Bureaucracy and Psychedelia

I wonder what will become of psychedelia. After a lifetime’s banishment from the clinic the substances we care for, and often venerate, have returned to the framework of grant funding and legal sanction. I don’t think this is a thing to fight but I do think it’s a thing to think about.

I’m grateful. Seeing how these substances operate in the brain, however limited the experimental apparatus is, verifies the radical alterations that can come about by way of numbers and pictures. We can stare at the relics of gnostic experience and codify the realization that when everything else is gone, love remains.

Thus, the introduction of psilocybin to the regulated space of the clinic makes it at once more accessible and less mystical. In some senses the barriers to entry will be lifted.

It is possible, even likely, that patients in formal medical settings will have an experience dissimilar from those of the freaks and weirdos of drug nerd culture. They will receive a capsule or some other vehicle for a chemical many steps removed from the organism that provides the blueprint. Dosing will be reliable, no longer prey to the unpredictability of indole content summoned by a living thing. They will lie down. A social worker will sit there for hours. A med tech will likely check their blood pressure, not because of any dangerousness posed by the substance, but out of the danger posed by litigation.

One of the curious things about the new paradigm will be the erasure of the chemical baeocystin. Though it appears in far smaller concentrations than psilocybin in the mushroom, it moderates the experience, playing far up the fretboard over psilocybin’s heavy percussion.

I am reminded of a passage encountered in a biography of Maria Sabina, patron saint of psilocybin, martyred by Americans in their thirst for recognition: After her encounters with Anglos she no longer understood the language of the mushroom. It ceased speaking in her indigenous language and began speaking English. (One of the more interesting things about this is that in addition to Alvaro Estrada, R. Gordon Wasson, the man most responsible for the theft of her skill, participated in the writing of the book in which this statement is recorded).

There’s an ethical concern I have, or perhaps just an aesthetic consideration, and it relates to the comment above. We can’t pretend to know the nature and span of human interaction with the organisms that give rise to these medicines, but we can assume it is a long one. It is a very important and precious beckoning between two species. I don’t want humanity to have learned fungi’s most precious technology (this being their chemical language) and then cast them aside. But I might not need to worry about this.

For all the promise of psilocybin we can safely guarantee that it will be subject to rigorous gatekeeping. Medicine is suspicious of anything it prescribes that a person might enjoy. We still operate in a paradigm where cures can’t be pleasant and for many reasons the use of antidepressants will persist, promising flaccid penises and weight gain rather than a four hour experience of boundlessness.

And the ubiquitousness of SSRIs and SNRIs will pose a serious problem for the use of psilocybin in the clinic- they severely curtail the ability to experience the therapeutic benefits of and they’re profoundly difficult to withdraw from. Even for those who experience no relief from psychiatric medication the withdrawal can be miserable. It will be a double-bind: Withdraw and get more depressed to use a treatment that will hopefully make a person less depressed.

Anyone who follows what I have to say, and there aren’t many, will have been reminded ad nauseum, of the fact that I have been taking intranasal esketamine for over a year. It’s fine. It’s been helpful. But it has none of the pleasure or mystery of mushrooms, none of the interactivity. It is like watching a movie that can be terrible or beautiful depending on a number of factors.

I talk with the psychiatrists in the clinic about the changing paradigm. A doctor I don’t interact with frequently was administering last week. I asked her what she thought the future held for psychedelic therapy and she answered that she couldn’t imagine the hospital administrators that she was familiar with being alright with any treatment that required four hours of supervision. It’s cheaper to give people pills and it’s even cheaper not to see them at all. Insurance loves psychiatric medication. It qualifies as care (even if it doesn’t work) and costs very little to administer.

I wonder how this will play out. I can see a number of broad scenarios. The first of these is that psilocybin will be relegated to the same paradigm as ketamine: It will be ostensibly legal, but owing to a reluctance on the part of insurance providers to approve claims for its use it will become a boutique therapy for practices that charge desperate people exorbitant fees. Those who need it most won’t have access, and those who can afford it won’t be able to afford it after a single session. Thus, the grey and black market sale, trading and gifting of mushrooms will expand.

Another scenario, and I see this playing out in the few cities and states that have decriminalized the substance, is a proliferation of integration therapists who assist experiencers with aligning the lessons and feelings encountered in a psilocybin experience with their passage through ‘consensus reality’. (As stated in so many other pieces of writing, I hate this term. None of us have been given any say in the construction of reality.)

I understand and have sympathy for the people already delivering this service. Work is terrible, and some work is more terrible. Making your living untangling the mystery of a life-changing experience is far preferable to working at Starbucks. However, if this becomes the therapeutic paradigm for psychedelics, another gross dynamic emerges in which ranks of professionals (who can afford a formal education) will march into psychedelia with their guns aimed at individual practices and community settings.

In our society therapy is administered by credentialed practitioners, who are either psychologists or social workers (who take their modalities from psychology as a discipline). While there are exceptions, on the whole I find psychology to be a quackish scam oriented around confirming the pre-existing ideological positions of the researcher. Should we arrive at a time where our already existing cadre of professional helpers brand themselves as ‘psychedelic therapists’ we will arrive at another professionalization that pulls psilocybin the ‘quasi-commodity’ firmly into the accounting of formal, legible economics.

My own biases are written all over these concerns. While plenty of people derive benefits from therapy, I feel strongly that a right to housing, food and education would do a great deal more to mitigate suffering than a lifetime on a couch. To internalize the misery of the world through a repetitive framework of acceptance does nothing. It does less than nothing. It is harmful.

Despite my concerns regarding the emerging paradigm, I have to acknowledge that the regulation of psychedelics has always been inevitable and omnipresent. But we have to demarcate what regulation means. After so many hundreds of years of all-encompassing bureaucracy the citizens of planet earth expect that it entails licensure, litigation, criminal justice and the application of metrics at every point along the way.

In response to this, I reply (to myself) that a social regulation of psychoactive substances has always existed in the form of taboo, shunning, oral tradition and gossip. We are used to not thinking about this as a form of regulation. We are so used to being told what to do that we assume that humanity will devolve into a depraved and violent free-for-all in the absence of someone who will tell us ‘no’ and kill us if we don’t listen. Psychoactive substances have always had ‘rules’ to mark the boundaries of acceptable use.

While we may not get a choice, I would vastly prefer a well conceived and widely understood ‘social’ regulation of psychedelics on the part of users, producers and practitioners to the framed diplomas and requisite credit hours that will come into play with the introduction of these substances into formal medical practice.

For those who consider the mushroom to be sacred, it is worth considering that the religion of our era is Cartesian science, but as with so many faiths, we are lapsed Cartesians. We cheat all the time, calling on it when it’s useful and pushing it aside when it’s not. Many of us who are involved in psychedelia perform a sort of weird Catholicism in which we allow our hopes, dreams and fully formed ideas into this model. We love the neurological investigation of the mushroom experience just as much as we like to think about its spiritual significance. These modes of thought aren’t incompatible or mutually exclusive, though they are contradictory.

So we approach a hybrid moment in which medical practice, good time party drug and religious sacrament co-exist, and for now I think that’s about as good as it’s going to get.

The Chairman Mao Exhibit at Jurassic Park

I recall an event that occurred almost twenty years ago, in which Harry Cleaver, a notable figure in autonomist Marxism, called New York ‘the land of dinosaurs’. What he meant was that leftist currents that had died out years ago were still viable here. I don’t think anyone could foresee that the internet would provide a Jurassic Park for so many unfortunate ideologies.

I am used to Saturday travel taking me past two dinosaur exhibits. On the North side of the road there has been an ongoing gathering in support of the Trumpian flavor of right wing idiocy. On the South side is a peace and justice rally for most things vaguely to the left. The lefties have a better spot, being positioned next to a bagel store, which provides both bagels and a toilet. I don’t know where the Trumpists go to the bathroom. In each other’s mouths?

The evolution of this dynamic is unclear to me, but the peace and justice folks have been around longer. It is very likely the case that the Trump people showed up to hate them from across the street.

The number of people in attendance varies, and the Trump people seem to have run out of steam following his defeat in the 2020 election. I can blame them for a great many things, but a lack of desire to wave signs at a generally uninterested public isn’t one of them. Honestly, I miss them. It’s nice to have people to throw garbage at. The vehicle gets cleaner and, hopefully, they get just a tiny bit more demoralized and paranoid.

There was a new phenomenon on the road this week. A group of people were tabling outside of the post office and they had a number of confusing banners. One said ‘Crush the Green New Deal’, another said ‘Don’t Blame Russia and China’, and the most perplexing one advocated for the construction of new nuclear power plants. And then I saw, in the lower right hand corner of a banner, that they were associated with Lyndon Larouche. One of the more confusing things about this is that Lyndon Larouche is dead.

Someone being dead doesn’t necessarily mean that the politics they espouse die with them. People call themselves Marxists, Trotskyists, Maoists, Leninists… on and on and on. Christian is a thing, so let’s throw that in there too. I’ve recently begun to engage with Facebook again, and in a profound error of reasoning, joined the ‘Marxists Discussion Group’, and it is shockingly and alarmingly stupid.

My bad, really. I should have considered the name more closely, though it’s possible to misread it no matter what. Instead of an engagement with the thought and writings of Marx, it is an engagement with the thought and writings of people who identify as Marxists, and we’re not talking about contemporary theorists, who may or may not be dumb. We’re talking about the unsavory characters, like Stalin, Mao, Lenin and so on.

Participants have very weird questions which almost always devolve into arguments about the merits of autocratic socialist regimes. Someone will begin a thread by asking something painfully stupid, like ‘In a country where commodities are abundant is it necessary to have a dictatorship of the proletariat?’ (which is like asking what the right saddle for a pegasus is, but with more violence implied) which will somehow devolve even further into an argument about whether the deaths attributed to Stalin are propaganda or not. This is a baffling argument. If Hitler only killed half of the people attributed to the holocaust it doesn’t really change anything, except people will know with certainty that you are dangerous and should not be asked to take care of their pets when they go away for the weekend.

Initially I was just trolling, and then I realized that most of these people were impervious to mockery, which they might have trained for or they might just naturally be gifted with. Either way, lucky them. Even if the fantasy you live in involves eating white fish and making people dig their own graves, it still provides you with scaffolding for your internal world.

I see parallels between this and the Larouchians on the side of the road.

Lyndon Larouche was a fucking lunatic. And a predator. I accuse people of rank madness all the time so maybe it loses its impact, but really, I’m not crying wolf. With any cult leader it’s hard to separate out beliefs expressed that allow them to maintain power and beliefs expressed that were actual beliefs. If you’ve seen Wild, Wild Country his movement works along the same lines except without any promise of spiritual ascendance. Followers would turn over all of their money to the organization, be encouraged to engage in campaigns of harassment and direct violence against political opponents, and would undergo ‘therapy’ with Larouche intended to ‘destroy their egos’ (which always seems to be a theft- the cult leader holds onto the ego, no matter how shattered).

As well, there were always shadowy enemies waiting to kill Larouche, which provides a convenient way of creating a group identity. If the Queen of England (who is an international drug kingpin) is trying to have your leader assassinated then shit, you must be on to something.

This is not to say that assassinations of figures on the left weren’t occurring at the time, but rather that it’s relatively implausible that Henry Kissinger, Queen Elizabeth, the Communist Party USA and Nelson Rockefeller were the ones planning the assassination. Grand conspiracies are attractive to people who really want to believe something and don’t care if that thing is stupid.

The current iteration of the movement, operating mostly out of a political action committee, somehow survived the death of Larouche at the regrettably old age of 97, and has pulled hard right. They promulgate the common right wing conspiracies regarding election fraud in the 2020 election, as well as hewing to the line that Black Lives Matter and Antifa activists infiltrated and led the Capitol Riot on January 6, 2020. This is an odd place for an organization that began in the New Left of the 1960’s to end up, but then again, maybe not. They appear to mostly parasitize existing movements, drawing in the most deluded and sucking money out of them.

Their PAC is fascinating, and if you go to their website you can watch a woman who looks like Droopy Dog at an arraignment for possession of child pornography talk about pretty much the same shit that you can hear if you watch Tucker Carlson. But don’t click on their ‘contact’ link, because they download a file onto your computer. Fucking creeps.

Do I have a point to make? Perhaps it’s just that people are desperate for some kind of all-encompassing ideology that prescribes a concrete plan of action that will provide them with a path out of a present that is confusing and scary. Also, maybe it’s the case that people that are hateful are easily enlisted in histories that justify violence on a massive scale. Or, maybe it’s that people are dumb and they feel relieved when someone tells them what to do.

Whatever the case, dinosaurs roam the political landscape.

Cannabis and ‘The Fear’

For a long time I did no drugs, and then for no particular reason I started smoking weed and didn’t stop for about seven years. A family could have built a comfortable and aromatic house with the amount of weed I smoked.

At a certain point I developed a reaction to the substance that enthusiasts call “The Fear”. This is a sense of dread particular to cannabis smoking, in which a person is plagued by anxiety and terror. For me it has two distinct elements.

The first is that I become convinced that I have not so much gotten high as I have inaugurated an episode of drug induced psychosis that will persist for years. Cannabis people don’t usually like to hear that their drug can, for some, have serious mental health effects, but in a year and a half of working as a patient advocate at a large mental hospital I met several people who attributed their experience of psychosis to their first encounter with cannabis.

Mental health crises are many splendored things. It’s hard to get to the root of precipitating causes, but I think it’s important to center the sufferers experience. So, if they feel that smoking weed set the wheels in motion of the ruination of their life, it’s callous and uninteresting to ignore their assessment.

The second of these elements, and perhaps this is restricted to my experience, consists of a deep fear that my body will begin to operate autonomously of my will, and that it will do things that I abhor. It will become violent and I’ll be in the viewing room just watching a terrible thing happen and that this will ultimately be my fault.

Neither of these ever come to pass, but it’s a remarkably bad time.

Despite this, whenever I’m in too much proximity, I decide that all prior experience isn’t necessarily all future experience, which is a belief that is at once true and stupid. My efforts to dunk basketballs from over the rim have all ended in failure, and while some quirk of gravity might let me succeed at it tomorrow it’s not likely to happen.

All of this is to say that I was around a lot of cannabis in a permissive environment recently and I tried, once again, to dunk that ball. Predictably, I got paralyzed by anxiety, and in this state of anxiety I had an interesting reconciliation with cannabis.

One of the things I like about the drug is that I have a lot of ideas while under the influence. Some of them are stupid, some of them are interesting, and some are both stupid and interesting. Nonetheless, they seem cool.
I have been taking intranasal ketamine and esketamine for over a year. I have started narrating the experiences, in situ, and recording this narration. Originally I wanted to keep track of the sequence of different motifs and identify at which points did new stylizations of image emerge.

This has been a very striking instance of an attempt at measurement leading to a radical change in the phenomenon under consideration. My experiences very rapidly shifted from being rather dark and upsetting to being lucid and useful. As a drug person, this has been a validation of the ‘set and setting’ maxim. While the setting remains full of the sounds of typing, blood pressure cuffs inflating, and the rapid fire rapping of transcranial magnetic stimulation, the set is much different: I’m there to learn and I do.

So, in the middle of a panicked weed high I pulled myself towards paper and a pen and started writing. Not like I was creating a narrative, but in terms of putting all the odd thoughts on paper and fleshing them out. This did two wonderful things: It pulled me out of the punishing anxiety I had inflicted upon myself and it resulted in a bunch of neat ideas preserved for posterity.

But the most important realization was a clarification of the nature of cannabis as it relates to my brain.

I don’t like it anymore, which is a thing I always forget, and knowing myself, will always forget. But, the insertion of documentation into the experience moderates it. For me, cannabis has become a powerful but unpleasant psychedelic that I can consume with the knowledge that 1) I’m probably going to feel like shit and 2) that it’s extremely helpful in regard to creative difficulties.

In my weird conceptualization of drugs as distinct personages that express their agency in the gross folds of the human brain I think this establishes a respectful footing. It takes the drug from a flippant thing undertaken for pleasure (which it is for a great many people and that’s great) to a respectful experiencing of a novel intelligence.

Fullmetal Class War

I am a forty year old man here to tell you all about the political economy of an animated television program primarily marketed to adolescents. But my adolescence hasn’t ended in any significant way, so I’m perfect for this.

Since I’m neither Japanese nor a good researcher, there won’t be any sweeping discussions of a genre. What I know is that anime is a super popular form of storytelling largely adopted from weekly serialized stories called manga. I’m under the impression that the labor process involved in the production of either is completely insane, which may or may not be relevant to the rest of this post.

As a casual viewer, I don’t have a ton of generalizations that I can make about the medium. In terms of unifying themes, I’ve noticed a tendency to dwell on perseverance in the face of adversity; the characteristics of ethical leadership; and, above all things, friendship.

The friendship bit is my favorite, and it takes a number of forms.

For one, it is concerned with people’s ability to change. Not infrequently, a villain will make a sharp turn after an encounter with a protagonist and will begin questioning the experiences and desires that have drawn them into conflict. A few episodes later, they’ll do something surprising and out of character and end up best buds with the good guys.

Friendship also hinges on a character’s ability to persevere in the face of defeat. Circumstances that should very well defeat them are endured not because of an iron will but out of an iron love. Intense and deeply felt platonic relationships push heroes through despair, and if that’s not relevant to people surviving on service industry wages then I don’t know what is.

It’s not often that I see overtly political critiques playing out in the art form, but maybe I’m not looking hard enough. The most notable exception is Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Here’s a neat article regarding the program’s treatment of imperialism.

It’s a great story that deserves a wicked synopsis. I don’t know if I can pull that off.

The story takes place in Amestris, an expansionist nation ruled by a military dictatorship. This has been how things roll in Amestris for a long time- there’s no notable agitation occurring against the military government by its citizens.

The primary technology in this society is alchemy, which can reorganize matter into different shapes and compositions. There is a hard limit on this technology: Equivalent exchange. A person cannot make something out of nothing. If you have a brick you can change what the brick looks like, but you can’t make two bricks of the same size out of a single brick.

Alchemy has a single, towering taboo: Attempting to bring a dead person back to life.

While this science (and the characters insist that it is science, although it is almost indisputably magical) has tremendous potential for improving human life, it is largely utilized by the military government to wage expansionist wars, with alchemists serving as proxy weapons of mass destruction.

The chief protagonists (though there is a massive ensemble cast) are Edward and Alphonse Elric who, in the wake of the death of their mother, break alchemy’s chief taboo, initiating a gnostic experience in which they encounter an entity that claims to be, among other things, God. Edward loses his right arm and left leg in this exchange, while Alphonse loses his physical body altogether, with Edward anchoring his brother’s soul to a suit of armor.

The brothers commit to retrieving their bodies and set off in search of a philosopher’s stone, an item that allows for the violation of alchemy’s fundamental principle, equivalent exchange.

As a sofa Marxist, this term grabbed my attention. Capital’s early chapters deal with the problem of the exchange of commodities as a way of interrogating value in a capitalist economy. Marx problematizes exchange, offered as a ‘get out of jail free’ card into the present. Buy low, sell high is still a thing that’s bandied about as a natural law, but Marx ripped it apart in the latter half of the 19th century. If commodities are exchanged at their value, where does profit arise from? Price increases would lead to an unending inflationary spiral, so it can’t be the case that manipulations of price (at least in the long-term) would yield profit, and in the end, no capitalist would invest a dime without a chance to profit.

In response to this problematization, Marx asserts that profit does not arise from exchange (in the last instance), but instead from the production process. If a laborer works longer than the time that is socially necessary for his/her reproduction as a living thing in their society, the excess constitutes an unpaid transference of value that is realized (again, as a general tendency) by the capitalist as profit. Commodities are laden with expended, dead labor.

Late in the narrative arc of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the heroes discover a frightening fact: The science they employ to harness the energy of tectonic activity beneath their feet (again, Marx) is not as powerful as it should be. Something is drawing off a portion of this energy, and that something is the primary villain, a shadowy man who has no desires outside of realizing his own ultimate and final ambition. This figure occupies the role of the capitalist on the stage of value theory. He utilizes the exertions of others to increase his own power.

The philosopher’s stone that the protagonists seek speaks to the parallels even further. After a great deal of searching, Edward and Alphonse discover that philosopher’s stones can only be created out of living human beings, and their ability to amplify the power (and productivity) of alchemy requires that these people be condensed into a physical object.

This is roughly analogous to the role of machinery in value theory. In the Marxist paradigm, machines accrete value- they are assembled from materials that are ossified life energy of human beings, which is employed in the production process to amplify the productivity of living laborers. The philosopher’s stone is the steam engine in a steam-punk world.

There is surely more to say on these points, but it is worth redirecting to the ultimate victory of the protagonists: They beat the bad guys, which is wonderful, and they do it by banding together in a diverse and internationalist cadre of friends who have been manipulated, conquered, traumatized and disfigured by the machinations of a government that is, clandestinely, run by monster-qua-capitalist.

Ultimately this leads to a political and technical innovation in the wake of their victory: Down with equivalent exchange. Up with the friendship economy.

In the final episode Alphonse holds up his hand, showing ten human fingers, and states that they’re done with equivalent exchange. If someone gives you ten, you’re to give them back eleven, because they’re a part of you. The fundamental ethic of the training he and his brother received is finally realized: “One is all, all is one”.

So, yeah, you basically don’t have to watch the show now. I’ve explained literally every important thing, and probably ruined your ability to appreciate the sword fights and monsters. You’re welcome.

Reconciliation?

I have no idea how to credit this appropriately, but this is an apropos image, accessed at: http://www.atasite.org/2013/04/19/we-are-winning-dont-forget-short-works-by-jean-gabriel-periot/we-are-winning-a/

I don’t have many friends I get to see in person anymore. This is a post-vaccination statement. It doesn’t have anything to do with the specter of death posed by COVID.

I know a lot of people who were very afraid of contracting the virus, and for good reason. I was too, but only because it would turn me into a vector. I wouldn’t say I have a complete disregard for my own life, but more a shoulder shrugging fatalism. I’ve got ways I’d prefer to die and ways I wouldn’t and I’m aware that I really won’t get much choice in the end. It’s life that worries me. This isn’t an anti-vaccination thing. It’s just an expression of an ethos.

There are a few people who I saw consistently. I’m related to several of them. This doesn’t make them count any less. So, lucky for me, I had consistent hang-out time through a year of isolation.

One of my closer and more consistent people is a guy some years younger than me. When you come out of a subculture that doesn’t exist anymore you awaken to a social world that doesn’t make sense. It’s like a poorly fitted shirt. I wonder if people formerly in gangs or cults feel the same way.

So, this younger person and I have a similar point of origin. Same scene, years apart, same politics, years apart. We speak similarly. Our humour works, a sarcastic outrage expressing doom. So we hang around and talk about politics, ethics, and how fun it is to watch a right-winger get pulped in a UFC bout.

While our politics align, they arise in different eras. I was around for the emergence, brief ascendance and sad defeat of the anarchism of the ‘alter-globalization’ movement. That stuff was ancient history by the time he got involved.

It is my strong impression that in the present the Democratic Socialists of America serve as a net for an unending leftist diaspora. It’s a catch-all. There are other organizations, but this one is consistently present, engages in some concrete political work, and isn’t hostile to anti-capitalist or anti-authoritarian positions. I’m sure it has the same problems inherent to any political scene, this being an inability to develop a coherent strategy to force change.

I’m pretty sure we’re past the idea that we’ll get a revolutionary movement that defines a future utopia. I would, very sincerely, welcome such a thing, but after 25 years of utter and embarrassing failure I am of the opinion that organizations can only provide a framework to allow the insurrectionary impulses of the present to explode from. Razing a city accomplishes at least as much as getting a socialist elected to a city council seat. If anyone reading feels the need to argue this point, I’m more than happy to. In fact, I’ll be excited to be wrong.

This friend engaged in organizing with a DSA chapter for a time. It sounded worthwhile. They attempted tenant organizing, food distribution, the organization of a mutual aid network. All good things to do, whether they work or not. The downside of this is that organizations don’t have a sharp learning curve. Everybody bails. They get discouraged or have to pick up a second job or they have children, or… on and on. So the people who could troubleshoot or refine a strategy or tactic bail, leaving the more energetic and naive to figure things out.

So this was the conversation. There’s this sweet, enthusiastic and cluelessly optimistic guy who is embedded in the local chapter of DSA. I immediately feel the need to knock him down, if only in my own mind. I saw that I am embarrassed for him. He posts cringeworthy, hopeful stuff on the internet. He doesn’t have the experience to assess futility. He’s not been broken.

We shit-talked the shit out of this guy, and it was so satisfying. It was like a cigarette after a day of swearing off. But, like the simile in the preceding sentence, I felt bad at the end. It was like discursive political binge drinking and I felt hungover.

I looked at myself, measured against this guy. I’m a firm believer that if a person wants to be consistently right they should opt for pessimism. Hope feels dangerous. I’ve seen hope, and it gets people destroyed.

A person I know spent a fairly long time in prison for militant political action. When they summarized the thinking behind their activities, they said that they sincerely believed a slogan thrown about in the movements that spun around the 1999-2001 anti-ministerial protests: “We are winning.”

We weren’t.

So for a long time I’ve felt that optimism is embarrassing and that it can be catastrophically harmful. This has been born out in my own life.

If I measure the young man against myself I see some things. This person doesn’t know these lessons in failure and it frees him up to try and to act.

Not trying doesn’t present virtue. Trying does. Hopelessness does nothing to encourage effort, and the efforts of the hopeless are generally sad and occasionally horrible. For myself I’ve become exhausted by embarrassment. I would rather appear smart by abstaining than look foolish by pouring effort into a lost cause.

I remember feeling hopeful. It felt good until it didn’t and I looked back on the hard work and pepper spray of the past to realize that I might truly be a dumbass.

It is not the case that I think resignation is useless. You can do a lot with it. As I said, if you want to be wrong, be an optimist. Resignation provides a scalpel to cut away hope not born out by reality, but I think I stop there. I look at the tumors and decide that the patient is fucked. Send them home with some painkillers and access to prestige television.

The naivete of hope doesn’t even bother hunting for those tumors. They just summon more energy, energy that is ultimately finite, and keep trying.

I want there to be a place in the middle where my cynicism is balanced by refusal to give up. Perhaps we have this in the present.

More and more I believe in two political facts: That people are constantly resisting immiseration through strategies that look like dysfunction. People’s drug use, absenteeism, theft, slacking surly demeanors and abstention from the nuclear family- these are all forms of political struggle. Probably not consciously so, but they don’t need to be. Or maybe they do. When all the technologies of surveillance and bureaucratic measurement are focused on these problems it is obvious that they are categories of struggle. Perhaps it would be beneficial to frame them this way.

The second of these is a belief in the power of what I imagine the British would call ‘the mob’. Our most recent periods of struggle have been defined by massive protests that become unapologetically militant in their confrontations with the police, who, if done away with, would allow people to address their problems rather expediently, by way of appropriation. The redistribution of wealth only looks like stealing on the surface.

The threat of this form of struggle was apparent as I read the news this morning. People are rising up against the administrators of their misery in Colombia, and the state is bringing all of its capacity for cooptation and violence to bear on this movement. American diplomats are decrying ‘vandalism’ as desperate people are torn apart by bullets.

How do we balance cynicism and hope in this context? We need both, but the fulcrum requires a balance of millimeters.

Bashing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The following has been informed by Cognitive Behavioral Tsunami: Managerialism, Politics and the Corruptions of Science by Farhad Dalal. It’s a brutal takedown of this therapeutic modality.

I’ve been to lots of therapists in my life. Some have been good, some not so much. Ultimately, it’s just the done thing when you’re in emotional distress.

When I was a child I didn’t really understand what it meant to be involved in talk therapy. I didn’t have any experiential baseline to compare my own internal life to, and no one ever brought me up to speed on the idea that I was somehow abnormal. Nor did I have an understanding of the behavioral benchmarks that indicate abnormality. So I sat around with various adult professionals without understanding the goal of that sitting around.

In adulthood I’ve been more aware of the goal in these settings. There’s a problem and the goal is to make that problem less onerous. It hasn’t worked much of the time, but this might be me, or it might be the world.

Generally, the difficulty has been in the exclusion of material conditions from the discussion, and a failure to evaluate my ability to bring myself into line with the ideal resolution of the problems identified. A lot of it is grey, but moments stand out.

There’s a man from early adolescence who had age appropriate and interesting book recommendations. Awesome. A+.

Then there’s a person who insisted that I take psychiatric medications or she wouldn’t treat me. I left the session.

A therapist once grazed the surface of a larger issue: I needed to want something. But I didn’t want anything, except maybe to feel better.

An elderly therapist made me take the Briggs-Meyer personality test. No thanks.

Two years ago I was ruined. I was just flailing around, sinking. I was enrolled as a patient in an anxiety focused clinic with a sliding scale payment policy. I filled out an endless evaluation form and was then receiving therapy.

The person administering my sessions was a young woman who was a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience, which is not a field of expertise that normally deals with human thoughts or feelings out in the world of subjective experience. They look at brains. This might or might not bear upon human suffering.

She explained the paradigm that we’d be working within, that being Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MBCBT). This isn’t something I knew much about. It was explained to me that MBCBT was a data-driven, research informed therapeutic model supported by the innovative thinking of a dickhead stepfather: Your thoughts impact your feelings and you’re in control of your thoughts. The process doesn’t waste time on past events- there’s no point. Nor is it concerned with material conditions. The right mindset is either impervious to, or perhaps able to overcome, almost any life circumstances.

There are obvious deficits in this understanding. Or, perhaps, deliberately harmful myths that are perpetuated.

A case study: A thirteen year old is beaten. What comes first in this event? I think it depends on the staging.

Let us say the beating is unexpected (which seems highly unlikely, but I guess we’re dealing with abstractions). What comes first?

A fist hurtles towards a face. Is the brain behind the face aware of what’s coming? I guess the fist could be coming towards the back of the head, but if it’s head-on, then yeah, the victim is aware.
So, if there’s an awareness, is that a thought or a feeling? I don’t know. In my experience there’s a moment of terror, which is definitely a feeling, coupled with a reflexive urge to avoid this theoretical fist, and I guess a thought, which might be “Oh fuck. Anthony is punching me in the face (again).”

I don’t know how to pull these things apart. I’m no thought scientist (and you don’t have to be to practice CBT) but experience tells me that there’s no parsing out chickens and eggs here. Human consciousness isn’t an assembly line.

In the straw man argument above, how would thinking inform the feeling? Maybe if one were able to alter the automatic thought from “Oh shit, a fist,” to “This is an opportunity to learn to endure pain,” the sufferer could have a more enriching experience, as long as they subdue their urge to get out of the way. Any anxiety one might have about such an event happening again is to be dealt with by recognizing that just because you got punched today it isn’t necessarily going to happen tomorrow.

This is the institutional model of therapy practiced in the modern psychotherapeutic context, and its prominence coincides with the rise of the nonprofit sector and the psychiatrization of society, against the backdrop of neoliberal austerity. This makes quite a bit of sense.

“Non-profit organization” is a misnomer. It is true that there are no shareholders in such an organization (instead there’s a board comprised of wealthy people and professional administrators), but they still operate according to the mandates of accumulation: The organization that can provide more services for less money receives funding, and the entire sector is based upon a low wage/high turnover business model. It’s an outsourcing of the management of human misery. Non-profit executives make six figure salaries while the grunts get $13 an hour and a consolation prize: They’re doing good work that helps people (which probably isn’t true).

Therefore, CBT is perfect for this sector. It is brief- instead of years of psychotherapy, CBT generally terminates after a given number of sessions. Also, it doesn’t require intensive training. In my brief experience in social work education, this is the only therapy we would be trained in, and the training wouldn’t be extensive.

And it’s ideologically convenient. As it is concerned with thoughts rather than material conditions or personal history the distress of the client is a personal failing rather than a systemic problem. Good news though: You can change your negative thoughts. And if you don’t, well, you’re two times a failure.

I’ve tried to imagine bringing this therapeutic approach to bear on someone in an abusive domestic arrangement with no familial assistance, and I immediately revert to the ‘getting punched in the face’ example. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t help. It’s actually profoundly harmful.

During my time receiving this therapy, before every single session, I used a Macbook to fill out a questionnaire of approximately 60 questions that pried into the myriad ways that I hadn’t measured up to being a functional person. After this endless reminder of my disappointment the therapist would sit me down and show me a graph charting my responses. Occasionally there would be a spike- progress! Most of the time it was a straight line.

I always left these sessions with worksheets. Yup. Fucking dittos about how to reframe life problems. Or I’d receive a recommendation for an app that would allow me to journal about my spontaneous negative thoughts. I didn’t know what to say. That app would be open all day, every day.

Perhaps most egregious was a focus on mindfulness. I’m not knocking the practice of meditation. But there is a profound disconnect between MBCBT and mindfulness, a breach that is healed by simply not talking about it. My baseline understanding of the various iterations of mindfulness meditation is that thoughts are inherently out of control. I recall a statement by Jon Kabat-Zinn (and I’m paraphrasing) that one can’t think their way out of depression, and I agree. But CBT, as a fundamental principle, asserts that thoughts can and should be controlled.

But whatever, branding is what matters when you’re obviously failing to help people and getting paid for it. I hope someday we awaken to a society that has made the “helping professions” obsolete, and proceeds to remove their taint from whatever world comes next.

Suburban Development as Nightmare, Mushrooms in Attendance.

This is a stupid song. Just pretend the chorus is “Hate Suburbia” instead of “Hey Suburbia”.

Most of us live in some terrible iteration of America (and if you don’t, just wait a while). This is about mine.

Long Island is one of the temples of mid-20th century whiteness, established as a suburb back when men were men, women were shutting the fuck up, and children were incipient communists.

I’ve heard lots of places lay claim to being the most segregated in the country. Depending on the metric they might all qualify, but Long Island definitely has received some sort of medal in the racism olympics. Our realtors are dedicated to steering people into the correct neighborhood. Those pesky redlines might be gone (or at least you’d think so) but those real estate agents like their teeth to be as white as their census tracts. Smarter people than I have written plenty of things about the long, bleached and blanched history of this place. I can’t do it justice.

It’s a place where baby boomer opulence built on defense industry jobs and housing boom speculation have created an illusion of opulence and it might be the case that the illusion itself provides some cover to the less well-heeled. Any awareness that the middle class has of their lessors deriving some benefit from the speculative value of their houses is met with paroxysms of fury. Whenever faced with the possibility of someone unlike them deriving ancillary benefits comes up there’s a sort of standard response: “I want a killer lacrosse team, not a chance of upward mobility for some black kid. Don’t feed the squirrels!”

There’s an interesting thing happening in terms of class here. A lot of it is subterranean, like, physically. The economically precarious rent basement apartments and live below the footsteps and barking dogs of the middle class. It might be a galling and belittling situation but it’s better than sleeping in the woods. Tick borne illnesses are rampant here. And few cars have a backseat with enough legroom for sleeping. 33% of Nassau and Suffolk County households are considered Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (which give this miserable statistical category a cool acronym, that being ALICE), meaning that they have to choose between rent and utilities, or medical care, or food.

It’s a place that has perfected the obscuring of poverty. All the people driving Amazon trucks, cutting grass and burning themselves on fast food deep fryers can live where they please, as long as (please, please) they don’t do it in our line of sight. So they, (or we I suppose) live with relatives, or on a roulette wheel of couches and cross our fingers that we don’t rub our benefactors the wrong way.

And there are so many places where the children of the prior generation spin their wheels in their parents’ houses, saved from homelessness by the leavings of the prior generation’s class deal. We go nowhere and try not to register the guilt that we feel at being rescued from our own economic uselessness while so many other people are gasping for air after 80 hours of employment at Dunkin’ Donuts.

It’s a place born of a particular strategy of class war. The suburban developers of the 1950’s offered the white working class an opportunity to avoid talking to other human beings most of the time and they jumped on it. No more walking through society and encountering social problems that you are implicated in. No more subway. No more neighbors across the hall. The suburb was a place to prosper or suffer, mostly both, while the rest of humanity ate shit. William Levitt famously stated that “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.” He was right. This is a ‘stay off of my fucking lawn’ kind of place.

It’s a place of rigid conformity. It’s visible in the landscape. Zoning laws, lending practices, building codes… they’re all there stating in legalese that things are going to look the same, and if they miss anything then the passive aggression of neighbors will fill in the gap.

It’s a shithole, is what I’m trying to get across. Prohibitive real estate costs in two counties of sprawling suburb guarantee that anything interesting will also be ephemeral. If young people can afford to leave they do. Clearly I don’t like it, and by inference, I can’t afford to leave. I try to make the best of it. I pursue my little interests and aside from an occasional six-year old companion I pursue them on my own.

The landscape here has been destroyed threefold. Terrible Englishmen arrived here and replaced the survival strategies of the Algonquin speaking people of the landmass with shitty market oriented farming. Those fields turned towards intensive monocropping and orcharding and by the 2000’s even these things were gone, replaced by sod farms. Long Islanders apparently prefer to purchase grass that’s been beaten into submission and then resurrected with a ton of nitrogen and Roundup. If grass could join the Proud Boys this grass would.

Fishing and whaling for trade started a depletion that has resulted in the near extirpation of all marine mammals and many species of fish. I have pictures of a shitty uncle dumping a fifty gallon garbage pail full of bluefish onto my grandfather’s front lawn. It wasn’t enough to pointlessly slaughter these fish, they needed to be insulted, and this insult needed to be photographed.

I don’t know if there’s a thing one could call old growth here. I doubt it. All the trees got cut down before the Revolutionary War to build ships that would carry people who didn’t want to go places to places that didn’t want them. Or to fire cannons at those places.

Anything that was left has, for the most part, been destroyed by suburban development. There are sad little patches of woods, and the sad little deer live there and return there to die after a hazardous trip across the road. People here drive very fast, desperate to hurry up and wait- at the next light, at the drive thru, at work or home, just waiting to die. It’s not their fault they’re awful, but they do raise questions as to whether some localized plague would be a bad thing.

Apparently the truly wealthy hang out here in the Summer, but they mostly travel by helicopter, far above the heads of the pathetic taxpayers who aspire to be like them.

A thing I do with my time here is forage for mushrooms. You wouldn’t think that this would be a good place for that but it is. There are caveats to be made- It’s rare to find any of the high dollar species. For instance, the only yellow chanterelle I’ve found was solitary, growing out of someone’s front yard plantings. When I went to pick it a woman told me from her second story window that she would call the police if I didn’t- wait for it- get off her fucking lawn.

But in terms of other things it’s pretty fucking great. Like more than a family could eat, give away, and sell, at least when it comes to ‘Chicken of the Woods” (of which there are at least 3 distinct species growing here).

I have many questions about this. Science questions. Science questions that will likely never be answered because I’m not a scientist and I would be surprised if there are many trained mycologists that are very interested in 1) being in this terrible place and 2) waiting at some mushmouth’s front door, observed by one of the many devices that suburbanites use to protect themselves from those who would dare to take their most recent ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ wall hanging off of their porch, for permission to take an organism that they despise off of their oak tree.

My impressions about the abundance of the species in this genus (Laetiporous, if you’re interested) might be faulty, which is interesting in and of itself. While organisms that grow in the woods require one to look for them relatively aimlessly (and yes, this is a huge oversimplification), suburbia creates transects. We drive to the same places all the time and a lack of any obscuring trees makes it fairly easy to spot a bright orange thing on the ground. So, maybe they’re growing everywhere all the time but my ability to see them leads me to a false assumption about prevalence. The same bias might be inherent in my observations of unbearable assholes.

But if this first assumption is true, then my untestable hypotheses are as follows:

This is a place where the preferred substrate of these fungus, that being oak, proliferate. This in itself is a good enough reason to explain the prevalence of these mushrooms, but with that said, they still seem to grow in greater abundance next to roadways. Again, it could be a bias. I don’t walk in the woods as frequently as I drive to somewhere pointless.

If it’s a yes, that they do appear more frequently along roadways, then what explains this? I have thoughts. A forest is a windbreak. Moving air, so kind to fungal pathogens, doesn’t have the ability to penetrate to the same extent that it does in a place where trees serve as ornamentation. Maybe it is by virtue of exposure to air from these breezeways that host trees are exposed to both more spore and more Billy Joel. And who knows? Maybe Billy Joel piping out of car windows has depleted these trees of their will to live to the point where they’re more susceptible to infection.

It could be the case that these trees are less healthy. I’m not sure. This would be another research question that would require methods that I don’t know and couldn’t execute if I did. There’s enough drunk driving happening that people might just be banging into these oaks frequently enough that they’re more exposed to infection.

Or perhaps the waves of suburban development that have occurred create cohorts of trees that are all roughly the same age, and at this homogenous age they become more susceptible to infection. Maybe these are all baby boom trees that aren’t able to obsessively extend their lives past the sell-by like people do.

I will continue to want answers to these questions with absolutely no ability to answer them. As well, I will continue to eat things that have likely been doused in Roundup, next to roads where the weaponized dog turds and wasted food of suburbia turns to dust and blankets the most scrubbed down people I can imagine.

There Might be Bullshit in my Mushroom Supplements

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. 

Mic-drop. 

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. 

Who’s Been Pissing in my Mushoom Utopia?

Image: Getty

“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. 

If You’re Gonna Scream, Scream With Me…

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. 

Have a spooktacular day.