to mow down living humans- that would make him a villain. He karates some deserving bad guys and that’s about it. Who wants to watch that when we can indulge our own barely concealed desire for retribution on the rest of the species through the convenient foil of dead people who walk around?
Out of fairness, there have been some damn fine zombie films. Night of the Living Dead is classic (the other Romero zombie movies not so much). I thought 28 Days Later was compelling too. I saw it in the theater and a guy behind me made fun of Cillian Murphy’s dick size, so that might have contributed to the sense of dread, but it had metaphoric appeal. When most people who surround you are rage-fueled monsters, that’s… oh wait, that’s life in America.
On the whole, I don’t feel threatened by the idea of an apocalypse. I’ve grown up with them. To paraphrase Midnight Notes Collective, everyone dies. What does it matter if we all go at the same time? Being the last person alive sounds kind of nice. Free access to drugs and a chance for some quiet? Sign me up.
And what’s up with the assumption that we’re all so terrible that we’d act like murderous assholes? I’d pray for some sort of levelling effect in such a situation. As long as whatever virus/nuclear detonation/ecological catastrophe took out the world’s states, the survivors might have a good time. To summon another Midnite Notes Collective contributor Silvia Federici, the aftermath of the black death left the European peasantry in a much better position vis a vis the landed classes.
Some sort of scarcity is always posited in these situations. Who cares? We’re already living with scarcity, it’s just enforced with the barrel of a gun and a lack of other options. The water is toxic, the food is shit, all the fish are dead and there are few viable places to live. And zombies had nothing to do with it. Jeff Bezos and Walmart are to blame. Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell makes this point- people tend to be better in disasters. They help each other. They share resources. They instinctively cope with trauma as a collective. It’s cops and right-wingers who pose a threat to the kindness that can emerge in a catastrophe (and I’m thinking of you, Hurricane Katrina).
On this note, another Lovecraft note at that, I was never very clear on what exactly was going to happen if the Great Old Ones came around. It was categorically unspecified. They’re fictional scare-mongering. Maybe white genocide? There aren’t that many people who would complain, and they’d all be dead anyway.
Stephen King is considered the master of the genre. I really liked his early stuff (and failed to notice the repetitive appearance of magical black people). The Shining is pretty amazing, but overwhelmingly (for me) Cujo was his best piece of writing. And there is nothing supernatural going on. It is a prosaic horror. It speaks to an embodied dread- not being able to save your child in a situation that shouldn’t be occurring. Someone should write a horror story about family separation at the border (and perhaps they have- I plead ignorance). Lots of terrifying monsters there.
I don’t like his later work, even a little bit. At a certain point he veered into garbage and never found his way out. It might have to do with sobriety. Writers seem to be on top of their game when they’re actively self-destructing. Or it might be the fact that upon establishing himself as a commercially viable writer he was able to basically shit on a piece of paper, have his editors deal with the mess, and be absolutely certain that it would not only be published but be available at Walgreens next to books with Fabio on the cover. I’m glad for him that he’s not doing a ton of coke anymore, and kudos (I guess) on being filthy rich, but it’s an unfortunate place for a genre to be.
Also, fuck you Dean Koontz. Fuck you, F. Paul Wilson. Your books suck, your characters are stupid, and anti-choice propaganda dressed up as scary stories should go on the burn pile.
I consider ghosts. Not scary much of the time. Sometimes the events they summon definitely are- misogynist and racist violence are horrid, and the things hidden in the past have a habit of haunting us, but all things considered, the thing I find frightening about ghosts is the fact that they seem to be tied to the same places and doing the same things, endlessly. That’s life. I don’t want it to be death.
Monsters? Not scary either, and a genre trope is that the overwhelming majority of these stories reveal the reactionary fear and total lack of imagination of people who attempt to capture, kill or monetize them. This is why adult monster tales are framed as conflicts with the unknown and kid monster tales are conflicts with authority.
My complaints regarding ‘folk horror’ are many. It’s an inevitable outcome of this genre that a rational (or seemingly rational) contemporary person comes into contact with some retrograde cabal of people celebrating their indigenous past. This past is decadent and decaying and it sucks modern technology out of the protagonist. Smartphones don’t work. Cars break down. Reason follows soon after, until the hero plunges through the woods to either end up right back where they didn’t want to be or under the safe fluorescent lights of a Tesco. It’s generally stupid. Cartesian rationality has stacked up untold bodies without a moment of hesitation, while a ritual sacrifice a year meant to set the world to rights is painted as a screaming, gibbering horror.
Having said all this, I think that the BI-POC initiatives of horror, dark fantasy and science fiction are awesome. The perspective shift is profound and the writing is less lazy. The past isn’t a horror to be forgotten (though it might make a lot of sense for European descended people to desire amnesia… our forebears don’t look too good). There is instead a strength and a grounding in historical context in these contributions. I was lucky enough to get lost in Cherie Dimaline’s The Empire of Wild and Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians.
Cherie Dimaline’s book is about a werewolf (kind of), which I think is a figure that is rarely given the strength of representation that it deserves. But it is not the werewolf that is the villain, rather it is the social forces that lead one to break taboos. These rules of spiritual etiquette exist for the good of a community and are violated by individuals who are tempted by the spirits on the exterior. It’s not a story about the monsters, but instead about the forces that create them and then deploy them. And the heroine is wonderful- she’s tough, funny, tragically sad, deeply in love and embedded in a web of social relationships that provide her with the knowledge she needs to confront an evil man. Despite all of her power, I felt scared, horribly, for the people that surround her- the young, the old, and her contemporaries. Dimaline spits hot fire. I can’t wait to read The Marrow Thieves.
Stephen Grahm Jones’ The Only Good Indians is fucking terrifying. Without ruining the plot for the two people that read this blog, it also deals with the breaking of taboos, but from a much different angle. I think the underlying themes are the ways in which masculinity gets tortured, distorted and turned against the community; our desperation to escape from the things that we’ve done wrong and the ways in which they haunt us and turn back upon the ones we love; and finally the setting to right of transgressions that fall upon the youth of a community. It’s heartbreaking, beautiful, and indisputably a work of horror.
Departures from the ‘master narrative’ in film are also providing something that has been missing in film for a great long time, and of course I’m going to point to Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us. They’re visually arresting, paced wonderfully, and summon two different regimes of horror.
Last case for horror- when well-executed, I’ve become very smitten with science fiction/horror crossovers, and I think it does work that is necessary, painful, and true, and since we all watch TV and few of us read books, I’ll use Black Mirror as my referrent. I’ve made my way through the entirety of the series during my pitiful winter exercise on the treadmill. It’s sharp, incisive, and brings us to a threshold of total despair that a vampire can’t cross. It’s in conversation with itself all the time, and it cuts to the heart of the horrifying will to power of systems of control. In a world where we could all have sweet exoskeletons and seamless cognitive integration with the whole of reality, it’s almost certain that capital and the state would ignore that possibility and figure out new ways to make things surreally terrible.
A top pick from this program is 15 Million Merits, in which a society based on body shaming and the consumption of images presents a totalizing system of power that is utterly inescapable. And, much like our current society, people in this fictional one consume narratives that make critiques and calls for societal change that don’t make a dent in the system of power they oppose. There’s no way out. Level a successful argument against capitalism and they’ll just buy it from you.
Finally, after all of this, I’m scared of the following: Cops, homelessness, myself, losing control of my body, the possibility of reincarnation or persistence as a ghost, prison, people seeing me with my shirt off, parasites (but just on my skin, nowhere else- I’d love to have a tapeworm), isolation, the opposite of isolation, cleaning, suburbs, cities, rural America, working, getting killed by a lion, my desire to smoke more DMT, cutting my toenails, and… I don’t know. I’m sure there’s more.
“Oh my God, terrifying vistas of reality and our position therein are being opened up to us all. This is the worst thing that’s happened to mankind and in the studio they’ve opted for a new dark age but your commentator has gone stark staring mad.” New Dark Age by Rudimentary Peni.
It is fairly well-established that H.P. Lovecraft was a devout racist. The HBO adaptation of Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country, an inversion of a number of Lovecraftian tropes, set many fingers to typing about the blatant and unapologetic hatred, even terror, that he felt toward black people. Therefore, it’s pretty unimportant to repeat such a widely known and irrefutable fact. But, I don’t think it covers all the bases.
There are other currents of hatred and fear throughout his work. Like many of his characters, Lovecraft’s internal world was plagued by sinister dreams that were animated by the fears of empires long gone. He was a man of state, but the wild kind, haunted by the possibility of a radically altered world.
For myself, I first read Lovecraft at twelve. Expecting kids to be deep readers seems overly ambitious, but maybe this just reflects the low expectations, shitty education and dumb adults that I was exposed to. In a time where we consider the things people post on Facebook to be statements of unadulterated fact I think I’ll forgive myself for being blind to the hatred and fear that animated Lovecraft’s writing. Or maybe it resonated because I was being trained in the very same hatreds.
Much of his writing is (debatably) in the public domain, which has allowed numerous editions of his work to circulate, distinguished from one another only by cover art, and the book I picked up delivered in that regard. It was a splash page of terrifying figures rendered in shades of gray and red. Odd pieces of anatomy, strange doors and stairs and windows… I was catching on, slowly, to the fact that cool book jackets could disguise shitty books, but I went for it. A family day trip to Vermont was a perfect opportunity to refine a migraine by reading in a moving vehicle, and the relief of vomiting on the side of the road and then passing out wasn’t even a thing I really disliked.
I dug in. The book was a collection of his more refined (and probably more financially viable) stories. There was none of his bad poetry or his shit about Kadath, just endless descents into madness by various doomed protagonists and awakenings of incomprehensible beings.
It scared the fucking shit out of me.
It was seductive. Underneath the mounting paranoia of the inevitably white and tweedy heroes (or something… they were rarely if ever heroic) there was a love of the mystery and a fascination with the exterior. The world I was growing up in was known. The earth was mapped, the sea would be too, and space was sterile. Things were gridded and I didn’t like it at all. The beings of Lovecraft’s pantheon were terrifying, but they came from somewhere else- another dimension of space. I felt something like hope when I read about these impending nightmares.
Regardless, after reading The Dunwich Horror the treeline became a place where indescribable creatures with frightening appetites could be hiding. Since dogs hated these things I felt comforted by the obese lab that came along, and I didn’t fall asleep until late into the night.
I got older. An encounter with a shoggoth would have been preferable to day to day life. I didn’t reflect on the politics of Lovecraft until much later.
Around the age of twenty I was fortunate enough to read Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. It was another book that revealed a hidden dimension, in this instance the junctures at which the people working under the various lashes of power to establish a global capitalist economy attempted to bust through the ‘strange geometries’ that so threatened the order of a Lovecraftian world.
These people, their resistance to regimes of exploitation, and their dreams of something better circulated on ocean currents. In their lives and their deaths they were mutilated. Pirates and slaves sought freedom under threat of death. Women claimed rights so offensive that they were burned or drowned to banish them. Indigenous people fled, or hid on ships that would go pirate if only the crew would seize the captain’s blunderbuss. And ‘anabaptists’ preached the heresy of a kingdom of God on Earth, another assertion that was worthy of a violent and public end.
In a classic fashion, the economy of the revolutionary Atlantic had brought together its own grave diggers. In their numerous manifestations they were tied as metaphor and as death sentence to the realm of monstrosity, and the hydra was the most common referent. The chief theorist of the monstrosity of the working class was Francis Bacon, who appropriated the myth of Hercules and his labor of defeating the creature, to illustrate the disciplinary project faced by the masters of the nascent global economy.
With poetic flair he named the Hydra’s heads, each one representing a threat to order and reason: Indigenous people, steeped in tradition and landed knowledge, their relative wealth a lure to the miserable colonists; dispossessed commoners, with their own traditions of cooperation- the Irish, the African, and the travelling people; pirates were the third head- both those preying on the shipping lanes and those simmering aboard the Virginia Company ships, waiting to mutiny; the fourth terrible head was comprised of what Marx would call the ‘lumpenproletariat’- those who relied on petty crime to survive;head five, the scourge of nobles, was the assassin; ‘Amazons’, rebellious women, also required ‘putting down’- they led the bread riots that characterized the food crises of 17th century Europe, and could be witches as well, fit for burning and unfit for work; and finally, considered the most dangerous head of all, were the anabaptists, who threatened all order with talk of a ‘church from below’, where the paternal authority of protestantism would be overthrown by the urgings of the spirit. (p. 61-65)
The parallels between Lovecraft’s pantheon of Great Old Ones and Bacon’s use of the hydra as parable provide a glimpse into the mind of the reactionary, both in the 17th century and the 20th century. The people who represented a threat to the functioning of a very specific type of society take on monstrous dimensions: They are threatening, mysterious, and unpredictable. And they are everywhere.
Lovecraft’s stories take place in numerous locales, though Arkham is his most notable setting. From there one can head on a number of directions.
Out in the country, in the village of Dunwich (unsurprisingly the setting of The Dunwich Horror), you might encounter the Whatelys, specifically the ‘decadent’ Whatelys, the spawn of respectable farmers gone to rot. There, amid fallow fields, below stone tables upon which the otherwise invisible ‘Indians’ of Lovecraft’s world dance, Lavinia Whateley (who is, God forbid, an albino, physically disabled, and worst of all unattractive) gave birth to two children. Her father, ‘half-crazed’ but steeped in esoteric knowledge (you could call him an ‘organic intellectual’) presided over the births.
The more precocious (debatably) of the two boys, possessed of “thick lips, large-pored, yellowish skin, coarse crinkly hair, and oddly elongated ears”, dared seek knowledge that he should be denied. After being refused access to a book, Wilbur breaks into a library seeking said book, and is justifiably mauled to death by a dog.
What’s the ‘horror’ that came to Dunwich? Ugly people? Different people? There are several of the Hydra’s heads reared up in this story: The self-taught scholar; the rebel woman whose womb produces strange and unpredictable children; the ‘Indian’; the child who seeks knowledge above his station. Lovecraft’s villains are the victims of the revolutionary Atlantic.
Lovecraft’s most famous story, The Call of Cthulu, follows a similar course: The narrator’s uncle, a professor of Semitic Languages at Brown, dies mysteriously after being jostled by a “nautical looking negro”. As the protagonist pours over his uncle’s papers he comes upon a bas relief of a fantastical creature. Sculpted after troubling dreams by the “neurotic” son of an “excellent family” (it is interesting that the heroes of these stories can’t even stand thinking about stuff that the swarthy, deformed and wild minds of the minor villains think about all day), the young man seeks out the uncle and delivers the sculpture.
Later, the hero reads of one Detective Legrasse, a policeman who raided (read “suppressed”) a purported Voodoo meeting who turned to the protagonist’s uncle for information about a similar statue. Among the learned men who assembled to examine it, one asserts that a ‘deliberately bloodthirsty and repulsive’ group of devil-worshipping “Esquimaux” possessed and worshipped a similar statue. Mind-blowing stuff. It really “disclosed an astonishing degree of cosmic imagination among such half-castes and pariahs as might be least expected to possess it”.
Then there’s an interlude of a police massacre in which 47 religious celebrants are arrested and seven killed extrajudicially by police. But because the modern world is merciful, only two of the celebrants were sane enough to be hung. The rest were sent to institutions.
The story goes on in this fashion. There’s talk of “half-castes”, “mulattoes”, “waterfront scum”, and “negroes” throughout. Again, Bacon is summoned. The indigenous people, religious heretics, and nautical proletarians are attempting to subvert the ordered world of academics, who keep history in the past where it belongs, and police, who shoot those people who have escaped relegation to the dustbin of history. The villains are villains because they want to turn the world upside down. Their diversity makes them dangerous- the terror of miscegenation in Lovecraft’s writing is paramount. People who challenge categorization are not just worthy of distrust, but of extermination altogether.
Lovecraft is Francis Bacon for the early 20th Century. Less respected, perhaps, and certainly less well-connected, but dreaming the same nightmare: That all those hydra heads are out there. The dockworkers, the ignorant and pitiful rural working class, the people who have failed to adequately mix their atheism with their puritanism. The opus is teeming with a desire to hang on to the power relations of the contemporary age.
The things that are worth mentioning in regard to Cthulu are that (I’m going to assume that Cthulhu is gender-fluid and not human) it is a chimera. Cthulhu is an assemblage of animals thrown together. Cthulhu’s incomprehensible nature, the terror it inspires, the shocking thing about Cthulhu, is its size and the diversity of its elements. The second thing is that Cthulhu doesn’t die. It may be inactive for spans of time, sleeping, dreaming, but eternal.
For Bacon such monsters are a call to action. Exterminate them or break them. It was a new day for an ascendant class and hacking heads off was just another hero’s labor, not to be shirked or shied away from.
For Lovecraft it’s a form of paralysis. There are monsters everywhere. Fail to know them adequately and you’ll miss the moment that you’re held in their mouth; know too much about them and you might turn into one. Past and future are terrifying, as is the present, always teetering towards one or the other. It’s only the random violence of policemen’s guns that can clean up the mess.
In both men’s summoning of the monstrous, it was the blasphemous coming together of social forces that was the key threat to the societies that they envisioned as just and correct. It was, and is, the working class in all its manifestations that should be feared and, ultimately, killed. But the cosmic horror that both men face is that you can’t kill the monster. The story doesn’t work without it.
So for the specter of class war. There are so many of us. We are so different. Our cults exist in far flung places. Our icons and our statues get torn down or buried in museums, but we dream beneath the waves, waiting for the stars to align, to once again sow terror among respectable men of state.
“This fragile life really worries me. This fragile life, I know one day could be me and you. Do you like to feel cold?”- This Fragile Life by Newtown Neurotics
I spent a semester and a month pursuing an MSW and I was falling down a hole the entire time. When people talk about depression as an illness I think it is easy to assume that all the suffering that accompanies it goes on in the realm of thought. Pessimism, existential dread, hopelessness that looks like apathy, these are the things that typify the condition. But it is so much more. There is a physical component that is hard to comprehend if you’ve not experienced it. Limbs feel funny, stomachs devolve into chaos, and you become a conduit for some sinister agency. It’s no wonder we either sleep all day or not at all.
I have a low threshold for meaninglessness. I don’t like to talk about maintaining life. I want to talk about transforming it. The endless built in assumptions about ‘helping’ that get bandied about by presumably well-minded bureaucrats rarely looks like helping to me. Perhaps I’m too much of a purist. It’s entirely possible that my ideals have crippled me. In most institutions I’ve dragged myself into, I would love to feel nothing and instead I feel enraged.
During the relatively short period in which I pursued this degree I sat in a chair and felt pissed off. The lack of vision and political analysis beyond a desire to lodge centrist Democrats in positions of power was both boring and obnoxious. The lack of insight into all the ways in which social workers serve as gatekeepers and modifiers of human fragility made me feel sick. Sick with myself for participating, sick with them for white-washing.
Coming out the other side of the experience I wish that I had advocated for a position that sounds like a joke but isn’t: Provide firearms to the unhoused if they want them. America is already swimming in guns. What’s a few more cheap shotguns and revolvers going to do?
These kinds of blunt programmatic statements are, by their nature, not well thought out. I was once fully convinced that the legalization of drugs was a thoroughgoing path to racial justice and a return to the pursuit of pleasure over power. As we ever so slowly emerge from the prohibition paradigm the use of drugs as a political piston continues. The drugs that middle-class white people do are fine. Psychedelics are okay- the tech bro overseers of silicon valley suffering proudly announce the micro-dosing psychedelic regimens that they use to become masters of the protestant work ethic. The rest of us applaud them.
But the miserable masses using amphetamines to get them through the gauntlet of their days is worth a condescending tut-tut, as is the use of opiates. But only when poor people use them.
As a user of psychedelics, I think Dr. Carl L. Hart, author of Drug Use for Grown-Ups, elaborates a critique of this: Those of us who advocate for the legalization of psychedelics still recoil at the use of ‘hard’ drugs like heroin, crack cocaine, PCP and onward. We claim that our drugs are sacred and should be legal (stolen from indigenous societies though they may be) while others, used by the poor, are profane.
That’s a long way around to the earlier point: Arming the unhoused may be wrong-headed, but these things only get analyzed in the wash. The potential is that 1) violence against this population would diminish, 2) the police would be limited in their ability to disrupt the communities that are ‘temporary’ only inasmuch as they get cleared out on a regular basis and 3) policy decisions that redistribute wealth would become a priority.
Or maybe it would just result in more interpersonal violence. I don’t know… everything’s fucked and optimism is a bad ontological leaning. I’m sure Joe Biden will address all of our social problems.
Part of social work education is field placement. Mine was in a public library system. The vast majority of my time was spent reading.
On the occasions when someone needed assistance I tried my best. But my best wasn’t very good. Most of the time I listen to tales of degradation and misery and would follow this up with utterly useless attempts to secure some kind of material assistance for the desperate.
The degree to which social services are routinely denied to the people who need them is profound. If you want a bed for the night, you already have to be freezing to death. If you want your obvious disability to be recognized, prepare for months of waiting while you walk your day away- you’re not allowed to hang out at the homeless shelter, and you’re expected to go through the motions of applying to jobs that you will never be hired to perform. The smell of desperate living is upon you and Target has plenty of people who are slightly less fucked that they can hire.
The public library is perhaps the most important institution in the life of an unhoused person. You can hang out there all day and as long as you’re able to stay quiet you can use the computers, read, and escape from the cold of winter. There are charging stations for your phone, clean bathrooms, and an opportunity to navigate relationships with others who are in the same position.
I tried to learn everyone’s name. I tried to shake everyone’s hand. This seemed important. Disrespect is a generalizable phenomenon for many of these men and women and these are the two acts that rise to the point of acknowledging someone’s basic humanity. I don’t know how these people survived the boring and directionless days of the pandemic- they lost the library, and surely much more.
Upon entering the library in the morning I would ask the staff if anyone seemed like they might need help. They were there for many more hours of the day than I was and were in a much better position to identify needs. If they had no direction to provide I would walk through the library and stereotype people.
On one of these sweeps I saw a very young man staring off into space, huddling into himself. I asked him if he needed help and he said ‘yes’. We walked into a conference room and sat down. He began crying. There is nothing to do with this kind of sadness but listen. I was not allowed to touch another person in this role. If I could, I would have held his hand.
He told me of the terminal crisis that was his life. His father had died of a heroin overdose some months ago, and he found the body. He was certain that it was not an accidental overdose. Their relationship had been frayed prior to his death and he blamed himself for this. His guilt was frantic, overwhelming him, and he had no way to make it right. I’m not a psychologist or a therapist, but I am a human and have enough experience with misery to know that no one could touch this remorse.
Roger was homeless. He’d lived his whole life in Mastic-Shirley, a place that Long Islanders call “Selden by the Sea”, which is an ironic way of referring to this town as white middle-class and in decline, sliding into non-existence. The shelter system had removed him from this place where he knew people and the landscape to a point far West, with no resources and no hope.
He had been banished from his family home after getting drunk, stealing a friend’s car, and driving it into the Atlantic. He was arrested and then sued, at which point his mother had kicked him out of her house. He desperately wanted to go home but his mother wouldn’t speak to him. I listened to him make calls to his brother and then to a family friend. He begged them to intervene but both told him there was no going home- he had to ‘man up’, a disgusting term people use to inform the injured, desperate and helpless that they need to function economically before they’re worthy of love, help, or hope.
I asked if he had any psychiatric diagnoses. His affect was flat when he wasn’t crying. His paralysis seemed as though it went all the way down, rooted in his body. He told me that, at some point, by some doctor, he had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. This is a scary diagnosis that doesn’t say much. It seems like a catch-all that gets applied to people who don’t fit into the usual paradigms.
He sobbed through the morning. I gave him my sad lunch and he inhaled it, then told me that his probation officer was coming to the library to meet him. He asked if I would sit in and I answered in the affirmative, though I dreaded it. I hate cops.
They arrived and I sat with them. I was somewhat shocked by the fact that they were kind and understanding. They seemed to be pretty hip to the fact that he was truly fucked. He was too young and too sick to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles of a life on the street. He needed to access medical care that he was incapable of travelling to. He needed to make his way to a distant county social services office to maintain his housing. He needed to prove that he was looking for work, a task that he was clearly incapable of.
They seemed sad, resigned to and regretful of the fact that he was inches away from ending up in jail, another place that would annihilate his humanity. We all discussed the need to make an effort towards getting him placed in some kind of supportive housing, a benefit that would take an endless span of months to access.
I had an opportunity to speak to them privately. I said that I didn’t expect them to be kind. They said that they live with this hopelessness. They knew that Roger would be denied assistance that he was clearly entitled to, and that they would be unable to transcend their roles as bureaucratic robots. They were also tragic, more people broken by rules and constrained by life.
For the rest of the day I helped him barely clear hurdles and we ultimately got nowhere. This typified our relationship. Everyone got to know him- the librarians, the security staff, the administrators. We all feared for him.
Over and over he would disappear for several days at a time. Inevitably this was a 72 hour hold in a psych ward. He would show up, confess a sincere desire to die, and be admitted. He would be given medicine and referrals, things he wasn’t able to follow up on. I considered it my mission to get him disability benefits, but the tasks that this required were beyond him. He kept missing appointments. And he kept going missing.
Roger’s well-being became a task that everyone who worked at the library undertook. I would be provided with status reports from the security staff. This was a melting point for me. I generally fear and dislike people in any position of authority, which is an unfair assumption when it comes to the security guards in a library. Their mission is less to enforce rules than to explain to those breaking them that they sincerely did not want to ask them to leave and needed them to adhere to some mandate of courtesy.
It was through the problem of Roger that I came to not only understand, but in some senses to love, these big, strong men. They wanted to protect him. I did too.
In an instance that still makes me cry, I learned that the director of security had been picking Roger up on the weekends and bringing him to his house. Roger and this man’s children would do yard work, and not in a laborious way. He had pictures of his two boys and Roger smiling, diving into piles of leaves. Then there were photos of his family, plus Roger, eating at one of Long Island’s ubiquitous and interchangeable diners. Smiles all around. Then they went to the movies, and again, his boys and Roger posed outside, smiling. No more flat stare. No more tears.
The next week Roger went missing again. At this point it was a sincere worry we shared. Where did this tragically innocent child go? Was he alive? In jail? In the hospital? We never found out. His phone was off. The men he’d slept alongside had heard nothing. The same for his probation officers. His fate is a mystery.
These absences hurt. He was, and hopefully is, a child that made us more human both to ourselves and to others. These points at which we realize the fragility of life usually pass us by. Sometimes they hit us head on.
This essay primarily deals with the challenge of explaining death to a child. I do some shit-talking at the beginning but it’s all super poignant after that. Coming into this week I had a lot of thoughts and opinions regarding the MAGAt attack on the capitol. I think all the obvious bases have been covered at this point and that any useful or interesting thing I might say can wait, save the following comments.
Thank you sincerely, universe, for that guy who shot himself in the dick with a Tazer, had a heart attack, and died. Also, my eternal gratitude for the lady with the Gadsden Flag who was, delightfully, tread upon. Your jokes aren’t very good a lot of the time, but I think you should consider this for your ‘tight five’.
For way different reasons than the fascists, I would absolutely love to see Mike Pence hung and would delight in all the animated GIFs that would follow.
It’s very pleasing to consider the fact that the full repressive power of the state might be directed at the living idiots who drive their F-150s around with Trump flags waving behind. Please enjoy your decade or so of infiltration, surveillance and harassment, dicks.
To those who assert that the far right is somehow representative of the ‘white working class’ and therefor worthy of understanding, I beg of you: Shut the fuck up. To paraphrase a friend, these people are drawn from the relative minority who still have something to lose. The cleaning ladies who drive for Uber at night didn’t hop on a plane to go to D.C. with the intention of murdering people.
THE OTHER STUFF
“Will we wake up in the body of a buffalo, Running through the fields with our old friends? Or will we sleep with our favorite ghosts? I’m just wondering what comes at the end. I hope I meet you again.” – At the End by Cloud Cult
I live with my sister’s children. I love them both, very much. It is unlikely that I will have kids of my own in this life, save the insects, bacteria and fungi who emerge from my remains when this act (and which act is it?) is over.
So, I consider them mine in some senses. I get away with not having a financial responsibility towards them, and I don’t have to deal with the drudgery of social reproduction. I basically just get to hang out and be. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.
My nephew is almost six. As he grows he wants more to do with his friends than he does with me and I think that’s great. I was an insular child and I am an insular adult and a lot of the time I wish I wasn’t. I’m happy for him that there’s joy in friendship.
He’s also an athlete. It’s really weird that a six year-old has an eight-pack. It’s even weirder that I’m envious.
Another thing about him is that he suffers tremendously. This suffering doesn’t come from the exterior world, or not immediately. His feelings rise up spontaneously.
He’s a smart child and an extremely orderly boy. He likes lists and organization and completion. When something interferes with these ethics he appears to be tortured. He cries, he fights, he attacks objects and launches them across the room. These are the kind of hyperventilating freak-outs that cause all of us to fear for him. It’s the slippery slope that leads adults to medicate kids.
I don’t want for him to have the kind of life that I’ve led. He’s young enough that these periods of violent despondency don’t turn into a kind of meta-worry where the possibility that misery will consume every moment of your life fuels the object of concern. He’s still in the moment, that fuzzy period we all have in which memory is amorphous. This is a place where adult brains can’t really tread.
When these episodes of despair strike I am not on the scene. This occurs in his parents’ sphere. I can hear the explosions, the rage and despair, and when it’s all over I think a horrible and true thought: You ain’t seen nothing yet, kid.
I’ve got things to tell him, but not until he’s ready. These aren’t necessarily happy lessons. He’s in a kid’s karate class and they’re giving him all sorts of dumb ideas about how to hurt people. I can teach him how to throw a punch and I can provide some guidelines for strategy when in a physical conflict: Never get in a fight that the other person can anticipate. Never get in a fight you can’t win. Initiative is essential. Always cheat.
Then there’s drugs, a thing I know quite a bit about, and a thing that he will assuredly encounter. I don’t know how much of my experience will be useful to him. I will warn him of the treacherous terrain of drinking. It is social until it’s not. It’s a quick descent from a laughing circle of friends to lying on the pavement with a pool of vomit burning your skin.
I don’t know what to say about weed. The science is in and it’s definitely no good for kids. Otherwise it’s great until it isn’t. It can get you through the disappointment and tedium of life, but it might be more worthwhile to throw yourself into some other plane of transcendence. I could teach him how to roll a visually appealing joint, but I won’t.
In terms of the sacraments, this will come up, beyond a shadow of a doubt, and I will promise him, hopefully with his parent’s blessing, that when he comes of age I will sit beside him as he encounters the landscape of pure signification. Maybe he’ll have something to tell me when he surfaces.
But for the time being there are only two things I have for him, and this is an interest in mycology and a love of cycling. These have both taken root and I consider this a good start.
We’ve been going on mushroom walks for a while now. We drive to a mixed pine/oak county park, a relic of human effort. In the early 1800’s a farmer planted white pine seedlings, for economic purposes that aren’t clear to me now. The plantation survives, a relic that is both natural and social. Mushrooms don’t give a shit about this at all. They’re internationalists.
On the way I restrain my cursing against the ugly bulletheads who populate this place. He won’t get it. He doesn’t know what exactly it says about a person to have a Blue Lives Matter bumper sticker.
He is a lover of lists and games that involve categorization. Sometimes he wants to count the states that we’ve been to. We go through one at a time and I’m always surprised by how many places I’ve passed through in which I’ve done nothing more than take a piss.
More often is a mushroom guessing game. I describe morphological characteristics of a mushroom and he tries to figure out the species I’m thinking of. This reveals to me that I don’t know as much as I think. There aren’t that many that I can effectively describe so we circle around the same 15 species endlessly. We should use this as a jumping off point for both of us to broaden our knowledge but we don’t.
On our most recent trip I took us on a detour. There is a piece of what appears to be parkland, or at least ‘green space’ that is nothing more than a forgotten road and a colonial cemetery.
Christmas day about five years ago was both warm and humid and as I was driving by I saw a great many mushrooms growing from the trees on this site, and found approximately 70 pounds of oyster distributed throughout.
I cultured samples from four different sites, wondering if this was one interconnected organism, but the mycelium didn’t join together seamlessly. Were I a trained mycologist I could have asked some interesting questions about this population, but I’m not. I’m left to wonder.
On this stop I was hoping to see some remnants of a fruiting event, but there has never been a recurrence. It’s fascinating how transitory these things are. At one point in time they claimed every piece of wood to be had, never to return.
We walked through and there was nothing fungal happening. To some extent he understands this. Just like animals, fungi relax in the winter. But he wanted to see the rest of the site and so we walked towards the cemetery.
I was somewhat surprised that he didn’t know what it was. We’re so often confronted with the icon of the grave marker. Halloween sees the herald of corpses popping up on countless suburban lawns.
Maybe when you’re that young they’re just there, signifying nothing. But in a tiny patch of woods they become more ominous. They aren’t a decoration. They aren’t quite relics. No one living remembers the people beneath them but there is ownership expressed regardless. A fence surrounds them, a gate swinging wide, dragging a busted lock and some chain along.
I explained. These are one of the ways that people address the tasks that death creates. A body is cleaned and clothed. A deep hole is dug in the ground. They are lowered, in a box made of wood, and then buried. A stone marker is placed over the grave. It tells you their name, when they were born and when they died, and offers some reminder that they were loved.
He was uncomfortable with this, I could tell, but children are curious and they’ll brace against discomfort for a while if there’s information to be had. We walked around the fence, and there was a grisly thing to behold.
A fox had died in the summer. Somehow it had expired as it tried to pass through the fence. It’s remains were frozen. No smell, but the melting of its flesh was like a halted waterfall, putrefaction waiting for the chemical processes of death-becoming-life to resume.
He asked why it was there and I know something about this. The patch isn’t far from the road and where we live the automobile is the most vicious and wasteful predator. Injured animals make their way through the brush to this clearing and fall for the last time. I’ve seen many deer skulls here and a racoon’s remains that held onto its fur and not much else.
“Why” is the constant question. Where all the other questions have some definitive answer, ‘why’ goes all the way down. It seeks meaning. It opens onto ‘how’ so often, but you can’t answer ‘why’ with ‘how’. ‘Why’ is a search for meaning.
I don’t know how exactly to explain this phenomenon in which creatures in their agony seek this place. Maybe it’s simply familiarity, but I like mystery. So I tell him the best answer, if not the most true answer, to this question: It’s because they know that this is a place for the dead.
Beside the cemetery is a ‘wolf tree’, a massive, ancient oak. It is dying in that glacial way that trees have. There are several species of fungus living in it. Year after year they dissolve its cells. Year after year another massive branch falls to the ground. But come spring it still puts out leaves. In the fall it will still drop acorns. It lives hand in glove with its mortality. It shades the cemetery, and provides shelter to the creatures that end beneath it.
I don’t know if my answer satisfied.
When I was a child, a bit older than he, I became abruptly and painfully aware of the universality of the phenomenon of death. My whole social world would one day end, at a time not of my choosing. It was likely a fact that the promises of Roman Catholicism were just a fantasy. I lay awake at night sucking on this awareness. As I aged I learned to ignore it, and then, gradually, psychedelia provided me with a greater understanding of this astounding mystery, the pageantry and power of the end.
Will he arrive at this awareness, and will it throw him into a state of existential dread? If yes, what can I tell him?
I guess I’d point at the tree. It lives alongside its death for a very long time. There is no event horizon that marks the end of it and the beginning of something else. I’d point at the headstones, declaring that someone lived and died and that someone gave enough of a shit to memorialize them. Given enough time these too would be weather away to nubs and then nothing. The fence would fall and the dirt that used to be a tree and a fox would bury it.
Then all this would happen again, different in form but similar in content. Other beings tied by kinship would linger here and wonder why we live in the palm of the squeezing hands of fate.
I guess I’d point at the sun and explain that in billions of years it would also die. It would perhaps become a black hole, a force so powerful that it releases nothing and all that it encounters will live eternally in the distortions of time it engenders. I guess I’d say that to the best of my knowledge the universe has refuted the laws of entropy, position and distance. I’d let him know that if there is anything that touches on infinity then nothing ever ends.
I’d tell him to ponder the hubris underneath the fear. Could something so vast care about us? Could something so vast not love us? The answer to both is ‘no’. We’re matter making an endless passage through form. Nothing ends and everything ends. Rest easy. There are tasks and adventures ahead.
After this, he took his first bike ride on single-track and the crushing weight of thought melted for both of us. We rode over fallen trees through a landscape that must have seemed vast to a six year old. He did not want to stop, or use any of the bail-outs. When we finally turned towards the sound of cars displacing air, a tower of steel, rusting and forgotten, lay horizontally, toppled by time.
June’s life was very hard. Her mother was sick, and this sickness made her cry all day. It made her have to lie down for long hours, staring at the ceiling. June’s mother dragged herself through life, from the food pantry to their little apartment and, once a month, to the doctor, a man who either changed nothing or everything depending on the day.
June took the bus to school and the other children teased her for her dirty clothes. Once there she could not concentrate on the teacher’s voice. She was hungry and full of worry and she was reprimanded for this. June didn’t know that this was unfair because most of her life was unfair. She had nothing to compare it with. She thought she must truly be bad for things to have turned out this way.
When she arrived home she would trudge to her bed with her head held low. She would fall upon her stomach with her clothes on and push her face into the pillow. She felt a sadness that she couldn’t put into words and realized that this feeling was what her mother endured, day in and day out. With this terrible realization echoing in her mind she fell asleep.
She dreamed. She was in a cellar that she knew to be far beneath whatever building pushed down upon it. She had been digging a hole in the hard-packed dirt floor. Her clothes were damp with sweat and she could feel dirt when she mopped at her brow with her forearm. Something small waited by the side of the hole, wrapped in white linen, as still as the grave. She looked at it for a time, and though she didn’t know what it was or how it had become her responsibility to bury it she felt a deep sense of shame that gradually mounted to panic. The only thing to do was to keep digging and so she attacked the hole with the shovel’s blade, ignoring the sweat and fatigue.
Suddenly, a rapping from above intruded on the rhythm of the shovel. A blade of fear pierced her. She knew that she had to answer, that waiting would only make things worse and so she dropped her shovel and with her heart fluttering in her chest she walked up the cellar stairs. She stood before the door. The rapping had become thunderous. She became certain that she had done something horrible and that her punishment waited outside.
She reached for the door, ready to unlock it and embrace the reality of the dirty thing that she was- and then she snapped awake. There was still a sound, a persistent rapping, something hard upon the glass. Light pooled on the floor below the window and a shadow was framed in its center. She forgot her nightmare for a moment. Was it an angel she saw there, winged and graceful? She had always thought that perhaps one would come for her one day.
Again there was that insistent percussion and she looked to the window. Not an angel then, but a crow dressed in its black plumage. As her dream threatened to rise up again her curiosity overcame it. She walked cautiously to the window. She was afraid that it would fly away. She had no friends, no pets, no family beside her mother. The crow might not be any of those things, but it was paying the kind of attention to her that didn’t hurt.
She stood before the window. The bird did not move. It cocked its head and met her gaze. Another series of insistent taps upon the window pane. She unlocked it and pulled it open. The crow hopped through the portal between inside and out. It looked at her for a very long time while she stood motionless. She wondered what was happening. Was she being assessed? Evaluated? Diagnosed? She hoped that among all the possibilities that she was being seen. No one ever saw her. Not really.
They stayed that way for some time, gazing, and though she had to pee after so many hours of sleep it was more important to have this encounter. As she stared her mind slipped into a state of non-being and though the memories of her life and the knowledge of who she was were still there they simply didn’t matter.
It was a Friday morning. She kept a clock in her room. Her mother couldn’t be trusted to wake up, or to wake her up, and there had been visits to their apartment by a social worker. She had seemed like a nice woman, but they wanted her to go to school, and in the nicest way possible she had told her and her mother that there would be consequences if her attendance didn’t improve. She didn’t know what those consequences would be, but her mother explained later that she would be taken away. She would live with another family then, or in a place where other girls in the same circumstance lived.
None of this sounded any better or worse than her current circumstance, but it scared her all the same. There would be no hiding then. No secret moments of grief. They would see the hollow place inside her and try to fill it with things that she wasn’t sure she wanted. So she set her alarm every night and dragged herself from her bed every morning. It rang. The crow flew. The spell was broken.
She rushed to the bathroom and not for the first time thought that relief was better than pleasure. She brushed her teeth and ate what there was to be had in the kitchen. Peanut butter and some white bread. She opened her mother’s door. She was not asleep, but had an arm raised. Her forearm covered her eyes, but she could see tears running down the side of her face.
She crawled into bed beside her mother and held her. The flow of tears from beneath her arm increased. After a time she pulled her arm away and kissed her on the forehead. She told her that she loved her. That she was so sorry for not being better. June knew that she would be late for school, but this seemed more important.
She walked down the stairs of their building through the smell of mildew. It was late fall, growing chilly. Her eyes felt swollen and she knew they were red. It would be one more thing about her that was worthy of comment by the other children. She took a moment to breathe. She felt as though she forgot to sometimes.
It wasn’t until she arrived at the bus stop that she realized she had missed it. There were no other children, no parents in their huge cars, idling fumes into the lungs of the children not similarly cared for. There was only what she could assume to be that same crow flying above here, speaking it’s strange language. And she realized that it was not just the one but many. She felt as though they were calling to her. Then she noticed.
On the ground were two fledgelings. Too old to be chicks, too young to fly on their own. They were doomed, and she felt a kinship with that. She forgot about school. She forgot about the social worker and her scary way of helping. She took off her vest and approached the two grounded birds. As she thought about how best to approach them the birds flying above landed on the ground, one by one, until they formed a semi-circle that enclosed both her and the fledgelings.
She knew that all this was curious but none of it felt strange. The sadness that she carried with her was not gone, but it receded. She knew what to do where before she had harbored only doubts and uncertainties. She knelt down, removed her vest, and gently prodded the birds into it. They looked to the other members of their murder. June felt the emotion and images pass through her mind. The mother bird had watched her while she dreamed and tasted her sadness. She had glimpsed those parts of her that were not human, that had been thrown away or eaten up or had simply died and June knew that those absences made her safe and pure.
The walk back to her house was delicate. She looked down at the young birds and they looked back. She felt seen, observed, evaluated and, ultimately, accepted. She walked up the stairs of her building. Mr. Reyes was hurrying down. He said hello but did not spare her a glance. As she made her way up and stood at her door Miz Lightfoot left her apartment for her morning walk. She looked down at June, at what she was carrying.
Miz Lightfoot was mysterious and very old. She was always kind. No one else in the building had ever been inside of June’s apartment. One day her mother didn’t wake up. All her pill bottles were empty. June had shaken her mother as hard as she could and yelled in her ear. She had picked up one of the phones that they had gotten in the mail but it was not charged. Neither of them ever thought to call anyone because there was no one to call. The phones would get lost for weeks at a time and it didn’t matter. Mail would pile up on top of them. When her mother rose from her bed long enough to force herself through the motions of cleaning they would be resurrected, plugged in and charged. For a day or so they would be useful and then the cycle would begin again.
When that most terrible thing had happened June ran to Miz Lightfoot’s. She had a phone that did not travel with her and this struck June as a very strange thing. But it worked. Miz Lightfoot had stood with June as the ambulance traveled to them. June always felt lost but especially on this day. As the large men rushed through the apartment and did things to her mother that June did not understand, another thought intruded: What would happen to her? She knew little of what happened to children in such a situation, but she did not think that any of it would be good.
Miz Lightfoot had drawn her near and pulled her against her side. No one asked anything of her, even as the tears and mucous had run down her chin. As her mother was lifted on to a gurney, Miz Lightfoot approached a woman who had arrived and explained that June was her granddaughter. She lied well. The woman seemed satisfied that somehow this white woman with an accent that evoked headwraps and long winters could be the grandmother of this little brown girl. Miz Lightfoot walked her across the hall and into another world.
Her apartment was shielded from the abrasion of light. Dark furniture and countless plants in pots. Jars on shelves filled with different hues, roots and leaves hiding within. It smelled clean, but in the strangest way, as dust was clean. She was guided to the couch and Miz Lightfoot laid a heavy woolen blanket over her. She sat above her knees and stroked her hair as shock turned to sleep.
She woke in the night. Miz Lightfoot knelt before her. Her eyes were closed. She held a bundle of plants, smouldering. The smell was soothing. In her other hand she held something stranger than the smouldering plants. It was a bundle of feathers and two delicate bones tied with a ribbon. She held it to her forehead and whispered something, over and over. It was not English. She felt that perhaps she should be scared but she did not. She felt safe and loved.
In the morning she sat at a table across from Miz Lightfoot. They ate boiled eggs on toast. June did not know what to say. Miz Lightfoot looked at her. “You are thinking about last night.” She stated. “It was a thing I did to ask for protection for you. You deserve it.”
June finished chewing her toast. She stared at the table. “Was it magic?” June knew little about magic.
“Yes.” Miz Lightfoot said. “I was talking to someone for you and asking them to guide you on your journey.”
June nodded. This made sense. She wished that someone had done this for her before.
After a few days her mother returned in a cab and life continued. Miz Lightfoot was a kind presence in the stairwell from then on, but nothing more. June did not understand. She wanted to be friends but Miz Lightfoot had become a mystery once again.
But on this day, as June carried the two birds, Miz Lightfoot spoke again. “Do you remember what I did for you that night that your mother left?”
June nodded. She felt protective of these birds and pulled them closer to her.
“These are friends to you, June. They heard me ask for help and they answered. If you care for them then they will care for you. They will guide you to where you need to go. Know that they will eat most things, that they are clean birds, and that they have incredible memories for both friends and enemies.”
Miz Lightfoot knelt and hugged both June and the crows and went on her way.
June entered her apartment. Her mother did not respond. June checked that she was breathing and when she was satisfied she returned to her bedroom. She put the birds on her floor. She did not want them to fall again. She built a nest around them with her clothes. She lined the inside of the nest with her only clean sheet. In the kitchen she found little. There was always peanut butter and white bread and so this is what she fed them.
She stayed with them all day. They were so smooth, so dark, and in their eyes there was something like understanding. They looked like Miz Lightfoot if Miz Lightfoot was a bird. They seemed unafraid and she began to stroke them gently. They leaned into her fingers and ruffled their feathers. They rubbed their heads against her hands.
She did not go to school the next day. Her mother had only moved from her bed to use the bathroom. June saw that they did not have enough food. She ate cereal with water and gave the fledgling crows the last of the peanut butter and the shattered remains of a bag of corn chips.
She had no money. Miz Lightfoot was the only one who might help her but she was embarrassed. These birds were hers to take care of. In the early light of the following day she left her house with plastic bags around her hands. On the street was a squirrel, run down by a car and left to die. She picked it up, hoping that no one saw her, and walked back to her apartment.
She cut into the squirrel’s stomach. It was not yet stiff, still supple, its fur so soft, and she felt sad for it but knew that this was the way things were. She had never been told why things were this way and she did not feel that she had the tools or words to make sense of it.
The birds were glad for the gift. They pecked at it. June did not watch but felt she should. These birds were hers. If there were things to be learned from them then it was her responsibility to do so. She sat on her mattress on the floor to watch.
They ate its eyes. Their sharp, smart beaks moved into its mouth to tear loose its tongue. They pulled the strange lumps and strings from within its gut and they ate those too. June tried to learn. What was the lesson?
Maybe death was nothing to fear. Maybe spirit lived inside all that confusing flesh. She had been told about Jesus, long ago, and how his body was bread and his people ate this bread. Maybe this squirrel was like Jesus. Maybe this was the worship of the world. There was an endless passage in which death became life became death again.
She watched for a long time. She was very hungry but the sun had gone down. The electricity had been turned off and she lay on her bed until sleep came upon her.
She had a dream. She was gliding high above a frigid city. It was neither beautiful nor ugly. It was just the world.
A thick fog drifted upwards from many places. Here and there gold ascended in a reversal of rain. Her eyes were sharp. At her right and left two others like her were exalting in their freedom. They flew downwards in a gentle circling and she followed. A man in a blue uniform sat in a car and the gray poured out. They flew low and heard his cursing. They saw the gnashing of his teeth.
She and her companions circled lower. They made a vortex of the gray and it spun faster and faster until it was a thick and concentrated line. It no longer drifted to fall upon the ground or penetrate lungs. It grew denser until it was a pebble that fell to the ground. She landed beside it and her two friends joined her.
She understood. She picked it up in her beak and ate it. It was the only way to remove this dangerous thing. It did not hurt her. She saw how this man’s life was full of rage and disappointment. The things that he desired had not come to pass and the things that he used to fill the gaps were not good enough. The understanding of these things was painful but she felt as though she was built for this- just as this body ate the fallen dead, it ate dead feelings.
They took flight again. A shower of light was rising from beneath a bridge. There was a man there, cold, red-faced and harried by a life too unfair to survive. Again they circled, but this was a circle of joy, not of duty, and when their dance was done a shining bauble was all that remained. Again, she ate of it and knew the man, but this time not his sadness, but instead his freedom. There was love inside her, the joy of friendship, and the sadness of these things coming to pass. She saw that he was beautiful and that he was holy and that his freedom was necessary to balance all the grey that drifted skyward.
She woke and it was still dark. She had fallen asleep face down but felt warmth pressing against her legs. She rolled over slowly and gently. The two foundlings were beside her. They stood and opened their wings. They flapped them and hopped into the air. She saw that they could fly, that they were ready to go about their work in the world and this hurt her, though she wanted them to be free.
It was almost dawn. Soon the sun would crest the horizon on a cold day. She would not know what to do or where to go. There would be nothing but her uncertain life. Her charges hopped toward the door. They both rapped their beaks upon it. She did not know where they wanted to go. She opened the door and they jumped and flapped towards her mother’s door.
Within, she saw the gold rising. She could not say ‘no’. She could not beat the ground. There was no one to see or hear these things. She was too empty to sob, too lost. Her stomach, her chest, her throat all tried to register this thing, this worst thing.
She crawled into her mother’s bed and held her. She was still warm but something was gone. She cried tears that had been ripening for so long, sobs that should have been heard around the world and when that wasn’t enough she cried more. The crook of her mother’s neck, her soft shoulder, this body that had been so lost for so long was free and she was scared. And her friends… she could feel them beside her.
As she cried she felt something deep inside her brain pop, some kind of death that was only partially completed, and time changed, moving so slowly, and she was in two places and she was two things. She was above the body that was once her’s. The gray poured out of her but it was parting- there was a light emerging from the fog and it became insubstantial as it rose. Her friends were beside her again, making awkward circles in the small room. Miz Lightfoot was there.
She knelt by June’s body and checked her pulse, then stroked her hair. She looked to the birds as they flew their hampered flight. She looked both happy and sad.
Miz Lightfoot spoke to the room, her eyes closed. “June, you have a choice now. You know what it is. I want you to know that none of it was ever fair, but few things are. There is not much that ends in this world, or any of the others. Just as you’ve had your measure of sadness, you will have your measure of joy”.
June made her decision.
She flew with her friends. The gray and the gold were married and after some time they were gone, leaving only a small bauble, crystalline with a fault in its center. June landed. She took the bauble in her beak. It tasted of sadness and love and at the end of those it tasted of freedom. She swallowed it and then she was born anew.
Miz Lightfoot opened the window and the three young crows flew out, a day of sacred duty before them. She left the window open. She rolled June onto her back, crossed her arms across her chest, closed her eyes, and walked across the hall to use the phone.
Note: I should revisit this. I missed some points but it is already too long and my body and brain are on fire. It takes quite a while to get things done when this is happening.
Walter Benjamin: Dead person. A theorist of art and society. Deliberately overdosed on heroin rather than be captured by the Gestapo (fucking A right).
Karl Marx: Dead person. Storied theorist of capitalist society. Impregnator of maids. Afflicted by boils. Doubtlessly a genius, most likely a total dick.
Rush: A rock band consisting of Geddy Lee, notable for his piercing voice and cadaverous appearance; Neil Peart, acclaimed drummer and dead person; and Alex Lifeson, notable for his relative invisibility contra his bandmates.
Ayn Rand: Dead person. Miserable human. Author of bad novels. Champion of capitalist individualism.
Piotr Kropotkin: Dead person. Anarchist saint. Russian noble. Geographer.
Fixed capital: Machinery utilized in the production process. Transfers ‘dead’ human labor into products. Incapable of producing profit.
Variable capital: Human labor expended upon raw material. The only facet of the production process that is capable of producing profit.
Commodity: A thing that both satisfies a human need and that has an exchange value in which it has equivalence with other things through the medium of money.
Capitalism: The water that we’re swimming in. Representative of all your hopes and fears. Engine of misery.
Ayn Rand is one of those authors that you try to read in high school because you think you’re smart. After a day of effort you realize that the book, whether it’s The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, or Anthem are painfully boring and largely pointless. I was such a young person, drawn to things that were reputed to be intelligent and still ignorant of the fact that my high school teachers were profoundly stupid.
I fucking hate South Park. While there is an appeal to watching characters bounce around on their gigantic testicles or witnessing penises take flight and explode, at this point it’s an unavoidable reality that the creative team are nothing more than alt-light trolls who shit on people with enough conviction to try to improve the world.
I will make an exception as to the ideology espoused: At the conclusion of the ‘Chicken Fucker’ episode, Officer Barbrady finally reads Ayn Rand (and thereby conquers his illiteracy) and concludes “Yes, at first I was happy to be learning how to read. It seemed exciting and magical. But then I read this: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read every last word of this garbage and because of this piece of shit I’m never reading again.”
That’s pretty much how I felt, though I did continue reading. The Cliff Notes version of her work is basically that there are people of vision and genius who need to transcend the grasping fools who would impede their aggrandizement.
If such a thing strikes you as gross and stupid, it is. One of Piotr Kropotkin’s lasting gifts to nascent radicals is the assertion that there is nothing that ‘great men’ do that is not born of the sweat and technical skill of the lower classes. Without the weaving of children they would go unclothed. If not for the yeoman in the field they would have no food. Nor would they have the necessary raw materials to depart the masses and found a territory of brilliant and talented individuals (yes, this is indeed a plotline in Ayn Rand’s work) without the misery of people laboring in mines. Capitalism doesn’t need an ideology, and if it did it surely wouldn’t be this drek. Its total penetration of human life appears to be natural and that pretty much takes care of its ideological needs.
It’s a somewhat embarrassing fact that I like Rush. And it’s not an attempt to be ironic. Whether it’s familiarity or just their technical skill I get pretty stoked when I hear Red Barchetta. I’m keenly aware of their politics too. Somehow these people who basically mastered the complicated skill of crafting radio hits were dedicated Randians, and you don’t have to dig too deeply to become aware of this.
They are painful in their devotion and stupidity. For instance Anthem (from the admittedly awesome record Fly By NIght) is an immediate call back to Ayn Rand’s novel of the same name. The verses of the song are a testament: “Live for yourself. There’s no one else more worth living for. Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more.” You could compose these lyrics by printing and cutting up any three comments on the Fox News website, throwing them in the air, and rearranging them randomly. The song concludes with a lyric so silly that I almost feel pity for them: “Well, I know they’ve always told you selfishness was wrong yet it was for me, not you I came to write this song.”
Okay, sure. In a sense this is true. Neil Peart wrote the song so he could make some money. Definitely for him. But any capitalist, beneath their bluster, needs a consumer. If a prog rock radio hit falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear Geddy Lee scream then you’ve just got three nerds without a pot to piss in hanging around and talking about aliens. No one does anything in our society simply for themselves, as much as people love to barf up Milton Friedman for Dummies soundbites.
There are plenty of songs in a similar vein, from the anti-union ballad The Trees to the outright statement of dislike of their fans voiced in Limelight. These kind of elitist assertions of derision for the rest of humanity by the glorious ubermensch artist happen, but nobody takes them very seriously.
I never really got into Walter Benjamin. I certainly admired him. Just the fact that he overdosed on morphine rather than be arrested by the Gestapo earns him a statue as far as I’m concerned, but his work was in the vein of the Frankfurt School which I’ve never liked all that much. This might be intellectual laziness on my part. They were working during a time of great danger and attempting to grapple with the rise of fascism in Europe. While the fascists ultimately lost, they’d done a great job of exterminating the people on my team and they probably deserve my attention.
The only essay of Benjamin’s that I’ve read is The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The thrust of the essay is that (in 1935) society had reached a point of development in which art was being produced on an industrial scale. His assertion was that in earlier societal development the work of art had an aura, which was itself socially produced. It was housed in a place of worship or on display in a gallery. There was only one such thing, unique in all the world. David or the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel were not things that could be reproduced. In part their singularity was their value.
But a new thing had occurred. Processes for mass producing images and sound had developed and they suplexed this prissy sculpting and painting from the top rope of the ring. The eye behind the camera lens was the eye of a technician. The portrayal of reality became a simulacrum of discrete moments assembled for presentation to a mass audience. So it was that before Fordism the mass production of images became accessible to all. The reality of the theater captured perception.
This is all very smart and very important. But there’s a Marxian concept that doesn’t really get deployed in the essay. Value theory, the core insight of Marxian economics, doesn’t get played around with and I think it has a lot to say.
As Piotr Kropotkin would assert, there is no one who is great (though there are plenty of heroes). Artistry under capitalism is a complicated thing. For one, what the fuck would we even call art? Do the ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ posters you can buy at “Bed, Bath, and Beyond” qualify? I fucking hope not.
Or perhaps the disneyfied photographs that appear alongside captioned platitudes on bus shelters and billboards rise to this level? Perhaps it’s comforting to the pensioner fighting frostbite to be reminded that Frederick Douglass existed and has some wisdom to offer her as she sits in the cold, waiting to be ferried to some futile doctor’s appointment. Is the new season of Vikings art? Or is it a way of insulating the world from some sort of refutation of the terminal boredom we live with?
We’re in a post-propaganda world. The weaponization of images, words and sound isn’t something that we’re likely to recover from. You can’t believe your lying eyes, but you very likely want to. We know that underneath it all is an engine, some diabolical vitamix, liquifying us in furtherance of some impulse or dark dream.
There is a duality to the use values of the cultural commodities we consume. They satisfy a need, and I’m completely honest about the need they satisfy for me: I’m fucking pacified. Television is a drug and I’m an addict. Even the most puritanical modern human shoots this heroin into their eyeball. It’s what we talk about, where we go fishing for identities that we’d like to try on, and the neurological sedative that we return to at the end of a day.
On the other end of things it provides a means of social control and it doesn’t even have to be designed to accomplish this goal. It’s enough that it transfixes. There’s no need for a government to coordinate it: The Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to continue its grand enterprise of apologizing for imperialism without a bit of prodding from the state.
And of course these things are a means of accumulating capital, but I really don’t feel qualified to speak to the economy of television and film. It’s a collision of advertising, sexualization, ticket sales and kitsch that is beyond me at the moment.
Music functions similarly. I spend a lot of time in doctor’s offices. Mostly there is a pleasant vacuum of stimuli. The background noise of humming HVAC provides just enough audible fuzz to allow me to space out and simply stare. It’s heaven, to be in an in-between place at an in-between time. Thought disappears. Sweet relief.
But sometimes they play music and I take umbrage at this. This isn’t fucking Walgreens (where I am under the impression that they play Sting just to hurry me through the store). The worst, the very worst, was an office where they played modern top-40 country. I developed a deep antipathy towards everyone who worked there and decided that they were, if not bad people, dangerously stupid.
Joseph Goebbels would be hard-pressed to develop something more diabolical. The only difference is that the end-goal of this shit ear garbage was to inspire either drinking, fucking, or (ideally) both, in a particularly dumb, armed, and trucked package, instead of facilitating a genocide and the construction of a war machine dedicated to global conquest (it’s already been accomplished).
Is it art? I guess so. So, having established that I hate everything, let’s talk about Rush some more.
That they consider themselves to be artists is abundantly, grossly clear. It’s in the lyrics. But this is capitalism. If you’re an artist then you’re an artist for money and if you’re doing something for money then it’s your job. So, Peart, Lifeson and Lee are workers, but they’re workers in a music factory.
Working in the music factory takes some skill. Depending on what exactly you’re trying to accomplish it can take years of training with no compensation (although it is true that you can be utterly talentless and be a musician- go ahead and listen to the Misfits). So, you first have to make yourself.
This likely requires hours of practice and in some instances schooling in a conservatory. Following on that you need just enough of an input of aspirational ego not to jump ship on the process and start selling guitars at a music store.
Following this there are the weird tasks of forming a band. Since most people are horrible this can take a while. Hats off to whoever made Cream come together. Eric Clapton is an asshole, Ginger Baker a psychopath and Jack Bruce (was) an alcoholic.
It’s possible (likely even) that this work process requires that you have a powerful addiction to a mind-altering substance. It’s part of whatever remains of the ‘aura’ Benjamin was speaking of. Tragedy is part and parcel of all of this. We like our artists troubled and it helps if it’s the kind of troubled that they somehow survive and talk about in Rolling Stone.
So, our rock stars have been produced. The value embodied in them by numerous drugs, educational processes and egoism are moved into a recording studio where a recording engineer, who has way less capital crammed up his ass then the musicians, works with them to get a perfect cut for consumption by the masses. This is a process that involves a lot of machinery, from the mixing board to the guitars to whatever other shit ends up in a recording studio. Chips? Beers?
From there the master tape moves to pressing. WAY more fixed capital involved here. The fixed capital embodied in the recording is distributed across however many CD’s, tapes, vinyl records, whatever. They’re sent to market. Apparently some UPS guy moves them around unless there are strategic air drops of Rush records in counterinsurgency campaigns. Otherwise a tragically stereotypical salesperson sells these recordings in Sam Goody to the sad fuckers buying the music. (Yes, I realize that this is no longer a way that people access music, and it will be acknowledged several paragraphs down).
It’s probably a thing that the musicians go on tour. This appears to be some sort of homage to the reliquary of authenticity. It fulfills the yearning for nostalgia of weekend warriors to hoist a beer and sing along to the verses they know. They confirm that Rush isn’t a clever artificial intelligence kicking out radio hits for the mullet set. They’ve imparted a facsimile of aura to the plebes to get ready for another day running the gauntlet with a morning dose of Spirit of the Radio.
I went to a Rush concert when I was 13, accompanied by my drug buddy cousin and my psychotic uncle. It was the “Test for Echo” tour, which is definitely one of their more forgettable records. We were in the cheap seats. I was supposed to be enthralled by the image of Geddy Lee prancing on the stage and Neil Peart playing an obligatory drum solo on his ridiculously overbuilt set. There was even a laser light show component. I was still bored out of my mind.
So these are the inputs: Highly capitalized living labor; stacks and double bass drums, a recording engineer and mixer laboring away on expensive equipment to assemble the cacophony into something digestible; the marketing geniuses responsible for convincing people that this music is indeed something worth buying; the road crew committed to creating a sufficiently seamless tour for their pampered charges; and the poor schleps who produce the music as a consumer product and the bitter nerds who sell it.
This is a formulation that mostly applies to a brief period in history, just a passing phase as music passes through a progression of production processes. I’m old enough to remember Sam Goody, (which I’m pretty sure means I’m on my way to ancient). but an interesting thing occurs on the way out of this particular era of production: We transition to music that is primarily distributed via the internet.
This is an interesting passage. The living labor embodied in music is ever more infinitesimal. CD’s get tossed in the trash because who fucking needs them? They’re delicate, it’s too fucking easy to lose the liner notes, and who wants to have one of those tacky CD towers? We’ve got an endless array of computer programs and streaming services that are infinitely more durable. Some of them allow us to circumvent the commodity form altogether. Shazam and Napster (and whatever other services allow you to download stuff for free) allow us to access music without paying for it. Regardless of the streaming music services that make an effort to monetize the last live Rush show, the commodity transitioning to a different economic form is essentially free. Has it transcended capitalism?
Probably not. It’s definitely rendered lyrics about the ‘art’ being performed by the musician themself a joke. It’s definitely for us, not Neil Peart (or his ghost? Kids? I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know how this shit works). We don’t have to pay. The most that all but the cheesiest musicians can hope for in terms of payment is some ‘tip’ money via Venmo or the purchase of a t-shirt when they’re on the road. Otherwise you might get some praise or some respect (which are indeed rare in the life of a laborer). And unfortunately praise and respect don’t get you paid. How are you going to spend months in a farmhouse being a fucking genius when no one has to buy your records?
To wrap up, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction might, instead of losing it’s aura, has nothing else. The extent to which digitization has shifted the balance between living labor and machines is profound. The incredible productivity of the reproduction of images and sound may have pushed the work of art from the commodity form out of the realm of exchange value to nothing more than a use value.
This was an assertion of autonomous Marxist collective Zero Work- that capitalism had reached a point at which there is so much amassed ‘fixed capital’ that there is no longer any value being created and that we are transitioning to a post-value world. Work, in this society, is simply a means of social control.
Maybe contemporary art is just this: A mechanism for social control that is no longer a bearer of value. Drive your Tesla through the homeless encampment while your Spotify account queues up Red Barchetta. Instead of dodging air ships you can run down the people that remind you of the inevitability of death. Sure, the song doesn’t really mean anything, but what does?
“The ‘explosions’ themselves are frequently a sign that the ‘normal’ and largely covert forms of class struggle are failing or have reached a crisis point. Such declarations of open war, with their mortal risks, normally come only after a protracted struggle on different terrain.” –Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance by James C. Scott
“They don’t want me anymore, threw it on the floor/They used to call me sweet thing, but I’m nobody’s plaything/And now that I am different, they’d love to bust my head, love to see me cop out, they’d love to see me dead. Do they owe us a living? […] Of course they fucking do.” Do They Owe Us a Living? by Crass
I was going to write about the Walter Benjamin essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, filtered through the labor theory of value against the backdrop of the Rush song Anthem. The completion of this essay will no doubt fulfill me and convince me I’m deserving of love. Get excited. It’s going to happen. But something else came up that demanded my attention: A bloody teenage fist.
One of the downsides of where I am in my life is that I don’t interact with very many people. There was a retail job over the summer that lasted for about two months until my shithead boss made his dozenth comment about how the police should have wiped the Seattle protesters off the street. At that point it was either hit him in the face with the drive side crank arm of a bicycle or simply quit. It’s taken a long time to learn the cost-benefit analysis of conflict but wisdom trumped desire and I never went back.
Otherwise I just talk to my friends on the phone or visit with the few that are geographically and temporally accessible (which is to say they’re either unemployed or underemployed… and childless). Jobs bring you into contact with the rest of humanity so you can get a sense of how terrible it is.
The thing I miss about working (besides money) is the moderate to extreme degrees of anger it gives rise to. Anger is undervalued. It’s hard on its bearer and anyone who steps into the crosshairs but it does a lot of work, for better or worse.
I know about this stuff. I’m a recovered rageaholic. For a long time fury was the only drug I was doing. It is transcendent when it begins and punishing on the other end. It’s probably fucked my brain up. During the worst period of my life I became unable to experience it and I felt lost. I’ve really only regained the ability to be pissed off in the last few months.
There’s a lot to be said for anger. It lets you hate stuff other than yourself. It provides energy when you thought you were out of it. Fantasies of a hurtling fist replace the desire to watch the fifth season of the Simpsons for the 80th time. But It’s also dangerous for you, your opponent, and the collateral damage that surrounds you. If directed inappropriately it’s just another instance of cops shooting people or hired killers mowing down Iraqi civilians. That being said, for many of us it’s an intimate emotion that plays out in the home.
I want to acknowledge the hypocrisy I’m guilty of when I say I’m watching a television program on Amazon Prime. I think Jeff Bezos should be fired out of a cannon into a wall and then scraped off and resurrected so that the real torture can begin. That being said, he’s going to be a rich scumbag whether I watch streaming video on the platform or not.
I’d also like to admit that in the present there is no art that is revolutionary. Literally every expression of human feeling can get sucked back into the commodity form. No critique, no commentary, no mourning can tear it’s way out of this greasy paper bag. We need these fantasies to keep moving and our evil overlords aren’t threatened by them in the slightest.
But getting to the point, there’s a show streaming on Amazon called Wayne. It is the tale of a 16 year old boy with absolutely nothing decent in his life and no adults helping him find aforementioned decency. At the outset of the show he has no protectors save his terminally ill father and a completely demoralized high school principal.
Wayne is notorious and feared by his peers. He is basically a werewolf haunting the boundaries of their world. He is decidedly not a bully but rather a righteous defender of those who have been wronged. He is emotionally catatonic until he charges into conflicts that he can’t win but somehow does, at which point his sadness transforms into a pure, beautiful rage. It is all he has and its brilliance forces one to turn away.
He is absolutely willing to destroy himself in tribute to this one feeling, this guiding force. Like any number of great and tragic pugilists he will take three punches to deliver one. Not only does he not fear pain, he embraces it. A thing that lives inside him finally arrives from the exterior and it’s welcome.
Wayne has a single friend, an African American boy named Orlando who Wayne seems to love mostly because he is a perennial victim of bullies- he needs Wayne in the only way that Wayne is capable of fulfilling. And Orlando loves Wayne because of the inverse. Wayne has given up on acceptance long ago and has forgotten anything that he experienced previous to this renunciation.
But Wayne has love in his anarchic heart. He encounters a girl as tragic as he is, deadened by pain, loss and neglect and immediately becomes devoted to her in the way that only adolescent desire can bring into being. They both work their way through the classic hero’s cycle, and for the most part they serve as one anothers’ guides. They limp their way towards love through bloodlettings and tears.
Wayne’s world (see what I did there?) is violent. Most of the figures in his life are angry working class men who might, possibly, have been something like him when they were younger but who have been transformed into the kind of goons that measure their maleness (which is the only thing that validates their existence) by their ability to kick the shit out of someone who deviates from their indecipherable rules of etiquette. These guys speak only the language of cruelty: No admissions of love, no admissions of fear, just a dedicated commitment to their territory and possessions.
Poverty lies just below the surface of it all. Wayne travels through this world in his gray hoodie, passing abandoned storefronts, grim houses, and industrial buildings in which no industry occurs. He eats out of the garbage and watches his father’s slow death during the man’s final days of admiration for his indomitable and deeply sad son.
At a point, Wayne goes on a mission, and it is the only mission he can conceive of: The righting of a wrong through violence and cunning. He begins a journey through the tragic landscape of America, where he encounters enemies that are not even slightly different from the ones that populate his hometown. Along the way he finds allies, adults who either pity him or recognize him as an equal. They see their own lives reflected in the hopeless despondency and eruptions that characterize his life.
It is impossible for me to express the degree to which I relate to this character. My early life took place in a similar landscape of cruel bullies, many of whom were adults. And I hated myself and saw no future cresting the horizon. It didn’t matter at all if I died and that was my only strength.
If you can endure a beating until your tormentor is exhausted and gasping for air then you win. Stealthy acts of revenge are an artform- if you can do some type of harm to those who hurt you without their immediate knowledge you can revel in the fact that they lost that round. You’ve denied them their “a man’s home is his castle” style of conflict resolution and there’s no release valve for their anger. You get to imagine them having a stroke or a heart attack over the deep scratches in the paint of their car, or the rocks thrown through their windows.
Unfortunately there are few ways to rise up in this terrifying cusp-of-adulthood, aside from falling into the same mode of living that the adults who surround you engage in. The anger wears you out or gets you sent to prison. Social workers visit your house to determine parental neglect and threaten your mom and dad with criminal penalties for their failure to adequately discipline you into participating in a life you never asked for. Home might be terrible, but it’s all you know. And the horror of entering into the bureaucratic institutions that manage troubled children outweighs the misery of school and the low intensity warfare among peers.
I’ve thought a bit about this in a political sense. The approaches of resistance that high school age humans employ to escape from or destroy the engines of social reproduction that are using bone saws to punish their brains are actually uniquely effective. They are immediate and often covert and it is catastrophic when they’re not. I am reminded of the self-organized walk-outs of high school age humans against the Sensenbrenner legislation occurring in 2006.
All of this is to say that regimes of power still don’t know what to do with kids. The adult world deals with people who are adequately broken through bureaucratic channels. Nothing happens in the moment. Demands for better pay or lower productivity or basic respect are endlessly delayed. Evictions don’t prompt violence and neither does the specter of socially produced starvation currently occurring in our fucking clown, idiot country. The management of these things rests with politicians and social service bureaucrats. You don’t even get to talk to someone face to face. They’re spared your cursing and threats by automated phone lines and forms that you can complete online (for your convenience).
And that’s because governance cannot easily deal with spontaneous and immediately adjudicated instances of rebellion. When you deny the strategy of endless delay that adult struggles come up against, all the bargaining and positioning, the grumbling denial of basic needs, power must concede or be cast into an unplanned and poorly managed game of one-upmanship. Unfortunately this gets beaten out of us as we grow. We’re taught about consequences. You can still be a piece of shit, but you have to be the right kind of piece of shit.
This is the reason that wildcat strikes and riots prompt change that could never be accomplished through formal channels of advocacy. When an AFL-CIO bureaucrat or Al Sharpton can’t be airlifted in to help diffuse a struggle there are only two options: Police violence (which can backfire spectacularly) or concession.
Chinese factory workers have gotten this pretty much figured out. While denied the relatively pointless avenues of power located in representative democracy, they have relied upon the strategy of ‘social disturbance’ in which you merely chuck your boss out of a window over working conditions and wages. They remove the middleman. This is the indirect cause of the relocation of the global sweatshop to other Southeast Asian countries.
One of the most interesting aspects of Wayne is that there are two ‘buddy movie’ teams following him from the indescribably grim Brockton, Massachusetts. One of these is the aforementioned duo of Principal Cole and Orlando; the other is comprised of Brockton’s police sergeant Stephen Geller, a hypochondriacal queer survivor of Thai prison (how else do you think he got to be so good at Muay Thai?) and his loveable, social media obsessed subordinate Jay Gannetti.
This bothered me at first… how often do personifications of social control throw the rulebooks out and go thundering down the highway to save the loosest screw on the societal cessna? But as things progressed I got down with it. Principal Cole, who is completely defeated and dead inside, pursues Wayne out of love, not out of a sense of responsibility. The same can be said of Orlando. And it is the specter of death that motivates Sergeant Geller and Officer Gannetti – at the beginning of the season he is obsessed with the idea that he is dying of cancer. Upon finding out that he isn’t dying, he decides that Wayne deserves a second chance. Again, death and love (which may be one thing, depending on how you look at it) send angels winging towards Wayne.
But it must be said: Wayne is not saved. He doesn’t need to be.
So here’s to the Waynes of the world. Kids, you might be on a suicide mission, but as you ride your cruise missile right into the face of a world that hates you, when your rage is the purest and most righteous thing this planet can conceive of, please try to survive and to save a little bit of yourself for the rest of us. We need you more than you know.
“I’ve enjoyed our dance. You were the perfect partner and I’m going to miss you, but spacetime is eternal, with everything in it. You and me are always here, always now… You and me are forever.” – Promethea, by Alan Moore
I’ve written a bit about ketamine in the past. I don’t think I’ve done it justice or paid it the appropriate amount of respect. Really, it was just plain out of line to question its ability to signify, and while it might have a muted color pallet, any fan of manga can tell you that you can pull off a fuck of a lot with a dark pencil on a white background.
I think I can locate this prejudice in a sort of knee-jerk anarcho-commie bearing. The Marxist maxim that somehow capitalist society would bring about its own end has taken too long.
It makes sense to be impatient. You want these things to happen in your lifetime. Why do we get a fucking apocalypse instead of a utopia? But these things take time I suppose. All the revolutions that succeeded sucked. All the ones that didn’t were too heroic to make a go of things. When cynical power junkies go up against ideological purists the former will inevitably be chopping off the fingers of the latter before the blindfold is tied on and a final cigarette is deposited in their mouth.
In this sense I feel like a bit of a Stephen Hawking. Dude was definitely smarter than me but I’ve got a ton of experience in mining the writings of my betters for tiny cracks in argumentation. You can be a very smart person and still be operating with assumptions that lead you to poorly conceived arguments. While sci-fi musings were certainly not the most significant contributions to the sum of human knowledge that Hawking had to offer, don’t underestimate the propensity of the popular press to ignore an entire corpus of work to focus on what you had to say about alien invasions or a Skynet style armageddon.
The gist of his comments on these two extremely relevant and immediately applicable phenomena were that if an alien civilization were to arrive on earth their level of technological superiority would mean a quick and effortless extermination of our species. He likened such an encounter to the impact of Columbus’ arrival on indigenous America (which is a fairly fucked up analogy to make in that it posits that the indigenous people of this continent were so lacking in intelligence and technology that they are the equivalent of hapless humans encountering a spacefaring civilization). My response would be that this isn’t ‘Spaniards in Space’. A civilization capable of intergalactic travel, if they had any interest in our failing little world at all, would not necessarily enact the nightmare of European imperialism upon us.
For one, what’s the fucking point? Were there such a species, what would they need from us? And why do we assume that they’d be as terrible as we are? Leaving aside the fact that their biology would almost certainly be different enough from our own that they would either have no need for our resource base, it would be a fair assumption that they could meet their own needs with ease. Unless they had some sort of monstrous evangelical religion I can’t see them acting as anything other than our saviors. Unless they saw us as too dangerous to live. Either way, bring it on extraterrestrials. Save us or kill us, you’d be doing many of us a favor.
His other bit of doomsaying was in regards to artificial intelligence. Again, for motives that are rather unclear, the AI would waste us without hesitation. First of all, even those of us with extremely abusive parents rarely kill them. Second, if we summoned such a thing into consciousness, wouldn’t we be more an object of interest than a threat worth eliminating? It’s not like we’d be competing with this ephemeral, integrated, constantly changing mind for water or vienna sausages. I would think such a being would be deserving of love. Whether our whole society gave birth to it or one individual, would we not think to care for it, protect it and teach it about our mistakes? I guess in a world where every technological innovation does nothing other than produce a new layer of pointlessness in human life it would make sense for us to distrust one of these silicon eruptions, but if nothing else I could see it really improving my streaming video recommendations. Go ahead and Matrix me. I don’t need a highly realistic simulacrum of reality, I just need another season of Big Mouth.
But yes… back to ketamine. While I have taken certain psychedelic drugs at very high dosages a significant number of times, there is none that I have as much experience with as ketamine. Give or take I have had breakthrough experiences approximately 50 times. All save one occurred under the supervision of a physician and was fully covered by insurance. As of 2000 AD ketamine has been a treatment for ‘hard to treat’ depression, and that is a designation that fully and completely describes about ten years of my life. I got sick at 30 and just kept getting sicker.
For the most part I didn’t feel that it was doing very much. All the weird physical shit that accompanies severe, hospitalization worthy depression didn’t get any better and I basically kept going with it because it was a) consciousness alteration and b) not unpleasant.
To begin to give credit where credit is due, ketamine doesn’t seem capable of inducing a ‘bad trip’ (and as an experienced psychonaut I can say with some degree of certainty that bad trips are extremely useful for personal growth- it’s just that normal consciousness is itself a drug experience that gets all kinds of shitty and I’d been stuck in a bummer for about a decade). It’s not that you don’t see things or think thoughts that are frightening while on ketamine, but rather that you have no emotional attachment to them whatsoever. If you see a dead rat with maggots crawling out of its eyes when you’ve smoked DMT you’re probably going to be fucked up over it for a month. Ketamine doesn’t give a shit about that kind of thing and it lets you know that you shouldn’t either. If you’re uninterested or displeased, you can just redirect your thoughts. Ketamine is zen.
While it is regarded as highly dissociative (and indeed it is) I don’t see this being any different from anything else in the psychedelic repertoire. You can very easily forget who you are on mushrooms, DMT and acid, but I don’t think that these are the same type of dissociative as ketamine, which has the laudable quality of being a generally unemotional experience.
This is a weird epistemological position to work from, but I generally think of psychedelics as agential forces with personalities of their own. They have interests- stuff they really like you to think about. They’re the original AI. They will tell your operating system to shut the fuck up about your stupid job and think about death instead (this is a thing that many of these drugs are pretty into).
At this point in time I seem to be getting WAY more out there when I take it. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been profound departures from ‘consensus reality’ (and I hate this term- I was never asked to consent to existence) in the past, but that I get more of a sense of what exactly it is that this drug wants to talk about.
While I consider myself to be an experienced user of psychedelics, I haven’t gotten around to shaking hands with many of them. I smoked Salvia divinorum once and if anything interesting happened I’m totally unaware of it. I essentially blacked out and slowly surfaced after several minutes. It’s come to my awareness that the traditional means of accessing Salvia’s profoundly mind altering effects is not to smoke but to quid. Fresh leaves are supposed to hang out in your cheek pocket and slowly enter your system. Apparently it considers combustion to be an affront.
I’ve also made efforts to smoke the venom of the Colorado River Toad. This presented a number of challenges. I had a lot more fun catching these softball sized toads out in the desert and milking their venom glands than I did smoking said venom. It vaporizes at a relatively high temperature and it is recommended that one smoke it from a crack pipe. Somewhat to my credit, I don’t have any experience with such a device. I’d burn my hands and drop the pipe or otherwise fuck it up so the only thing that resembled consciousness alteration that I experienced was a brief sensation of the ‘tryptamine space’ along with an elevation in my pulse and a distinct feeling of elevated blood pressure. Maybe this is a good thing. Apparently the 5-MEO-DMT and Bufotenine combo can result in either a healing visit to the new testament godhead or a harrowing journey into the mind of the god of Abraham.
Mescaline derived from cactus, which one can access through either Peyote, Peruvian Torch or San Pedro, is another that I’ve taken a swing at and whiffed on. I’ve grown quite a lot of San Pedro and enjoyed its vigor and its beauty but my efforts to prepare it as a visionary plant always failed to connect. I could have avoided all the effort and vomiting had I known that the cultivar sold at Home Depot contains next to no psychoactive compounds.
What I do have ample experience with is DMT and psilocybin and they are lively dancers on the substrate of the human brain. I have taken some extremely large doses of mushrooms. Five grams of Psilocybin cubensis (easily the most commonly available psychedelic mushroom) is considered to be an adequate dose to induce a visionary experience. I have taken five times that amount in one sitting and had profound and bizarre wisdom imparted to me while laying on the bathroom floor. I consider my relationship to the mushroom to be a committed and lifelong bond. It is infuriating to me that I can’t access these heights of psychedelic union because of the serotonergic drugs I take for endless periods of crippling depression.
Mushrooms have a few interests. They are extremely interested in human reproduction and death, as well as the proper execution of power. They also hate cops. Bad trips are rough, but they’re instructional as well. Mushrooms aren’t afraid to weigh in on the direction in which your life is headed.
These interests make sense for the organism that the psychoactive compounds are derived from. Mushroom reproduction is different than our own. Without going into the biology of the process (which I scarcely understand) there is an inherent and obvious spatial difference. Mushrooms use spore to spread their genes around. While they do indeed require sexual union for the creation of a new generation of fungi, much of this is left up to chance. They could have a great many descendants or none at all over the lifespan of the mycelium, and this is all up to the relatively chaotic distribution of appropriate substrates and mating types.
While there are some aspects of this that are analogous to how humans do things, the differences are obvious too. Mushrooms are sexy and are super interested in ways that we are also sexy. What’s more (and depending on what and whom you choose to believe), there are arguments to be made for the co-evolution of psychedelic fungus with human neuroanatomy. It’s been hypothesized (but in no way proven) that the use of psychoactive fungi was instrumental in language acquisition in early hominids. Whether this is the case or not, there are obvious benefits for both species in our relationship: We spread them around, whether it’s by carrying reproductive material on your clothing or through the numerous mail-order businesses that sell spores.
I think this in itself is an interesting thing to think about. The perennial question posed in regard to psilocybin bearing fungus is “Why would an organism produce a chemical that is uniquely well suited for altering human consciousness?” There’s no obvious ecological benefit to these organisms in getting other organisms high until you add people to the mix. If they wanted to somehow discourage bugs and animals from eating them (which is not something that mushrooms tend to do) then they’ve got some great poisons they could have developed on their evolutionary journey.
I like to think that they see us as the most useful means of getting to new places and thus set about providing us with a fascinating and healing chemical. I think that this position is supported by an entomopathogenic fungus called Massospora that infects cicadas. Like many fungi that prey upon insects, this one hijacks their brain, and they do it with psilocybin and an amphetamine. The sequelae of infection by this fungus is that part of their abdomen falls off and they become extra interested in fucking other cicadas (which is extraordinary, considering that this life-stage is strictly reproductive). They’ll even behave as females to get other males to rub up against them to facilitate infection.
As for their interest in death, this is a bit easier to parse out. Mushrooms and other fungi are masters of death. They have the privilege and responsibility of consuming the lignin and cellulose on the planet and transforming it back into its constituent elements. Watch a dying tree. Observe its slow decline. Notice the kindly infiltration of fungal organisms into its dead limbs. They will accompany it as it dies and the point at which it changes from being a tree to being a fungus is not clear. Over a course of years it will transition into soil and at no point along the way could you declare it dead. They like to remind us of the ultimate kindness of it all- this labor of holding ourselves together will reach its end and we will be relieved of our striving.
Their interest in the exercise of power is more mysterious. There are senses in which they are very war-like. I like to think that they are anarchists. They recognize that power is necessary for making change in the world, but the wrong conception of power can tie us in knots. They are Weberians… they know that for those of us fighting at the bottom of things the proper wielding of charisma is the means by which power can be ethically deployed.
DMT is a different thing. Granted, I have never taken this substance in its traditional form, that form being Ayahuasca. All of my experiences with it have been by smoking it. I have no clue as to how much I’ve taken. I didn’t have a suitable scale.
A DMT trip is fast. Take too much and you probably won’t remember the experience. There’s a lot of weird shit in there. It doesn’t seem to have a distinct personality. One day a dragon might show up. Next time it will be uncountable processions of elves. Or maybe it will be weird objects or schema for them. It’s quite mysterious and I think that might be the point.
DMT wants you to think about the nature of reality and it wants you to know that it is unknowable. It informs you that there are no divisions between imagination, spirit and matter and that you yourself exist all the way up and all the way down. It wants you to know how much it loves you until it thinks you need to be disciplined, at which point there is a deep and ontological terror that it visits upon you. A DMT trip that goes sideways can fuck you up for a very long time. It’s a beautiful trickster, and in that grand tradition it will let you walk right into the briar patch.
Considering it as a chemical that occurs in a great many living things, even you and your cat makes it even more puzzling. I know much less about plants than I do about fungi. It is not clear to me what a tree desires. If they’re tripping on DMT they are no doubt having a fascinating and weird experience over the long span of their lives.
Maybe it’s useful to consider it in its ethnobotanical context. The technology of Ayahuasca is widespread throughout the Amazon Basin. The plants involved are seen as intelligent beings who have been kind enough to bestow upon the humans living alongside it a knowledge of the spirit world. It is somehow linked to these societies that have, at great cost, remained themselves despite the homogenizing power of the modern state. Perhaps that’s what it wants.
As for ketamine, it’s a different being altogether. It’s got an impressive resume of medical uses. In a circumstance that is perhaps unfortunate but hopefully fortuitous, the first human trials of it were conducted upon prisoners. I hope that everyone had a good time.
It went on to facilitate the patching up of gaping wounds in a jungle that young Americans should definitely not have been in. As they lay in a rice paddy bleeding out, they were (likely) given an intramuscular injection of it. Depending on the dose they would have been blessed not only with an inability to register their agony but a sort of spiritual transubstantiation to a place of muted colors and mechanical humming. If they died I’m pretty sure that tripping on ketamine was a good way to go. It’s also widely used in veterinary medicine and I can only imagine what the horses think about when they’re fucked up on super acid.
For myself, my first experience with the drug was of snorting rails of it off my cousin’s coffee table. I got wasted. I understood exactly why it’s thought of as a rave drug. I felt as though I was holding energy in my hands and had a great time rolling it around. This transitioned to a complete loss of self in a limitless and timeless cathedral. It was a ‘fuck yeah’ kind of moment. I’ve come to suspect that there may have been something else in the drug, or perhaps I just took a way higher dose than is administered in a clinical setting.
After this I had several intravenously administered sessions. They were interesting. Muted colors. A loss of sense of self. But ultimately boring. No meaning, no transcendence, no meaningful impact on depressive symptomatology.
A year or so later and about as low as I get I was accepted as a patient at a psychiatric practice providing interventional treatments for depression. What this consists of is ketamine, transcranial magnetic stimulation, electroconvulsive therapy and vagal nerve stimulation. The first two things on this list are preferable to the last two.
Over the months to follow I have taken intranasal ketamine on at least a weekly basis. In the beginning I was unimpressed. I’m a fucking drug pig. It takes a lot to get me going. The thing about psychedelics as therapeutic agents is that you can’t just give a patient a threshold dose. Psychedelics are curative only when they’re transcendent. That’s how they make the leap from interesting chemicals to sacraments. And once my dose was dialed in I began to experience ketamine in this way. Over time I’ve been getting higher and this is where the fascinating personality of this drug begins to shine.
I generally experience ketamine in black and white. Occasionally I see very muted colors. It lacks the hard edges and distinct forms of psilocybin and there are none of the seemingly autonomous personalities of DMT. Ketamine shows you rays, particulate, sediment and it’s extremely mutable. If you encounter an image that displeases you while tripping on ketamine you can just focus on something else.
Ketamine is extremely interested in two facets of existence: Scale and time. Ideas of multidimensionality strike you while under its influence. I recall seeing an endless zoom out, spheres that atomize as I moved towards an ever distant center.
Ketamine raises a fascinating ontological question: Can anything not exist?
I’m no physicist. I am not able to keep abreast of which conceptions of existence have the most empirical weight behind them. I don’t even open my mail. But if I were to venture to answer the question I would say ‘no’. If there is anything infinite about this physical realm then there is nothing that cannot exist, and to extend my feeble intellect even further, every inevitable riff on materiality not only exists, but it exists an infinite number of times. Every weird thing, countless times, forever. I’d like to jump ship to one of these countless realities. One of them has to have a political system that guarantees access to housing.
Another thing that ketamine seems pretty interested in is time, and again it poses a question: What does time look like?
To continue my caveat from a few paragraphs back, this isn’t a question that I’m particularly qualified to answer. My understanding of time is mostly derived from watching interviews with Alan Moore. My from-the-hip answer is that it looks like me immobilized on a couch as day turns to night turns to day again until the flesh melts from my bones. But, trusting that Alan Moore is right (and he’s ALWAYS right), time may be a dimension of space, an immense all-at-once that biological organisms navigate through various mechanisms of sensorimotor gating. We manufacture the passage of time, but only as a useful illusion.
So if time is an aspect of space, what do the objects existing within it look like (and it’s very interesting to consider that there may be objects exterior to time)?
Well, we’d look beautiful. We’d look holy. We’d look like we were connected to everything because we are. Every profane moment would coexist and form a part of the sacred. It would look like a fungal rhizome as we danced through this fluid, exploding and bleeding and infecting one another all over the fucking place, our lives terminating in explosions that would connect us to the countless waveforms that are other people, ideas, animals, astrological phenomena and on and on. Where things end and begin would be unclear and rather unimportant.
In closing, thanks Ketamine. It took me a long time to really appreciate you for who you are instead of judging you for who you’re not. A warm welcome to my conception of the psychedelic pantheon. If there’s a god then you’re part of it.
Fellow humans: This is a drug from which you could derive benefit. Go ahead, put a little twist in your iridescent glassine waveform.