Today I got up earlier than I usually do. I had an appointment for an evaluation for disability benefits with a psychiatrist in the employ of an organization with the improbable and mildly horrifying name of Industrial Medical Associates. Every time I hear it I think of myself being moved along on a conveyor belt, transformed into a male chick in a hatchery, destined for the dumpster.
This is an organization that apparently has a monopoly on these evaluations. I’m sure it’s lucrative. Like everything else it seems to run on contract labor. People with credentials are hired in on a part-time basis to affix an altogether different set of credentials on the downwardly mobile. Managing poverty and distress is it’s own industry.
I drink too much coffee. My nights aren’t very restful. The sedating effects of medication wear off after a few hours and then I stumble around talking nonsense. The last couple hours of sleep are for dreaming about my sister kicking me out of her house or women that I’ve loved examining the circumstances of my life and expressing disappointment.
There was a gap between awakening and my eval. My mother is a dedicated viewer of MSNBC, which is pretty much the Fox News of the well-intentioned. While I’d take the former over the latter most days, I still find it pretty stupid. Their unfortunately named ‘Morning Joe’ program runs until 9:00 am. Host Joe Scarborough has weird beady eyes and the face of a frat boy with progeria. His co-host (and spouse) Mika Brzinski reeks of self-satisfaction. She looks well-bred, a mixture of genetics and plastic surgery that will likely be replaced with the blood of prepubescent children when it finally comes to market.
It seems like everyone on this show publishes a book. It’s not like they need to (or should). They’re certainly all wealthy and also that kind of middle-of-the-road stupid that allows a person to be highly functional. Generally they write biographies of people who the world absolutely does not need another biography about. For instance Scarborough himself wrote a book with the pants-shittingly stupid title Saving Freedom: Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization. Truman unleashed a nightmare on the world; the Cold War was the partial realization of that nightmare and Western Civilization is the worst thing that ever happened to humanity.
This morning’s boastful presentation of such a product was an accounting of the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnston. The general sentiment was that he was an awesome bipartisan president and a strict adherent of the Constitution.
This might be the case. But still: Fuck off. Who cares? It’s just this kind of celebration of polite killers that makes this network so execrable. This guy persecuted an imperialist war that sent American boys on a murderous rite of passage and turned them into the gray, miserable baby boomers that drive around with Trump flags flying behind their trucks as though they’re ISIS without a destination.
There’s also the kind of moralistic eye-rolling exasperation that typifies blue-dog democrats in the Trump era. They care less about the violence that the state doles out than a lack of consensus about how the violence should be managed, as though they’d prefer a more competent fascist. Politicians that are less disgusting and have the good graces to lie eloquently about the horrors that are visited on people are preferred. Maybe it helps them sleep at night. An ambien and some self-satisfaction allows them a restful night so they can rise in the morning, staple their jowls to the back of their necks, and get on with the business of being famous.
It’s not that I don’t hate Donald Trump. Nor is it the case that I prefer him to Joe Biden. I just acknowledge that they merely represent different strategies for managing capitalism. One’s way better at white-washing the misery they inflict and promising deliverance from it at some point in the distant future. The other provides a satisfying hit of rage to dummies.
Between the relatively brief expressions of impassioned pablum are commercials, which I think speak much more to the state of the world than the news program itself. You can usually figure out which demographics can be expected to be watching based upon the stuff being advertised. Sometimes demographics collide and you get a weird mixture. I gather that the expectation is that competent people leave their houses earlier, so these time-slots are loaded up with various ways to protect and manage wealth.
Today there was one of those ‘Ask Marcum’ commercials. There are two audiences they pitch to. Both suck. The first is someone on deck at the point of production. It’s either a guy in a factory, one that has been mysteriously emptied of the brown women who predominate in such environments, or a guy on a construction site. No people in gloves or PPE. No grime on the floors. No one tumbling from a high place to the floor. A person who is apparently the grand-master of this grand, sterile enterprise discusses with a man in a suit and a hardhat the challenges of managing such a large operation. They reply: “Ask Marcum”.
There’s another (and I might be wrong about the company… does it even matter?) in which a daughter discusses the hard work and dedication her father has expended in building his vineyards into a massive agricultural operation. He’s got a flannel shirt on- a total man’s man. If he has a profile on the ‘over 50’ dating website (also advertised at this time of day) ‘Our Time’ then the women are literally beating down the door for a viagra fueled romp. Again, his vineyard appears to run without any labor. It’s just him and his kids. Nobody’s stooped over in blistering heat. No one’s pissing in a jug because they can’t access a bathroom. How could he possibly manage the money flowing through this wine-making goose that lays golden eggs? Ask fucking Marcum.
Or a woman sits in a massive corner office overlooking a metropolis. She’s puzzling out some pressing business problems, clearly. It’s late at night. Fuck the kids. Consuela will deal with them. We’re in the world of finance capital, where the algorithms work hard buying whale oil and selling rhino horn. How to justify the existence of a human being in this system?. Would you be better off smashing the glass and jumping? Ask Marcum.
In another there are two women at a posh restaurant. We know it’s posh because there are no waiters. The restaurant industry has figured out how to make service staff invisible. You can pretend your loser brother’s ghost is bringing wine to your table- he’s only been dead a few years. Business Woman A says to Business Woman B how concerned she is about an IRS audit. I guess the subtext is that she’s committed financial crimes? Or improprieties. Titans of industry don’t commit crimes. She wonders how she can justify withholding the relative nothing that her business contributes to society. If the world ran on paper she could just set the building on fire, but computer files stick around. Her companion drains her glass and responds: Ask Marcum.
My personal favorite is a meeting room full of suited and ambitious professionals dialing someone in for a conference call. They’ve got business to discuss. A quick roll-call and then the most improbable thing occurs! Marc, the delivery boy, is in the room. He fucks around on his phone, unconcerned with business stuff. What a wacky thing! How’d he get in here! Don’t ask Marc! He’s just going to ride around the financial district on a scooter giving you assholes sandwiches until he gets hit by a car and then spends the rest of his pathetic life in a wheelchair. Ask Marcum!
Anyway, after any one of these brilliant pieces of advertising, created by very smart people who deserve good things out of life finishes, we pivot to another corner of capitalist society.
A recruiting commercial for GrubHub features a young African American woman. She expresses the absolute freedom and self respect afforded to her by this part-time job that’s allowed her to raise her children and her self-esteem. She loves bringing trash food to garbage people. She is not bothered at all that the odometer on her car is spinning wildly into the future, a future where it breaks and Grub Hub finds another desperate sucker to trash both their transportation and livelihood for less than minimum wage. Marc used to work there, but what with turning invisible someone ran him over.
After this things can break in a few directions. GrubHub recruitment marks the turning point where professionals are out the door and on their way to a morning of digging at hemorrhoids and wondering what life would be like if they killed their families. It’s after 8:30 and that means the unemployed, the retired and the disabled are the only ones left to watch. By this point Joe and Mika both have to piss and Mike Barnagle is getting worried about diaper rash.
Commercials from this point onwards are concerned with illness, litigation and insurance. There are those ‘push’ marketing ads for medications, all of which somehow result in people paddle boarding. They’re all for the treatment of poor people stuff: Diabetes. COPD. Schizophrenia, etc.
The schizophrenia one is my favorite. The mystical commercial voice, so caring and wise, tells us that little accomplishments are a big deal when you’re living with a psychotic disorder. A man plays the guitar. Alright, that’s pretty cool. A man makes a peanut butter sandwich. What the fuck? This is the best that you can get? A food that kids with bad parents make for themselves before going to school? Then they get to the downsides, as if living on peanut butter and white bread wasn’t bad enough, they explain that you might gain a hundred pounds (and peanut butter pounds no less), experience unintentional repetitive movements, have suicidal thoughts (again, suicidal peanut butter thoughts), and possibly death from neuroleptic malignant syndrome. Don’t let the risk of death steer you into periods of homelessness. Your shattered life will never be the same, but at least you’ve got your own jar of Jiff at the group home.
These commercials for drugs, all of which will cause everything from piles to bleeding eyes, are followed by commercials for litigation services against the very same pharmaceutical companies that promise paddle boarding and peanut butter. It’s enticing, to sit on the couch with nary a paddle board in site, and think about the oodles of money that your broke ass could get if only you had a life-ruining side effect from one of the ten medications you’re on, but alas, these medications disappoint even in that regard. You’re still mostly intact, you’re out of peanut butter, and you can’t afford to buy a vehicle to work at GrubHub so that you can finally access that shame-reducing invisibility you were looking forward to.
My disability examination tore me away from television anthropology. I explained to some geographically remote person who is apparently a doctor that the last time I was arrested was in 2010, which is pretty good for me. She asked if I had ever been manic and I asked her if manic just means ‘not depressed’. She asked about drug use and I lied my ass off. It’s challenging to explain to a psychiatrist how fucking awesome DMT is. Once upon a time I was on a psych ward (in a professional capacity) and heard a young man explain to a social worker how smoking DMT had allowed him to say goodbye to his grandmother, which is a far better therapeutic outcome than he was getting from the shit they were making him take. She lied (or fabricated a truth that validated a prejudice, which is lying for stupid people) and said it caused brain damage. So does riding a scooter for GrubHub and getting hit by a car but they don’t tell the incipient homeless person that kind of thing.
“For us, our parents bore (or were lost to) two world wars, countless “lesser” ones, innumerable major and minor crises and crashes. Our parents built, for us, nuclear bombs. They were hardly egoistic; they did what they were told. They built on sacrifice and self-renunciation, and all of this has just demanded more sacrifice, more renunciation.”- ‘bolo ‘bolo by P.M.
I used to teach college at a large public university in Southern Arizona (there’s only one, so go ahead and figure it out). I liked teaching and did it pretty well. I doubt my paymasters would have agreed, and had the shitheads of Project Veritas planted themselves in my classes they would have found themselves with a surplus of anarcho-communist content and method to get angry dickheads all wound up by.
If you want to teach well, the first thing you have to do is abolish grades. It makes people nervous, or hopeless, or grossly aspirational to be evaluated. There are no meritocracies in this world and doing away with grades is instructional in this regard. Work hard or don’t work at all. No one really cares. .
Department chairs hate this, so keep it secret. Get your class in on the deception. It helps even the playing field. Their capacity to blackmail you will keep you from getting shitty. In the classes I taught the only real requirements were to show up and talk. There are always people who bail entirely on courses without withdrawing which results in automatic machine generated F’s. It creates the illusion that you’re failing people.
I was once shamed by my advisor for failing to sufficiently punish students for a lack of ability that could be squarely blamed upon useless public schooling and the fact that drugs and sex are more interesting than classes. I resented her more for her lack of understanding than the admonishment. I didn’t want to create button pushers. I wanted to create saboteurs.
A second thing to know about teaching is that (leaving aside math or physics, and even here there are probably counterpoints to be made) is that emotions are vitally important for our understanding of the world. Joy, sorrow, pain, arrogance, apathy- these are all things to analyze and are more foundational to politics than knowledge.. There is no time wasted in discussing them. They need to be looked at as what they are: Material things built by human labor. We’re all ‘socially determined’ from the CEO to the wheelchair bound.
In the Marxian schema our internal lives are part of a commodity (our capacity to work) that comes to market as a use-value. This use-value is our capacity to think, to feel, to endure. They make us love just enough that we suffer through the punishing boredom of our economic lives, with a countervailing resentment to let those that surround us know they’re not good enough (but they could be if they tried harder). But like many commodities they escape control: The hog born to be bacon escapes into the woods. The gasoline intended to transport someone to work ends up in a bottle with a flaming rag stuffed in its mouth. And the disgruntled worker punches his boss in the face.
There is nothing upon which as much labor is expended as emotion. Industry produces dozens of drugs to correct minds that cannot sufficiently motivate bodies to the workplace. Alcohol flows down billions of throats to allow for a temporary evening armistice with suffering. There are academic disciplines in place to create the right kind of feelings and the right kind of desires. There are countless threats articulated to make us pliable. We are fed endless visual streams of muck to summon some sense of purpose and music pumps into us from a firehose of studio crap. We move through schooling, gussied up as though it’s something more than clear communication about shutting the fuck up. And then there’s fear, the most important of them all: Apocalypses great and small, cruelties both petty and monstrous, and the constantly delayed specter of our own end. We all hope it will be a painless affair. While death is guaranteed it takes countless forms. Be good and you might receive opiates sufficient to numb your pain and allow you to forget the terror. But only if you go to work. Otherwise it’s hypothermia or some other careless violence.
So that’s what we did in my classes. We talked about this. Yes, there were readings and papers and lectures but most of it was sitting in a circle and talking about feelings, wrapped in paper like fish. The students seemed to appreciate it. I don’t know to what extent. My reviews were good and I was proud of that but I never heard from any of them again.
I didn’t always have a choice regarding what classes I would instruct. I had a good relationship with the office staff and I like to think that I was given courses that I liked. Sometimes I would act as the instructor of record (in which case I could do whatever I wanted- nobody was checking) and sometimes I served as a teaching assistant. This was tolerable but only because most of the time I worked under a man I considered a friend. We had similar political commitments and he allowed me to do what I wanted in the ‘discussion sections’ which were a normal component of undergraduate classes in my department.
Generally we were paired on a course called “Geography of the Southwest”. There were some discussions of geomorphology and hydrology, which are staples of this kind of class, but it is impossible to discuss the borderlands without talking about immigration, smuggling and indigeneity. One of the highlights of the semester was a voluntary field trip to the border. Boys never signed up to go. I don’t know why.
Driving through the Southwest is like catching America with its dick out. All the most horrible things are more visible. Our legacy of murder, of labor strife, of war- these things can be hidden elsewhere, buried under concrete or left to the mercy of the forest. In the desert bones bleach. They’re reflective, throwing the sun back into space.
The desert is littered with military installations. They’re desert herpes. One of the largest Air Force bases in the United States abuts the city of Tucson. 15 miles North of the international boundary is Fort Huachuca (interestingly, this is where the Buffalo Soldiers were established as a regiment). On the Western edge of the state are U.S. Army proving grounds. This all makes some sense. The weather is nice most of the time. It’s a good place to train pilots and drone operators and you can isolate the particular types of pain experienced by soldiers.
Then there are the numerous sites of the slaughter of indigenous Americans. It is an unfortunate fact that confounds easy distinctions between heroes and villains, but perhaps it is instructive as well that the colonizers of the Americas capitalized on the pre-existing or emergent hostilities of indigenous people. The Apache and Comanche gave the Mexican and U.S. governments hell in the desert Southwest, preventing either of these monstrosities from gaining a foothold. The railroad ended their supremacy in the desert but it wasn’t a fast or easy process. Massacres were frequent and often waged upon women and children. Sometimes these acts were perpetrated by their historical enemies rather than their newly arrived ones.
And the desert is a weapon, one the United States has used to great effect. Long before the age of Trump more eloquent and refined perpetrators of horror established as an operating principle of border enforcement a policing strategy focused on urban centers. This did nothing to deter migration to the U.S. and pushed into the desert those who would dare to cross the international boundary. They die of heat and thirst by the thousands. Walk on the boundary and there are blankets, backpacks, shoes. Who knows if these people made it. Send them a prayer. They need it.
The desert is full of ghosts.
Out in the desert are grave markers for the forebears of our current nuclear arsenal. The Titan II missile program is the tyrannosaurus of nuclear warfare: Obsolete and gone from view but you don’t want to run into one. It is now a tourist stop where one can be taken on a tour of the facility, guided by the men who spent endless boring hours hanging out and waiting for nuclear armageddon. At the conclusion of the tour they give a canned speech that they obviously believe without any doubt: They saved the world. Were it not for these weapons fire would have rained down upon the U.S. The zero sum game of mutually assured destruction has a kind of incontrovertible circular logic.
The facility is an amazing feat of engineering. It was built not only to withstand a direct hit from an intercontinental ballistic missile but to be completely functional afterwards, lest the whole strategy fall apart. Everything within was built on massive shock absorbers drilled into the earth. The silo door was several tons of steel. Without any embarrassment the tour guide told us of an incident where a steamfitter had dropped a wrench into the silo. When metal contacted metal the vapors of the rocket fuel ignited. The force of the blast launched the silo door a mile into the sky. It landed three miles away.
Recently I wrote about Marx. Something about that feels dated. How is it that something written in the late 1800’s remains relevant? But it does. The centerpiece of Marxist thought is the labor theory of value. I’ve taught it a number of times to many students. It’s a fun exercise, to watch people grasp around the economic commonsense that has been imparted to them and have their hands slip off.
It goes like this: How is it that a million avocados and a Lexus are equivalent? The answer that you get is either 1) they both fulfill a need and 2) they cost the same amount of money. You need both answers because both answers are correct. A million avocados will yield a lot of guacamole. You and a whole lot of other people can eat guacamole until you’re sick. A Lexus will allow you to travel from one place to another and will likely elicit feelings of envy or admiration as well.
They are both useful items that satisfy a need. One is food and fuels your body, the other is transportation and fuels your ego. The seller of the avocados has a lot of avocados, way more than they can eat themself, and would really like to drive a fancy car. The seller of the Lexus can’t eat that many avocados but has an even newer and more sexy car. These two useful things accomplish very different purposes but can only encounter one another through an intermediary: Money.
Marx talks about this as a circuit: C (commodity) – M (money) – C (commodity). The circuit can also function as M-C-M in which money is used to purchase a commodity that is sold for money. It is an exchange of things that have a common element that allows them to encounter one another as equivalents.
The second question to pose is what could these things have in common- certainly they have a sale price and satisfy a need, but that doesn’t satisfy as an answer to the question. It usually takes some time before they arrive at the fact that these things all are products of human labor- in the case of the avocados there is a relatively small amount of labor in each individual item while the Lexus contains a great deal more, but given enough avocados there is enough labor that they are of equal value to a Lexus.
The next question: Where does profit originate in this schema? It’s inevitable that someone answers that to make a profit one must buy low and sell high. Certainly this does happen in society, and sometimes with disastrous results, because it creates an inflationary spiral of universal robbery where prices are adjusted upwards.
So you ask again, more pointedly: Is there a commodity that can produce more value than it costs? If an excess of value can’t originate in the market then perhaps it lies in the process of production. Eventually this question is answered- human labor can produce more value than it is purchased for. Marx refers to this as ‘surplus value’ in which the worker produces more value than the wages paid.
After introducing this concept, Marx elaborates: There are two general strategies for extracting surplus value. The first he refers to as ‘absolute surplus value’. This entails low wages posited against a longer period of work. The second of these is ‘relative surplus value’ in which spatial organization and machinery increase the productivity of work thereby allowing the capitalist to produce a greater quantity of things with the labor purchased.
There is an important point to make here. The worker brings what Marx calls ‘labor power’ to the market to sell. Labor power is not labor. It is the capacity to work being purchased rather than the work itself. It is up to the capitalist and his or her subordinates to utilize the labor and ensure that it is productive. And this is where class struggle enters the picture.
Most of us will have experienced this. In the small shop or kitchen the small business owner looks over your shoulder and hurls stupidities like ‘clean, don’t lean’ at you. Or maybe they simply browbeat you into a shorter break and an extra 10 minutes on the back-end of the day. Or perhaps you work at Geico, performing the necessary but baffling labor of selling a thing that one is legally obliged to buy. No doubt the call volume you produce is measured, the calls you are on are subject to surveillance, and your bathroom breaks timed. You’ve been trained for this your whole life. School exists to deaden the mind to constant monitoring. This is class struggle viewed from the perspective of capital.
On our side, as most of us will go through our lives without ever participating in formally organized labor, our rebellion against the extraction of surplus value takes the form of time stolen back. We take longer trips to the bathroom. If we can get away with it we steal. We read stupid shit on the internet rather than making that next phone call. Occasionally we go so far as to break something important so that we’re afforded a respite from the day. Although capital has developed a million ways to protect this production of surplus value there’s always a leaky valve somewhere in the machine.
And machines are my jumping off point. ‘Relative surplus value’ depends upon machines to expand a worker’s productivity. This creates two problems, one obvious and one less so.
The first is that introducing machinery into production throws class conflict into greater relief. Putting workers in contact with expensive investments (that they are basically chained to, becoming a machine unto themselves) presents the threat of sabotage and occupation. The term sabotage derives from the French term for workers in early industrial production who wore wooden shoes and waged labor disputes through a number of channels, one of those being the destruction of industrial equipment. Occupation is more obvious and becomes a serious threat to production utilizing expensive machinery. The entirety of a production process can be shut-down for an indefinite period of time by adequately prepared workers.
The second problem that arises in regard to machinery is less obvious and more theoretical. The analysis goes like this:
If human labor is the mechanism that creates value in society and the means by which the amount of value extracted involves machines, then while the machinery may create a greater magnitude of profit, the rate of profit dwindles. This is to say that if one person makes ten widgets that each require one dollar of widget juice to produce and the worker is paid nine dollars, each widget will have embodied within it a dollar of raw material and $0.90 of labor. It will sell at market for $1.90 and if the capitalist is lucky he will sell them all. The cost of production was $19.00 and the capitalist received $19.00 back. No profit is made.
The owner of the widget factory is pissed. He wants to make money, not transform widget juice into widgets. He decides that he’s going to try another strategy. He can’t make more widgets out of the same amount of widget juice and he can’t sell them for more than they’re worth so he decides to double the working time of the worker while paying the same wage. Then we have to double the amount of widget juice, which costs $20, pay the worker $9, and set the process in motion. 20 widgets emerge. They each contain a dollar’s worth of widget juice but now they contain $18 worth of labor that has been purchased for $9. Each widget arrives at market for the same price per widget. Each one has $1 worth of materials embodied within, as well as $1.80 of labor. The capitalist has expended $29 on materials and labor, has sold 20 widgets for $1.90, earning him $38. He has made a profit of $9, or the equivalent of the difference between the pay received and the time worked by the laborer. His return on investment is 31%.
This widget master is very motivated. There has been a revolution in widget production and widget mills are available. Instead of 20 widgets a day he can make 100. He has to pay a thousand dollars for the machine, so in ten days of operation it will have transferred all its value to the widgets at which point it breaks (yes, it’s a shitty machine). So he sets forth, very excited at the prospect of more money. He buys 100 portions of widget juice and hires his laborer for the same wage at the same working time. The machine hums to life and sets out on its predetermined course. It produces 100 widgets. Each widget contains a dollar of juice and a dollar of the cost of the machine. The $18 of labor (purchased for $9) is now distributed to 100 widgets instead of 20. Each widget costs $2.09 to produce but has a value of $2.18. He sells them all, as his widgets are no more or less expensive than anyone else’s. He recieves $9 of profit from selling widgets after spending $209 to produce them and selling them all for $218. Instead of a return on his investment of 31% it is 4%.
This presents a dire problem for capitalist production. There is an inherent drive towards the diminishment of living labor in the system. While the system in its entirety may create incredible magnitudes of profit the actual rate of profit has a general tendency to decline. The theoretical limit of this is the disappearance of value and the reduction of the rate of profit below the point at which capital will continue to circulate. That’s all very smart and I’m totally proud of myself for knowing how it works. But it’s not really the point I was trying to make.
In this schema, human labor power is the most important commodity on the market. Profit cannot arise from any other source (aside from theft, or the renewal of projects of primitive accumulation). Like any other commodity labor power has a price which is roughly equivalent to the costs of commodities and labor required to reproduce it. A dead worker generates no profit, whether their life is bound up in another machine or they’re starving, eating grass and praying for death.
As well, all labor has particular forms that require greater or lesser degrees of training and discipline. A nuclear scientist developing an atomic weapon requires a lot more labor to reproduce than say a gig economy worker who gives people rides. They have to be educated, disciplined, surveilled, and enjoy the finer things in life. Were they to become disgruntled or resentful or suicidal many millions of dollars of machinery could be damaged or an environmental catastrophe visited upon the earth. A gig worker on the other hand only needs a car, food, shelter (perhaps redundantly- they could sleep in the car) and their fear of destitution to keep them going.
This is one of the interesting points that autonomous Marxism has made for the past 50 odd years. The labor power that creates labor power is referred to as ‘reproductive labor’. Most of this occurs in the home by people who don’t receive a wage for their work, and the vast majority of this is performed by women. Children need to be reared and prepared for a lifetime of disappointment. The husband needs to be fed and fucked so he can return to his job the next day. The elderly need to be cared for on their way of the world- it’s part of the class deal that we mostly die slowly.
The argument here is that there is a great deal of labor expended on the reproduction of people’s ability to work and that it is largely unpaid and basically unending. This is a point in the overall production of value that receives no remuneration, is an essential point in the reproduction of labor power, and can facilitate investment from high rate of profit industries to inustries with low rates of profit and a great deal of machinery. June Cleaver works in a factory, it just so happens that her factory involves fucking Ward and making sure the Beav isn’t gay or a commie.
This creates a secret surplus, a deposition of value in the labor process that keeps the whole ship on course. Theoretically the world’s demand that women (who work outside the home as well) pour their time into labors of love that will inevitably mutilate the product they produce in foreign wars and unhappy marriages on behalf of all of capital. Otherwise the rate of profit would decline to the point of crisis.
Capital circulates. It is always reinvested. This is a natural outcome of the impulse towards profit that every bearer of capital carries in their heart- a hoard makes no money. Inevitably, surplus value realized as profit by industries with small amounts of fixed capital and high amounts of ‘living human labor’ is invested in industries with very high magnitudes of profit but with very low rates of return on investment. Thus we get both nuclear power and house-cleaners and no one wonders at the disconnect.
As referenced in an earlier post entitled “If Trauma Were Bitcoin We’d All be Fucking Rich” I wrote about what Marx refers to as “Primitive Accumulation” in which a number of processes of spastic violence were unleashed in order to transport people, land and money into a new economic system. To paraphrase Silvia Federici, not only was this an original accumulation of value, it was also an accumulation of 1) divisions in humanity by dint of race, gender, and geographic location and 2) trauma.
The accumulation of trauma is likely more easily articulated in the present era. As much as violence and terror are psychic conditions necessary for the reproduction of our society, they are also physical acts of labor that accumulate in our bodies as a historical process. While medical academia doesn’t generally concern itself with the monstrosity of the global economy, a gentle scratching of the surface allows us to see how we ourselves are a historically constituted commodity, the only one that can preserve living labor accumulated hundreds of years ago and carry it forth into the present.
This is a biological process. The medical literature (endlessly concerned with the reproduction of labor power) presents us with mechanisms by which this occurs. The study of historical trauma/collective trauma/intergenerational trauma provides an argument that a century and a half of academic bickering has failed to provide: There are biological mechanisms by which it is possible to transmit historical violence into the present.
There are three general mechanisms through which this can occur: Epigenetically, in which trait expression is suppressed or emergent depending on environmental and social factors; in-utero, in which the stress and pain of a mother influences neuroanatomy of a nascent human being; and psychologically, in which the fucked up behaviors and coping mechanisms of the adults by whom they are surrounded fucks up the kids who wonder why dad shoots up heroin in the shower or mom beats them.
These are all debated, which is what academics do, but I think it goes a long way toward explaining the general tendency towards despair occurring globally. It also explains how a society full of people who cannot afford to eat or pay for subway fare are dubiously protected by nuclear missiles. At the economic level the two are interdependent. Cashiers, McDonald’s employees, prostitutes and street-level providers of illicit drugs produce enormous magnitudes of surplus value that provide the capital that circulates into highly capitalized industries that produce depleted uranium ammunition and nuclear submarines. Our marvels of warfare are economically impossible without the contribution of the great many of us working for pennies and falling in and out of destitution.
The other thing this accumulation of damage provides is a specific type of labor power- people willing and able to inflict violence on others. Some do it for a wage and some are so generous as to do this socially useful work for free. Some no doubt think that they are doing something noble while others are more cynical and probably enjoy their labor all the more.
Our sadness and our rage are both socially determined and marketized. Just as nuclear power will haunt any utopia that manages to emerge from the modern apocalypse as its creators grapple with a deadly substance that can kill for thousands of years, so will capitalism’s legacy of violence live on in our bodies for generations.
I taught these things for six years. It was my attempt to throw a spanner in the works. I have no idea if it made a bit of difference and I guess I don’t care. If nothing else I took my labor back, out of sight of my gross liberal bosses and enjoyed myself when I should have been imparting convenient myths to a generation living in a world that likes to think itself to have been liberated from history.
“Silence is a weapon. Violence is the message. Take the time to listen.” – Silence is a Weapon by Blackfire
“I won’t beg permission to walk the land they claim to own, and I won’t pay no fucker to gain access to the stones. The rich have stolen and buy and sell our earth, but it belongs to no one or to all by right of birth.” – Take Back the Land by Oi Polloi
“This boundless epoch we’ve bestowed upon your savage, empty lands; well of course mistakes were made! But as far as human progress goes welcome to a slightly higher plane of innovation and opportunity for your trampled communities.” – Comply/Resistby Propagandhi
Thanksgiving brings something out in me. I’m certainly an American, both by birth and dint of the inexorable pull of an identity born of television, automobiles and starch. These weren’t things that I was born to like. I got inculcated to this cult early by way of a lack of alternatives. There’s nothing else. You binge on T.V. because there’s nothing else to do. You binge on white flour because it’s the easiest thing to eat when wrongness is punching you in the brain. You drive because the other options take too long (if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford a car). These things aren’t really anyone’s fault. Or maybe they’re everyone’s fault.
Our imaginary realm gets caught up in the indigenous past. Some kids play the cowboy and some of them play the Indian. One side kills what the other represents. Either a past we can scarcely touch or the force that chops it up and recycles it into the present.
I wonder why slaves and slave patrollers aren’t a childhood game. It’s not as though there’s a significant difference in time between the two nightmares. It took the technological innovation of railway travel to effectively subdue the indigenous inhabitants of the American West and the Civil War provided the impetus for the laying of track. Maybe it’s just the tastelessness of the imaginary killing of people descended from one group and an acceptance of the fact that the other has been swept from our field of view.
This is not at all to say that inigenous Americans were effectively killed off. Every holocaust has its survivors. But rather that for many of us they were turned invisible and hidden from view, dubiously celebrated as the grievously offensive mascots of sports teams.
My memory is terrible. There was a time when this was not the case. I don’t think there’s anything to be done about this. I’m not going to take one of the modern snake oils that promise cognitive improvement. I think I just need to accept that the events of the past and information flowing from them will be muddled as I progress through life. An outcome of this is that I’ve read a great many books and I can’t match the content to the title. This prevents me from being able to cite much of anything.
I recall a book, and perhaps it was The Many Headed Hydra by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, in which the assertion is made that as much as the colonization of and military campaigns against the indigenous peoples of this continent was a land grab, it was also a foreclosure of the imagination of Europeans. That there was an implicit threat in the existence of a society that was relatively free of the rigid hierarchies and backbreaking labor regime of colonial existence.
It is a fact that early European settlers of the Americas ran away from their own society, just as slaves ran away from the misery of servitude. At least for a time there was an exterior to all of this. They could fall on their knees and plead to be accepted into the already embattled tribes forced into retreat. Sometimes they fought alongside one another, holding back the encroachment of everything that white society was pregnant with.
Unfortunately these guerilla campaigns didn’t push back the colonizers, though they slowed them. There was an incessant importation Europeans to throw into the frontier landscape as wedges to pry apart territory. These people had only to survive to destroy.
I am reminded of reading a history of my family and being impressed by the fact that one of my forebears had been scalped in what I now understand as an act of revenge. Somehow he survived. I wonder what would have become of me had he died. Would I have been spared the dubious privilege of consciousness?
I can’t really speak adequately to this as a historical process. I know about some of it, but not nearly enough to provide an accurate accounting. All I can really say is that a lot of indigenous people died so that imported whites could have survivably shitty lives.
There is an essay by Christopher Hitchens, nearly thirty years old, in which he decries the fact that some of his academic friends had made efforts to engage with the holocaust that followed European arrival in the ‘New World’. It was all progress for him. All of human history pointing towards some glorious future that seems ever more distant. No apologies for the past. Any horrors were necessary bumps in the road. In fact, indigeneity everywhere was worthy of extermination by the enlightened killers that uprooted it, whether it occurred in Europe, in what is now India, or in the Americas.
Certainty must be lovely. It must be nice to feel so smug. But now he’s dead and his critique is barely remembered except as a poorly stated argument that was lazily written and glossed over the complexity of history, all for a chance to shit on people with the capacity to experience a wider range of emotions. Whatever paradise he claims was bequeathed by the army of murderers set upon the continent has not been realized.
The blessings of a self-congratulatory modernity enforced from Argentina to the Arctic seem dubious when we consider the possibilities of something else that could have arisen given time and the alleviation of waves of violence. When we think of the missile silos that still dot the landscape; when we watch the next great extinction relegate to the dustbin of history all the plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms that were the partners of humans more concerned with a life that made sense than with towering bronze or marble sculptures celebrating war crimes.
In my quest for internet distraction I happen across a great diversity of stupid things. Jordan Peterson is one of them. I find it endlessly amusing that this proselytizer of unapologetic domination as a bedrock of modern life got himself addicted to benzos (I think k-pins, not that it matters) and spent three months in rehab trying to kick it, followed by a trip to Russia to try and deal with the protracted withdrawal that allegedly involved akathisia. As someone who has experienced this I have read about the topic. I recall distinctly a psychiatrist who stated that he ‘would not wish it on his worst enemy’. Thats generous. I do.
That a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps intellectualizer of masculinity had to throw himself on the helping industry to kick a drug that most of us just knuckle down and abstain from, followed by an international journey to address a problem that most of us who have been on antipsychotics suffer through just tickles me pink.
His is the kind of cheap and boring intellectualism that provides internet dickheads with unthinking arguments against gender equality, climate justice and the idea that trans people deserve to get treated with a modicum of respect. His success is predicated on a heaping pile of dummies who can’t handle the sad truth that history has taken the shittiest path into the future, that it made us all assholes, and will likely kill us. He has his share of sycophants but thankfully they’re all bad writers and obvious partisans.
I think I would take less pleasure in his suffering if it was a point of departure towards the road to repentance. Had he taken to his Youtube channel and said something to the effect of, “So hey everybody. All this time I’ve been pimping myself as a champion of the virtue of men subordinating women and offering a veneer of reason to shitting on trans people, I’ve also become really anxious. I’m more sensitive than I thought. All this pushback against me, it’s understandable, and I’ve begun to realize that maybe I really am a shithead. I can’t figure out how to apologize adequately for my poorly considered statements that likely contributed to the critical mass of cruelty in our society. As for my opposition to identity politics, I see how I have no grounds from which to criticize these positions. There really is institutionalized racism. There really has been a historical visitation of trauma upon all human beings, but those who have suffered most are not of western European extraction. And the global warming thing, well that was just criminal. I can’t handle who I’ve been and who I am but to jump off of the train I myself set in motion will open me up to bitter reprisal by people who formerly considered me a mentor. And I appear so weak- self aggrandizing self-help shit is my whole schtick and I’m a wreck, shaking in the fetal position as I withdraw from the soft cloud of high dose benzo addiction. It’s all come crashing down. Could someone help me? Love me? Make me whole?”
But people who are brands tend not to have these revelatory moments. Remorse is something that gets mentioned in a tweet before someone fades into obscurity. While I understand the assertion that most of the people who get tarred and feathered in the public square have already gotten more air-time than they deserve, I think it might be just that moment that needs to be front and center. For one, sincere remorse is agonizing, so if you’re looking for justice an extended treatment of the evolution of a monster would probably provide emotional satisfaction. As well, it serves as a warning. To watch someone’s shredded soul bleed out from the wounds of a public accounting might bring the costs of misogynist violence and toxic masculinity into starker relief.
While the destruction of the culturally diverse but interdependent continent we live upon reached a number of narrative peaks as Spaniards, Frenchmen and the unfortunate denizens of England, Ireland and Scotland moved Westward, all this serves to drive home a point that many miss. The waves of disease that originated from these early arrivals denuded the Eastern Seaboard of many of its indigenous people, a pestilence that penetrated the continent much more quickly than the human beings themselves. From the South it was apparently pigs that carried zoonotic illness through the rain forests. The virgin wilderness confronted by early chroniclers of the continent was merely a landscape denied its traditional stewards. Check out Charles C. Mann’s 1491for a more detailed accounting of how this played out.
This is to say that the ridiculous and sarcastic claim that morons on Twitter launch at people who would do something so radical as express sadness over the loss of a diversity of worlds is both wildly unimaginative and momentously boring. The pat and condescending response is something to the effect of “Why should you feel sad about the destruction of a society that offered plants instead of medicine, swidden instead of plows, and lengthy low intensity conflicts instead of orderly wars of annihilation?” Aside from the hundreds of millions of corpses that proponents of this throw-away argument gloss over there is also a hypocrisy and ignorance that helps to underscore the disingenuousness of the position.
I think there is a missing of the point, or a deliberate blindness to it, by these champions of Western supremacy. They forget (or ignore) the waves of colonization that swept over Europe itself. From the Roman Legion and the systems of governance and division left in their stead, all the indigeneity on the continent was set ablaze. In the wake of this early conquest various campaigns of terror rolled across the land, from the witch burnings that followed on the heels of the crisis of feudalism to the conquest of Ireland. All the peasant wars launched upon the undeserving nobles were met with a culling to leave nothing in the imaginations of the losing side but the fantastical visitations of violence waiting in the wings. And when human progress demanded that the people be divorced from the land there was the Bloody Legislation that offered mutilation, hanging and slavery to the dispossessed.
Perhaps this is the thing that should be kept in mind by white people on this stupid holiday: In our distant past there lies a nightmare, one that we’re scarcely aware of. We have acted as one of the most significant vectors of violence on the planet and have also been on the receiving end. Just as our ancestors cleansed the world of lives that did not adequately fit into the designs of early capitalism, these human ploughshares were hammered into swords by wars of domination launched by Rome, then by feudal lords, then by the states of the early bourgeoisie.
The modern form of death is suicide. It gets referred to as ‘death by despair’ in some circles and doesn’t limit itself to hanging from a rope or firing a bullet into one’s brain, but also encompasses drug overdoses and the numerous ways that alcohol can kill a person. This is born out statistically. I have no reason to judge those who die in this way. I’ve thought about it all plenty of times. All the bitter disappointment, punishing boredom and terrible fear that many of us experience is somewhat obvious in its impact on these statistics.
But we neglect a consideration of the speculative fictions that assail us. Had it not been for the creeping horror of early states and the cosmologies that they erased with swift and brutal violence, would we somehow experience a world that made sense? Would we be people with a point, living in a world of spiritual significance? What technologies would have developed in a world not subordinated to the mundane horror of dollar stores and drive-thrus? What does an indigenous spaceship look like? What would a druidic neurosurgery entail? What machines could have arisen from the plurality of societies were they somehow spared their fates in the thresher of our clown idiot dingbat society?
I don’t mean to gloss over the other suicide epidemics in our world. While white men have been killing themselves at a startling pace, it is the communities of indigenous people that have seen the greatest increases in death by suicide and this makes quite a bit of sense. (I suppose, thought I have not asked) that at every turn they are faced with the reminders of a world that might have made room for them; watch the sacred drown in a sea of profanity; and see a legacy of violence in a past that is not so distant. They likely know something has been taken and will continue to be taken by a world that doesn’t give a single shit about them except perhaps as names for grade schools.
I remember a car ride with my father in the not-so-distant past. We were talking about my cousin who had recently overdosed in the bathroom of a retail store. He expressed his lack of understanding. He expressed what a tragedy it was.
I didn’t understand and I said so. How is one surprised that a pain killer is so attractive? We’re all in pain. How is it tragic? He died doing what he loved. Why do we applaud those who can suffer well and find ourselves baffled by those who don’t? Heroin was perhaps the one thing that protected him from meaninglessness. He sank into the warmth of deliverance, one of the easiest ways to leave this world. This isn’t a thing to mourn but a set of ethics to question. Are we brave enough to allow people to leave on their own terms, and why don’t we fight for them when they’re still alive? This earth is a suicide machine that pills and therapists and self-help books can do almost nothing to hinder.
“Love don’t make the world go round, it holds it right in place, keeps us thinking love’s too pure to see another face. Love’s another skin-trap, another social weapon, another way to make men slaves and women at their beckon. Love’s another sterile gift, another shit condition, that keeps us seeing just the one and others not existing.”
“You see there’s lots of chances in this land of hope and glory. Try and make your own rules, that’s a different story. If you’re a man, you’d better act like one. Develop your muscles, use your prick like a gun. Fuck anything that moves, but never pay the price. Steal, fuck, slaughter, that’s their advice. Are you man enough? Ask the posters on the walls. Have you got what it takes? Guts and balls? Keep your myth of manhood, it’s been going on too long, a history of slaughter is the proof that it is wrong.”
At this point in my life I don’t have sex and I’m generally uninterested in it. Romance holds no allure for me. While just like anyone else I’m interested in causality I hesitate to attribute my general lack of desire for this most human of impulses to any one particular factor. It could be that I’m on a number of medications that count as side effects a diminishment of one’s sex drive. If this is the case I’m fairly grateful for this outcome. There’s nothing so compulsive as the drive towards pair bonding. Freedom from it is welcome, perhaps outstripping the antidepressant effects of these medications themselves.
Or maybe it’s a learning curve that I’m on. As for many people I find that monogamous partnership that has perfect and unending union as its goal is something that I’m supposed to want. However when I’m on track for this sort of thing I feel stifled, surveilled and limited. I fight against my own patterns of behavior that, although they may be maladaptive, allow me to make it through the day. I’ve got all sorts of undesirable traits that I feel compelled to hide when I’m with someone. I don’t want them to know that I’m a slob. I don’t want them to suspect that I’m lazy. I don’t want them to see me with my shirt off or realize that I sleepwalk and eat during my somnambulism. These are things that are supposed to be secret and I feel threatened when they are subject to the gaze of another. To paraphrase a friend of mine, I can’t take the mirror that it holds up. The judgement of others is something I fear. The judgement of myself is something I’ve learned to live with.
The illness, or illnesses, that I live with are another factor here. While antidepressants are libido killers, depression itself is too. There are times when I can’t do ‘it’, or anything for that matter. I’ll eat only toast for days or allow garbage and clutter to tower over me. There’s no working, a fact that I prefer to keep ambiguous for anyone but lifelong friends or blood relatives. And of course, there is the constant specter of anhedonia, where pleasure is simply not attainable. I want to like things and put a lot of effort into attempts at breaking through the barrier, but ultimately I’m just acting. I want to return to the seated position and type until my concentration falters, at which point I read ethnographic treatments of mythical monsters.
Maybe it’s training. I was raised in a household where a terrible marriage was the defining and pivotal source of misery. I can’t point to a relative in the generation preceding mine who didn’t have a marriage crumble after a few years. When the thing that is conveyed to you, over and over again, is that the best thing one can hope for out of life is a disappointing pairing that results in unhappy kids who need to be supported financially by a job that is, at best, tolerable, well, it starts one thinking that maybe the whole deal is a bad one. We mortgage our independence and self-direction to a package of goods that is maggot infested and moldy.
My experience has been that I’m poorly suited for this way of living. In the last six years I’ve been in two relationships. One lasted for three months. The other one was with someone living in Taiwan. We spent perhaps two months in close proximity to one another and even this was more than I felt I could do. One video chat a week was too much, and ultimately I felt that I was wasting both of our time. These were both uncomfortable experiences for me. I feared the possibility of a greater degree of commitment. I hated the thought of living outside of my sickbed. Breakups are uncomfortable and inevitable and it’s easier to simply avoid the conditions that bring them about in the first place. I need to be free to be sick.
I didn’t have this self-awareness for most of my life, nor did I have the political savvy to understand that, where partners are concerned, I am a bad person. My early romantic life was typified by me acting like a scumbag and while the more egregious aspects of this diminished over time, it was only rounded ‘round the edges. I went from a cheating and mean person to someone who was simply disappointing. I confused sex for love and love for fulfillment and I never got beyond the first step of this conditional statement. I felt that if someone loved me I would finally love myself and I clearly got this backwards.
Misogyny is a factor here. I grew up in an environment in which my parents were profoundly unhappy. While my mother seemed desperate to repair the divide, all of her efforts saw my father retreat further. Children were accessories to disdain and annoyance. I came to resent my mother for her inability to leave, a hobbling born of hope destined to end in more disappointment.
Against this backdrop I experienced a great deal of bullying. Some men will be able to relate. A feature of bullying, or at least the bullying that I experienced, is emasculation. You are physically assaulted, sure, but there is a sexually charged element to it. As you get punched and kicked, you are called ‘bitch’ and ‘faggot’, over and over again, as fists rain down. There is a kind of circularity to all of this- are you beaten because your sexuality and gender are in question, or are your gender and sexuality in question because you are beaten? I still don’t know.
But the effects of this are that you come to hate the parts of you that rebel against the prison of gender, that find no pleasure in masculinity. These integral things, these fundamental oppositions, these ways of being that might lead you to shed your skin and live as something different become the sources of your pain and fear. You’re too young to see that your failure to walk the lines of this binary are anything other than a scarlet letter that singles you out. You come to hate yourself and the people like you who are buried in the toxicity of it all. You become a misogynist and a homophobe, a kind of jailhouse snitch or plantation overseer who seeks redemption by winning the favor of enemies by stomping on the people below you.
One of the many shitty outcomes of this process is that women become nothing more than a means of validating your masculinity. You use notches in the bedpost as mile markers towards the respect of the people who’ve hurt you. You resent them because they remind you of yourself, the you who was sensitive, the you who was kind, the you who appreciated beauty and walked in ambiguity for just a little while.
By the time this leghold trap has sprung you’re not even aware of it. The disregard for women and gender rebels is baked in. It feels natural, though it is anything but. To prevent any doubt as to your sexuality you become a violent validation of a thing you never wanted: To be a man, entirely untroubled by the violence that will continue to rain down on people more like you than you can ever admit.
I’ve come to terms with this in the last decade. It is a hard thing to even see and an even harder thing to admit. When you realize you’ve been a traitor to humanity by being a partisan of your feeble genitals there’s nothing to do but cry for a few years and try to salvage whatever time remains.
Emerging from scattered islands of punk and anarchism I came upon critiques of romance and gender that provided me with a great analysis of the conundrum that I failed completely to internalize. The great proselytizers of anarcho-punk, Crass (quoted above), made a useful and incisive intervention into the phenomenon of love, marriage and masculinity. It is nothing aside from the ideal condition for the reproduction of labor power, with a waged male slouching his way towards the factory (or wielding a club) while a woman cleans and cooks and bears children without a dime of her own to show for it. It is the enemy of transcendence, one that promises us the feathered wings of angels while only providing us with the repetition of a dialectic. Loved/Not loved. Worthy/Unworthy. We can’t promise ourselves to humanity in this paradigm. There are no ways to break free from the tyranny of social reproduction when we are trapped like this.
Emma Goldman is another figure who speaks to this, offering both a personal narrative of her refusal of unyielding monogamy as well as a crique. To read her autobiography is to be dazzled by a life of ceaseless dynamism while fending off the efforts of the men who surrounded her to tie her to them and them alone. This is not to say she didn’t love. In fact she loved furiously, but it was a love for the species in its entirety, for the people in her life and for the ideals to which she was committed. This isn’t to say she was celibate. Quite the opposite. Emma had tons of sex. There were many times she had to painfully extricate herself from the tar pit of monogamy, but she did it. She serves as a reminder of the terrible gravity of the unfreedom that marriage threatens, and an example of a furious refusal to give up and drown in it.
The indoctrination of this way of living starts early. We watch our parents fight and then we’re bewildered when they assure us of their devotion to one another. Disney heroes find their perfect, magical partners and we forget to ask what happens next. Every move we make as we grow is undergirded by a current of sexuality. Be a football hero. A cop. A soldier. You will be loved. Be beautiful, be a cheerleader. You will be loved. Aspire for more to be loved better, to be as close to perfect as one can be, and the gift of love is still the only prize that you can redeem your tickets for. It’s a Chuck-E-Cheese game that everyone plays and no one wins.
When I’m not paired my heart is bigger. I am able to orbit something like self-love. The children, relatives and friends in my life are afforded the fullness of my attention and this feels more mutual, more rewarding, and less fraught. I only have to be me for these people. And while I inhabit this frail human body that deteriorates day by day, I feel no compulsion to rage against it. I hope I go into the dark as myself with no one who requires me to deny my suffering or to be any braver than I am. We all leave this world. I don’t know what happens next. If I am nothing then there will be no tears that I can cry about my erasure. If there is something then I can navigate this space with the door firmly closed on the past. Either way I will be more free than I was in life.
“What are you capable of? You can be the one to string them up and beat them to death. When you cut the bodies down, you’ll see the face of your failure and shame. This is a world of professional liars: a bleating chorus of tempered truths, who like pealing church-bells echo its’ virtues sung over and over and over again. Rotting at the bottom is better than living as a fool. I can’t find the meaning in the great achievement. When you commit heart and soul to earning your place, opportunity kills common sense.” – Ordinary People do Fucked-up Things When Fucked up Things Become Ordinaryby Propagandhi.
I quote this band quite a bit. Obviously I like them. Having a song that parallels the ethos of these things is helpful. It gives me something to sink my teeth into. I wonder sometimes if it distracts from the essay but then I realize that there are rarely more than five people that look at this in a given day and it’s likely that they all know me.
I’m reading Karl Marx’ Capital for what is probably the fourth time in my life. I’m reading it in a group. Doing anything in a group is challenging for me. I have a profound inferiority complex that, as far as I can tell, is contextually appropriate. I log on to a Zoom meeting and I am greeted by seven people who I have known for over a decade, and in some cases for a solid two decades. I have no doubt that I am loved by them. I’ve gone through some of the most intense experiences a person can have with them. All my memories of these people are pleasant. This might explain why I avoided contact with most of them for the past four years. There’s no reason to taint our time together with my crushing depression.
The painful part of this is that they are living lives that appear to be quantitatively better than mine. It’s a shitty habit, to constantly compare yourself to others, but I can’t seem to stop. I reflect on their middle class jobs, their partners and their economic independence and I feel angry. Not at them but at myself. How is it that I’ve arrived at the temporal center of mid-life with none of the accoutrements that accrue to someone over a span of forty years?
Regardless, I get on the call. I block out the concern that perhaps people speak of me with pity or regret or disappointment. I don’t say much. I let others lead the charge. There’s no shame in listening.
To varying extents we all identify with a current in Marxism that would be called autonomism. That likely doesn’t mean anything to most people, at least in the U.S. The general contours of this current involves a reframing of the relationship between capitalism and the working class. In general, most Marxist thinking asserts that capitalism is the agential force that acts upon the working class. Autonomism presents an inversion of this relationship- It is the activity of the working class that is dynamic and all of the technical and disciplinary discoveries of society are a reaction to this.
Perhaps this is simply a preference. We’re all anarchists who, frustrated with the lack of analysis in this tradition, took up Marx’ work for its explanatory power. Autonomous Marxists presented this in a palatable way and we jumped on it.
When you talk about Marx people generally recoil in confusion or disgust. Mostly they have no real conception of what he had to say, or at least what he had to say that was important. Often it’s a very peripheral knowledge buoyed by the widespread political impressions that morons get from right wing mouthpieces. Bullshit common sense is proffered by assholes, flapping in the breeze like windsocks, who veil their belief that most of us should just lay down and die in the garb of McCarthyist hysteria.
This isn’t to say that the history of state communism hasn’t been awful. It definitely has. It’s produced death and misery on a grand scale and polluted the left with dingbats who want to offer Mao, Lenin and even Stalin as heroes. They’re not, unless you admire authoritarian murderers. But it’s also the case that the endless list of dicks on the other side of things are also murderers and authoritarians. They just are afforded an airbrushing by people who think their arbitration of the truth can withstand the scouring wind of historical fact.
If people have read Marx it is generally The Communist Manifesto that they have a familiarity with, and this familiarity is mostly out of context. The manifesto is a political document written at a particular point in time. It is largely concerned with a number of programmatic points for an organization long dead. A significant proportion of the work is concerned with policy statements such as universal public education and a progressive income tax. These are a general practice of governments around the world that no one would ever mistake as Marxian. Or maybe not.
It is Capital that is (or should be) the canonical work of Marx’ oeuvre, but it’s unsurprising that nobody reads it. It’s fucking long. It’s exacting. It has very particular assertions to make about the functioning of capitalist society and you have to hang in through a lot to get to these assertions. For a college professor to assign it as reading, even in part, is to run up against both the attention spans and the political leanings of their students. And if you were to even mention it in a high school classroom ugly American parents would call for your death on Facebook.
In our reading group we approach the text in the way that is suggested by Harry Cleaver. He’s a University of Texas economist who wrote a terrific book called Reading Capital Politically. One of the most useful things suggested in this text is that one begins Capital by reading the last chapter first. This is where Marx presents the rupturing of all previous social relationships that is necessary for the inauguration of a capitalist economy. The essential point is that the system could not be born unto itself whole cloth. It required an initial influx of human labor, money, and private property where there had been none before.
The way this plays out on the ground is through a thoroughgoing application of violence that encompasses the destruction of feudal relationships in Europe, the theft of millions of Africans and their transportation into the plantation economy of the United States, and a genocide perpretrated upon the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It amounts to nothing less than a campaign of terror that played out around the world.
I have always wondered about the psychic components of this process. Inasmuch as there was an initial campaign of violence that had to be deployed in order to bring people, land and money into this system there was also, necessarily, an original accumulation of trauma. People did not go quietly into the night, instead fighting to preserve their traditional rights and ways of living. The answer to this was inevitably to kill or mutilate anyone who resisted.
One of the perennial assertions of autonomous Marxist discourse is that there is a need in capitalist governance to dissolve and appropriate any renewed practices of ‘commoning’ and to always move towards the ‘real subsumption’ of human life, which is to say that if there’s something that hasn’t yet been commodified they’re gunning for it. Ways of being that resist the penetration of capitalist logics will be eroded, stolen, destroyed, quarantined or otherwise isolated until they collapse, at which point price tags will be rapidly affixed to the corpses on the ground.
This is to say that capitalism needs bastards and it needs the position of these bastards in society to appear as completely natural. From captains of industry right on down to everyday sexism, from senators to cops, from middle managers to schoolyard bullies, dickheads are absolutely fundamental to the reproduction of human beings as labor power. All of the world’s outliers, from the mentally ill to the homeless to the trans person are receptacles for the sickening cadence of fists. Violence is a labor process intended to turn rebels, dropouts and misfits into retail clerks and Uber drivers. Don’t you dare be yourself. For even one generation to escape this process would destabilize the global order. For labor power to be reproduced cruelty and apathy must be reproduced as well.
Not to trade in platitudes but the assertion that ‘hurt people hurt people’ captures the ethos that I’m trying to express. While I’m not so naive as to pretend that the species was skipping around the maypole and tickling each other with feathers prior to the advent of the current economic system, I think it is fair to say that the application of violence assumes a universality under this regime that is thoroughgoing, constant and baked into the fabric of society. There is an implicit terror to living, in which we are faced with an endless parade of miserable futures should we fail to summon the will to restock coca-cola or detail cars. Too many days out of work and one sleeps on pavement, loses their children, petitions social service agencies for the meager resources of survival, gets arrested, gets sent to the psych ward, back to the street as the cold creeps in, and only then might you be granted the privilege of dying by another’s hands.
It is guaranteed that there will be functionaries at every step to offer a helping hand only to snatch it back at the last moment. These people weren’t born but made, a legacy of damage done as hope begins to fade.
The very late 90’s and early 2000’s were a time in which my adolescent visions of a world turned upside down seemed as though they might be pushing their way into reality. I had considered myself a leftist since I purchased my first Dead Kennedys’ record. Despite a lack of any real knowledge of the history or politics of social movements and class struggle I felt a deep connection to the idea that the world was hopelessly fucked but could be saved with enough opposition and savvy argument. Most of my thinking on matters of politics and comportment was delivered by Maximum Rock n’ Roll, the definitive journal of punk culture in the 1990’s. The unabashedly irreverent leftist discourse of punk served as my touchstone of all things political. It was the only friend I had for a while.
My earliest participation in politics was with an organization of a decidedly Leninist bent that concealed their politics until you were invited to sit down with them for their weekly reading group in which three people at a poker table read Lenin.
In hindsight the Eastern Farm Workers Association was bizarre and cultish. They operated out of a thoroughly depressing building in Bellport, NY and it was never quite clear to me what the endgame was for them. They had me assist in phone banking, tabling and visits to the barracks style living arrangements that seasonal farm help lived in. None of this seemed to have much of a point or goal and if it did I’m sure it wasn’t accomplished.
At 17 they asked me to start living with them and to engage in organizing full-time. Then and now I would be hard-pressed to think of something less pleasant. There was always some vile soup sitting on top of a hot plate and the several people that lived on cots in their office were so incredibly odd that it was hard to envision them existing elsewhere. Their desire to have me commit myself to a life in the miserable hole they lived in caused me to pull away. I was already unhappy. I didn’t need their help in maintaining that disposition.
I remember distinctly an experience of tabling with them outside of a grocery store in the Hamptons. I was probably 15 years old. My hair was bright red and shaved into a mohawk that flopped over in the absence of something to fix it in place. I was still almost a good kid. The quantum superposition of my life had not yet been collapsed into a single, shitty point.
Tabling for workers’ rights in the Hamptons is a curious thing to do. White weekend warriors stopped into the grocery store for beer, wine and liquor. In a lot cases they were continuing a drinking binge rather than gearing up for one. They looked sick and pink.
We had a standard pitch which largely consisted of begging for money. Whatever political program we were supposed to advance seemed lost in the face of the need to keep the broken people who were steering the organization in their bare brick home.
We were essentially panhandling the upper middle class and wealthy. While I didn’t have enough of a political footing to realize it, these were the people who would benefit most from the exploitation of immigrant labor in the housing boom. If they gave us money or signed a contact sheet they were doing so out of guilt or a dedication to the path of least resistance.
I approached a man, anglo and over twice my age dressed in the uniform of the vacationing bourgeois: khaki shorts, a polo shirt, boat shoes and a flushed face. I did my best to deliver my pitch from the script. After I finished speaking he told me that he thought I was disgusting and that if his kids ever looked like me he would disown them.
Rage. Black fucking rage. While I was hopeless in a street fight at the time I thought this would be an appropriate moment to check if this was still the case. I wasn’t quite as good at tearing another human being apart verbally as I am now so I just lapsed into a litany of curses and insults. We began to walk towards each other.
One of the other people tabling got in front of me and gently held me back (bro) and then told me I should go home. We packed up the table early and loaded ourselves into his shitty car, the type of relic that can no longer be purchased in working condition. On the drive west he tried to explain to me why it was important to not be baited like that, but all I could think was that it would have felt wonderful to stab that man in the stomach.
After I pulled away from the Eastern Farmworkers Association I had few interactions with left politics for a time aside from the antifascist gruntwork of being incredibly hostile and willing to fight. When I did resume my participation in constructive politics it was as a volunteer with Food Not Bombs, which is basically a mobile soup kitchen that serves vegetarian meals in public places. This is an activity that garners a lot more police attention than one might initially suspect. We would set up our table, liberally sprinkled with literature from various movements, and feed people at a local train station adjacent to a homeless shelter. Mostly it was fun and sometimes it wasn’t.
I have only two distinct memories of this aside from a gelling together of all the inedible crap we cooked. In one instance we watched a group of three neo-nazis leave the station, thick men with shaved heads and patches with blood crosses sewn onto the breast of their coats. A woman called the police on them, hoping (understandably) that such people were outlawed. Unfortunately this resulted in zero arrested neo-nazis and one instance of the police threatening to cite us for distributing food. On another occasion a shit-faced man who looked as though he’d been dead for several days picked up a pamphlet regarding the incarceration of Mumia Abu Jamal and told us that he was going to kill every black person (not in this language of course) New York to Philadelphia. Again, my rage was hair-trigger and I had to be removed from the situation.
This is all to say that by a very young age I was convinced that the world needed saving and that it was an ethical imperative to participate in this rescue mission despite my boundless rage, bottomless sadness and complete naivete.
There came a time when I decided I needed to do more. My life was utterly joyless and headed nowhere and I thought that if I threw myself on top of the flames of a burning world a sufficient number of times I might help smother them. A friend was leaving New York for the West Coast to participate in a tree sit near Eugene, OR. The ‘direct action’ component of the environmental movement had, from its beginning, bandied about a breed of self-sacrificing macho posturing that was very seductive for me. What was needed was bold action in which the dedicated few put their lives on the line to save the last wild places in the U.S. This appealed to my sense that martyrdom was the best I could hope for out of life.
I imagined that if I gave enough of myself to something good it would make me whole and I would finally shake the self-hatred that consumed me. I bought a greyhound ticket and sat next to my friend on the bus with those too poor to fly or drive making their way to the tiny blips on the map that serv as passable substitutes for a destination.
We arrived in Eugene with our substandard camping gear, a giant tin of rolling tobacco, and not nearly enough food. We slept outdoors in the city that first night. There was a kitten roaming around amongst the homeless and I gathered it up and put it on my chest inside my sleeping bag. It pissed on me and I had only one change of clothes so I went on smelling like cat piss for several days.
We arrived at the action after an endless drive along logging roads and I was pleased to discover that the action was packed full of assorted subcultural stereotypes. Old hippies. Crust punks. Street kids. I felt inferior to everyone.
The most senior and trusted people were camping on platforms in the canopy of a stand of old growth trees. The thinking supporting this strategy was that this would impede any logging. The encampment itself was an attempt at discouraging this. People in the woods could be killed if any trees were felled and so we were told to disappear into the forest if any police agencies or chainsaw wielding he-men closed in. Not long before our arrival a young man had been crushed by a falling tree while implementing this tactic. His hardhat served as a memorial in the camp.
I was no kind of camper. This isn’t my fault. I grew up in an endless suburb and lacked any role models who could have instructed me in the basic skills of sleeping outdoors. I got soaked from below every night and from above every day. After two weeks I was desperately sick and was well aware that I had not a single skill to contribute to the action. At the end of my stay I simply said I was too ill to continue and that I needed to see a doctor. After being driven to town I asked my mother to wire me money for a bus back to New York.
I was feverish as the bus crossed the country. In some out of the way place where the driver was taking his break an older man boarded the train and sat next to me. He reached down and grabbed my groin. I was shocked and disoriented and ill and jumped in my seat then turned to look at him. Without a word he stood up and walked off the bus, headed who knows where.
After arriving back in New York I lapsed into a profound depression. I felt that I had failed at yet another thing, that my life would not be a grand adventure but a ceaseless existence of non-participation in the seat of American normalcy.
In November of 1999 I watched the anti-WTO protests play out in Seattle, unable to tear myself from the television. I was inspired by the militancy and strategy of the protesters and felt a sense of loss. Perhaps if I had stayed on the West Coast I would have been able to participate in what at the time struck me as a turning point. It appeared as though the masses had come together around the goal of beating back capitalism’s endless throttling of human beings and the natural world. I resolved to renew my participation in the movement. Not long after I involved myself in a local organization that was preparing for the direct action that would greet the IMF/World Bank meeting in Washington D.C.
This kicked off an intensive participation in the ‘alter-globalization’ movement where we descended on a number of American cities with the intention of forcing political change by blockading the various ministerials, meetings, and conventions of the apparatus of international capital. I spent a bunch of nights in jail and I was fragile. Emerging from these events I did not feel more free. Instead I felt more weary, cynical and defeated. It was readily apparent that street-level action didn’t have a chance of influencing the slow and boring apocalypses orbiting the turn of the century.
I’m sure that I’m not the only person that came to this conclusion. But I never moved on. I wanted so badly for the world to be better that I was willing to destroy myself in pursuit of some reasonable path through the awful present. I threw myself into everything I could and tried to bury myself in the ashes of one activist flame-out after another.
The revolution is still unrealized. The future is still bleak. The likelihood that anything could wake humanity from the nightmare of pragmatic bureaucracies and cynical, pointless capitalist production seems as far off as anything. But I’m getting old and it is likely that as the young people take to the streets the last thing they need to hear is the naysaying of a failed imagineer.
I was pretty set on how I was going to approach this week. I knew that I wanted to write about the clandestine factions of the environmental movement. I thought it would be an interesting counterpoint to the Self Immolation in the Best Possible World essay. There was a great quote I was going to deploy and a man I was going to memorialize but then research got in the way and it felt confused and poorly thought out, which is pretty much in keeping with the entirety of the subject. Ethically correct and strategically hollow. Had it been more pessimistic it might have gone somewhere but it wasn’t so it didn’t.
Then I realized it was going to be Halloween (and likely is Halloween or even more likely was Halloween). So in honor of America’s only likeable holiday I decided to write about my one and only paranormal experience.
Granted I’ve done a lot of psychedelic drugs and lived a strange life so there are points at which the highly weird has waved its hand in my face. Even the story I’m going to relate takes place in this context, but has been verified by a second party (although yes, the other party was fucked up too).
There’s a renewed interest in ‘cosmic horror’ that is playing out in film and television, although film itself might be dead and shambling. Stories that fall into this framework are generally concerned with the soul-crushing awareness that forces far beyond our control are not so much hostile towards our species as they are indifferent. This awareness, at least as far as my reading goes, generally drives the protagonist insane. There are monsters, but on the whole we are just incidental bit players in larger dramas. This seems uncomfortably close to the experience of living ‘normal life’ except instead of eldritch gods we have traffic and the nightly news to remind us of how unimportant our hopes, dreams and comforts are.
Then there is the sort of ‘folkloric’ horror that is exemplified by a film like Midsomer in which a modern and rational person stumbles into some variety of indigeneity or degenerate past. I suppose we could lump a variety of films into this framework, though it gets somewhat messy. HBO’s recent miniseries The Third Day is another example of this. I find the stories that fall into this compartment of the genre to be particularly silly. There is nothing so horrifying as our own culture, and any depiction of a departure from it sounds like a dialing down of the level of terror that humanity experiences on a given day.
One of the classifications in the genre is ‘apocalyptic horror’ of the type that predominates in zombie stories. Again, I have a fairly hard time believing that an event that led to the downfall of human civilization in the 21st century would be any worse than simply living in the 21st century. Fighting my way through a shambling army of rotting corpses would likely be an improvement over working in a cubicle. The take home from these stories is that humans are the real monsters. And while this might be the case, I wonder why we’re never offered a zombie utopia. All the shitty things people do occur in a particular milieu and in the absence of that it seems equally likely that a societal collapse would provide us with an opportunity to transcend our shittiness rather than ramp it up.
I’ve seen a fair share of media directly draw upon psychedelia for scares. While I’ve had extremely bad trips in my life, all in all it is consensus reality that is truly terrifying. I would rather confront the world of spiritual significance in all its ugliness than live in the endless purgatory of a well-ordered brain. Being locked in a never-ending loop of normalcy is just as frightening as an encounter with madness. Psychic horror rings true where so many other sub-genres miss the mark.
And this is where I finally arrive at the beginning of a point. The history of psychedelic studies could very well be the set-up for a subversion of horror tropes. It’s got Europeans penetrating the Amazon in search of mystically significant plants. It’s got fussy academics in a laboratory uncovering the foundational components of a radically different worldview and grazing the hull of mysticism. It’s got cultish charismatic leaders and true believers hurling themselves with abandon into the architecture of their minds. It’s got the CIA chucking someone out a window as they experiment with mind-control. It’s got a stripped down clinical world ready to introduce indigenous knowledge into the arena of psychic suffering. It’s at least as much a tale of stolen magic as it is a story of scientific progress and colonialism in all its grim triumphs haunts the mansion of the modern mind.
There are numerous ethnographies of the indigenous cultures that have kept and held sacred the visionary plants of the psychedelic pantheon. It is far less the case that the modern white guys studying these things have been able to grasp a cosmology that is in tension with their advancement through the rungs of popular and professional recognition.
Combined with the realization on the part of nation states that these departures from the states of consciousness brought on by cars, refrigerators, television and single family homes were a threat to the reproduction of labor power under capitalism, we get a less thorough engagement with what these substances have to say to our culture, the one we’ve so enthusiastically forced upon the world as a universal good. It might be the case that the infantile grasping of western empiricism has taken up the (renewed) study of these substances too late to save us from ourselves. Thus do sacraments become drugs.
Of course there are celebrations of the white men who ‘pioneered’ the study of these things, such as Gordon Wasson, who provided the Western imaginary with psilocybin and only ruined one indigenous woman’s life and faith to do so. And there are the self-aggrandizing depictions of a band of merry pranksters forcing themselves into the interior of Mesoamerican shamanism in search of ayahuasca offered by Terrance McKenna, who in the grim light of 2020 looks clueless and embarrassing.
But perhaps I’m not extending sufficient agency to the organisms themselves in this discussion. While non-Western epistemology extends agency to the non-human world, our Abrahamic mode of knowing denies voice and motive to plants and fungi. They are accidental occurrences riding a wave of natural selection, not beings with knowledge and reason. But even with a dismissal of them to the realm of silence it is still evolutionarily advantageous to hitch a ride with people (a la The Botany of Desire), even if we’re going over the falls.
With this being said, these are the exceptions that prove the rule. We have little understanding of the arc of thinking of figures such as Alexander Shulkin, a man who was filled to the brim with contradictions; or Richard Doblin, one of the driving personalities in the mainstreaming of psychedelia; or Stanislov Grof, a psychiatrist who went so far out of the box that he fell on the floor.
All this is to say that I can’t figure out why the hell the monoamine oxidase inhibiting alkaloid harmine used to be called telepathine.
Or, more to the point, I can’t figure out who started calling it that and why they stopped. In the work of Dennis McKenna, brother of Terrence, entitled Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca, he discusses a number of botanists working in the Upper Amazon in the latter half of the 19th century who recorded the widespread use of a diversity of psychoactive plants. These early sojourners occasionally participated in ceremonies with the people whose traditions they were examining.
It is strange that ayahuasca has only been an object of interest for ugly Americans for the last 20 years or so. Considering the relatively early western contact with the sacrament, literary works by both Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, and the proselytization of Terrence McKenna one would think that it would have been afforded a position of honor in our pharmacopia. Perhaps it’s that we’re so loaded up on other drugs and hate and folly that we simply can’t handle it.
In the early 1900’s chemists began isolating alkaloids from botanical specimens collected by these field researchers. Evidently aware of the reputation of these plants in the cultures that they were taken from, chemists originally referred to the alkaloid they were extracting from Banisteriopsis caapi as telepathine. This seems an appropriate moniker. All sorts of weird stuff happens on visionary substances, one of them being the (apparent) manifestation of psychic phenomenon. Thus, the weird fluorescent alkaloid in B. caapi received an honorific that inserted a tiny bit of paranormality into a wound carved by the exacting knife of quantitative study. In the present, searching for telepathine on Wikipedia will just result in your being redirected to harmine.
This chemical is produced in a number of plants but in especially high concentrations in the aforementioned B. caapi and in Peganum harmala, the Syrian Rue. This herbaceous perennial, which derives its scientific name from its relative abundance of monoamine oxidase inhibiting alkaloids, occurs in the wild throughout the Mediterranean and is happy to migrate with human assistance. It has a long history of use in traditional medicine, and for a wide variety of ailments. It has talismanic importance in some cultures, guarding against witchcraft. It’s as good at taking down an evil spell as it is at banishing tapeworms.
As an added benefit, its seeds are super cheap and readily available on the internet. While it is intoxicating it has avoided any scheduling in the U.S. (although the Aussies will lock you up for having it) and so there’s no anxiety attached to waiting for it to arrive in the mail.
A tea made from a couple of grams of seeds doesn’t taste bad and produces an experience that’s not entirely unlike being drunk but without the requisite stupidity and bad decisionmaking. There’s a lucidity to it that you don’t normally encounter in things that get you high.
On the downside, if you’re taking the wrong medications it can kill you by inducing serotonin syndrome. Among many traditional users of plants containing these alkaloids the dosages consumed are reported to be far in excess of what it would require to temporarily inhibit monoamine oxidase. It is thought that these higher dosages induce a visionary psychedelic state distinct from what one experiences when it is combined with plants rich in demethyltryptamine.
With that said, ingesting any of the serotinergic drugs after consuming harmine and harmaline is far different than taking these substances on their own. Monamine oxidase inhibition turns the dial way up on mushrooms, LSD and smoked DMT. The experience is deeper, longer and far more in control. There is no turning on the TV and popping a benzo to wait it out. It has you.
I was something of a regular smoker of extracted DMT in my early thirties and there wasn’t a moment of these experiences that wasn’t fascinating. It was not unusual to encounter elves, angels, guardian spirits and blueprints for multi-dimensional apparatus. Smoking DMT is the psychoactive equivalent of being shot from a cannon or leaping from an airplane. It is exhilarating and terrifying and healing and where the boundaries of these things might be is not clear.
At a point I tossed my stash of DMT in a fit of paranoia. When I turned it around and was no longer under the impression that a no-knock warrant was going to result in early morning flash-bang grenades and armed SWAT cops killing my dog I felt extremely sheepish. These are not the kind of drugs you can just buy. You have to work for them.
So I was excited when a friend extracted some DMT. I figured we’d smoke and then hang out swapping stories afterwards. I had recently gone off of antidepressants for what felt like the thousandth time in my life and while I was on shaky ground it freed me up to experiment with Syrian Rue. I was drinking it in the evenings and hoping against hope that it would deliver me from the searing anxiety I was experiencing. My nighttime tea was mellow. I didn’t encounter the wild and chromatic world of what I thought of as the ‘true’ psychedelics but it soothed my miserably nervous brain and body somewhat.
Knowing that MAOIs could strengthen and lengthen the effects of smoked DMT I brought Rue seeds that I had punished a coffee grinder with and we drank about 2mg each, steeped in hot water, both of us feeling the stonedness of it. I was excited. I wasn’t someone to shy away from a drug at that time, excluding the ethically and culturally disgusting morass of cocaine, meth and heroin.
After sitting around and smoking spliffs for an hour he offered me the first session and I took it. I laid down on his bed with a bowlful of pot that I liberally sprinkled with DMT crystals. I invoked my patron, a tripartite mushroom spirit, and then hit the pipe. I heard the all-encompassing hum of the come-on.
Instead of gates of gold or welcoming spirits I was plunged into darkness. I felt as though I had been dipped in oil. Faces appeared before me, angry and distorted, hostile to my intrusion. I don’t remember all of what I saw, but I remember what I felt. I remember thinking (and this is the exact phrasing) “What the fuck is this shit?” I don’t even recall what ‘this shit’ was, just that it was noxious, offensive, horrible. And then it appeared.
Floating above a parched and dead plane was a thing that looked much like a rhinovirus, a ball wreathed in spikes that radiated menace and hatred. I was overwhelmed by the horror of it and a certainty washed over me- I was a bad person. I always had been and I always would be. There was no saving myself from the knowledge of my debased failure to be good. What I had thought of myself up until that moment was shattered and pulverized- I was not powerful. Not kind. Not loving. Unforgivable.
I lived in this state for what felt like a lifetime and I knew I deserved it. This was hell and I was just catching a glimpse of what was in store for me as I aged and failed, crawled my way towards nothing but death. Aeons later I started to surface but the filth was upon me and in me. Panic in my throat. Panic in my chest. In my stomach. Behind my eyes.
There came a time when I could move though I did not want to. I stepped out of my friend’s room into the kitchen where he sat at a table, looking alarmed as I entered. He said, “I could feel that.” He went on to say that as he got higher from the tea he had attempted to ‘breathe in’ to my trip, settling into a meditative state and then trying to expand into what I was experiencing. After some sustained effort he had opened his eyes and given up, and at that point, upon withdrawing, he felt a wave of rage and disgust emanate from where I had dosed. He said he had felt frightened, concerned that I would emerge from the room in a homicidal frenzy.
I told him what had befallen me. That something wrong had occurred and that I was consumed by thoughts of my own wretched evilness, every great and minor sin I had ever committed infused in the cells of my body. A physical and spiritual degradation had occurred. I didn’t know if I would ever be alright again.
Over the course of an hour I chain-smoked rolled cigarettes and unburdened myself of my transgressions, but the burden went nowhere, staying inside me, coming home to roost. I didn’t want to go home, to ride my bike through the city streets filled with a possessing spirit who craved me prostrate and weeping. I didn’t want to go home to my fiancee, a person I’d come to hate over time, whose heart I would inevitably break when I reached my breaking point.
Things were never the same. I deteriorated. Waking life was breaking me and the spirits of wild had been driven from within me by that wicked orb.
What do I make of this? Do I interpret it through the empirical lens of the modern monster in which the sickness lives inside us? Or did I fall victim to something? And what of my friend’s perception of this experience? Was it merely the product of two stoned minds convincing themselves that a prosaic event was something else, an effect of non-localized consciousness or spiritual forces so malignant that they were experienced by two minds? And what of his experience? Was it my rage and disgust or was it the rage and disgust of the plants themselves? When psychedelics are an object of worship it is difficult not to take a harsh trip personally.
I choose to remain ambivalent. It’s a good story regardless of interpretation. I’d rather it be secondhand, an anecdote relayed instead of a direct experience, but we don’t always get the succor of ignorance we wish for. Among enthusiasts there is a tendency to regard all trips that don’t result in a psychotic break as ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ rather than ‘bad’. The thinking here is that hard trips contain wisdom and knowledge that may be difficult to come to grips with but that is necessary for spiritual development.
I think I can get on board with this. The experience detailed above was the fall of a psychic hammer upon a nail that had been put in place by a far different experience of glowing love and forgiveness. In tandem they served to remove the corrosive and toxic masculinity and anger that had animated my life for many years. It hurt terribly, but sometimes terrible pain is the best teacher.
“If I thought it would help I would immolate myself in full view of the camera crews; my counterclaim. But as we all know the only tale that would be told would be that it was me, not them, who was insane.”
I would like to begin with a disclaimer. In the unlikely event that a loved one of the man memorialized below happens upon this essay, please accept my deepest sympathies. What follows fails to accommodate the magnitude of your loss. It is not my intention to pick at the pain that you have suffered or diminish the tragedy of your loved one’s departure. Nor is it my intention to encourage other people to leave the world behind. We have a responsibility to one another to stick around. But we also have a responsibility to do what we think is right and sometimes those two things are in tension. If you knew and loved David Buckel, out of fairness to yourself please don’t read on.
On April 14, 2018, David Buckel used the last fossil fuel that he would consume in his life to soak himself in accelerant and light himself on fire.
He likely did not burn for very long. The time between his distribution of his statement of purpose and the first 911 call was approximately 20 minutes. While the New York Times devoted a number of features to Mr. Buckel’s life and death, it barely registered on the 24 hour cable news cycle. He contacted a number of media outlets immediately prior to striking his match, stating that his actions were intended as a protest against the thoughtless short-sightedness that was driving the mass extinction already underway on planet earth. He left a note near his corpse apologizing to the civil servants who would be forced to discard the evidence of his sacrifice.
Media treatments of this event generally followed similar contours. They provide the reader with a sense of the man. Those who knew him loved him. By all accounts he was saintly, an attorney dedicated to the advancement of rights for LGBTQIA people, a father who raised a daughter alongside three other parents, an environmentalist who committed himself to the organization of a composting facility in Brooklyn.
But then, after cataloging the accomplishments wracked up in a life well-lived, the questions begin.
What possessed a man who lived so well, one who was loved by a broad circle of people, to do such a thing? Why did he do it when he did it (and where he did it)? The subtext of these questions is that Mr. Buckel was not in his right mind. Many articles provide contact information for the National Suicide Hotline, as if this could deter someone from committing an act that was less about ending a life than it was about saving billions of them (and that’s only the lives of human beings).
I indulge in one of many possible gross internet pleasures. I read ‘comments’ sections on news sites when they exist.
My favorite is Fox News. These digital spaces are the refuge of the truly and profoundly stupid. There is a cluelessness necessary to engage with these forums that provides me, a detached observer, with a sense of superiority that I don’t often experience in my life. In this instance the New York Times sidebar of reader’s comments in response to Mr. Buckel’s self-immolation offered a deluge of idiotic common sense in which his actions were interpreted through the lens of mental illness.
I don’t think Mr. Buckel was any more or less mentally ill then anyone else traumatized by the arc of human history towards mass murder and oblivion. I don’t think the act was crazier than any other possible means of intervening in our 21st century holocaust. I don’t fault him for doing it in Prospect Park.
There is a general sentiment among those who decry his actions that he at least should have done it in Times Square for a more visibly shocking outcome. Alongside this is the question of why he did it at the break of dawn.
These questions are stupid. He did it in the way he did it because he couldn’t have accomplished it in any other way. Anyone who seriously considered the thinking of a person committed to this course of action would be guided in the same direction.
The likelihood of being able to successfully accomplish his goal in Times Square is very slim. In order to douse oneself in gasoline amid the army of police that patrol the center of Manhattan one would have to be virtually invisible. If apprehended he would have inevitably been accused of plotting some outlandish act of terrorism. And if he succeeded in striking the match he would have likely been ‘saved’ from his fate and forced to live the remainder of his life in the excruciating pain of the victim of severe burns. It would have transformed beatification into a farce.
Mr. Buckel was not insane. He was well aware of the tradition of self-immolation that runs through the history of Buddhist scripture and political struggle and referenced this in his letter to the media conglomerates that would be more interested in his death than the issues he fought for, literally to his last breath and beyond.
The most iconic instance of self-immolation was that of Thich Quang Duc in Vietnam, creating an image that ricocheted around the world, casting the light of a raging inferno on the corruption and brutality of the North Vietnamese puppet regime in 1963. And yes, it is a shame that Mr. Buckel’s death was not caught on film as Quang Duc’s was. It is equally shameful that there was not a crowd surrounding him, prostrate at his act of ascension, as there were at the occasion of Quang Duc’s. He committed the noblest of deeds in a society with no frame of reference for his generousness of spirit.
Even if there was not a tradition of self-immolation among those attempting to confront forces much greater than themselves, it would still be a sacrifice meant to inflict some wound upon the apocalyptic juggernaut of a society in which we live. It would still have been angelic. It would still have been an act of love. His only sin was doing what was right in a world that refused to hear his screaming defiance.
It is worth noting that Mr. Buckel was a Buddhist. I generally take professions of a religious affiliation with Buddhism on the part of Anglos with a grain of salt, as I do with those who align themselves with Christianity. I think “If you really believed that…” followed by a litany of boolean logic. People’s religious leanings are simply a box that they check. It’s not a religious affiliation so much as it is an identity that serves as shorthand for who you exclude from your life. It allows us to think we’re good people while all it really does is reveal that we’re hypocrites.
Not so for Mr. Buckel. The act of burning oneself is holy in almost every iteration of Buddhism that he might have adhered to. It is sacred, signifying a thoroughgoing compassion for all living things and a casting aside of one’s attachment to the body. It is only in what is beyond a doubt the most selfish society that has ever existed that the observer would shrug their shoulders and question his sanity.
Suicide always needs to be considered as a political act.
Suicide is never not a response to material conditions on the ground. When regimes of violence and neglect are dominant the abandonment of life itself is necessarily a statement that condemns those in power. It is a weapon of the weak, an arrow launched at the heart of empires, whether it be by public immolation or as a private affair.
It would take many pages to offer a full accounting of the role of suicide in political struggles but it bears mentioning that it has been a last refuge of enslaved and colonized people throughout history. Less savory but undeniably political is the explosive sacrifice of the self committed by the suicide bomber.
Despair is a political phenomenon that our modernist technocracy has thoroughly pathologized. When one is living in the best of all possible worlds any dissatisfaction is an indication of an organic disorder to be located in the faulty genes and poorly organized thought processes of the potential suicide. A three day stay in a psychiatric hospital, a fresh fistful of pills and a month of cognitive behavioral therapy should be sufficient to set the sufferer on the right track. And if this isn’t enough then it is a personal failing, not the inadequacy of the world that is to blame.
If Mr. Buckel was despairing it was a despair born of love. He was living in the age of Trump, in which any progress made to ameliorate, remediate or adapt to climate change has been rolled back and the arms of government dedicated to managing the deluge of pollution that emerges from America are staffed with cynical ideologues situated deeply in the pockets of corporate interests .
I think Mr. Buckel was more sane than most of us. In the face of the greatest manifestation of greed and foolishness in human history he burned against the tide.
On Indigenous People’s Day weekend I planned on doing drugs.
For the past two years I have had about ten grams of Psilocybin cubensis and a couple tabs of acid in the freezer. My sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew were visiting my father in Vermont and the constant thundering of feet and periodic spells of crying (at least the ones not attributable to me) would be quieted for three days. I wanted to take advantage of the silence. And I would be able to smoke. I love to smoke while high. Otherwise I’ve been off tobacco for a good long while.
I didn’t do it.
First it was going to be Saturday. Then it was going to be Sunday. Then it was Monday and the opportunity had evaporated.
I don’t quite know why I choked. There are few things I have loved in my life more than psychedelic drugs. They’ve been a teacher, a partner, even a lover. They have scared the shit out of me and forced me to confront things about myself that I might have spent a lifetime ignoring if not for their intervention. I am fond of stating that while they may not have made me a happier person they have definitely made me a better person.
So why the hesitation? I’ve had bad trips. Really bad trips. But that wasn’t my concern. They’re rare enough that it’s statistically unlikely that I would have one. I’ve done them in far sketchier circumstances than my sister’s suburban backyard. And I’ve done them with shittier events closer in the rearview and on the horizon.
I have loved drugs since the inauguration of my adolescence.
Somewhat predictably my first experience of drugs was with tobacco. It was relatively easy to access. Lots of adults still smoked in the mid-90’s and it was easy to filch a cigarette from a dad’s pack when it was half empty. A friend and I hid in a sump. This is a feature of the suburban landscape that might not be familiar to all readers. They are ostensibly a means of managing the flow of water, but they also serve as a refuge for childish transgressions.
I thought cigarettes were awful, truly disgusting, and I was resolved to smoke them until I liked them. We walked back to my house and I passed out on the front lawn, my head swimming. The pine trees opened up onto a blue sky in autumn. I picked up smoking and didn’t put it down until I was in my early twenties.
Alcohol was another early edition to my repertoire. Parents were reliable in their tendency to keep intoxicants on hand and somehow were naive enough to not expect that their suffering children would avail themselves of the means they themselves employed to kill their pain. In the spans of time in which my parents were at work I would sneak mouthfuls of whiskey from the pantry, getting just buzzed enough to avoid detection.
On one occasion my best friend was moving to another town and we got utterly shitfaced on my parent’s liquor. I knew I was far too drunk to go unnoticed and so I had the kind of brilliant idea that could be expected out of a wasted 13 year old. My drunkenness would only go unobserved if I was asleep so I chugged a bottle of Nyquil.
I came to consciousness as I was being loaded into the back of an ambulance. I had been found in a pool of my own vomit in my parents’ basement. I told the paramedics what wonderful people they were and the nurses at the hospital were showered with love and compliments on their divine calling. It was determined that this wasn’t a suicide attempt and so I was allowed to go home. The next day, as my father was dumping liquor down the sink he would wave the bottles under my nose. I gagged and vomited.
I truly loved alcohol. I pursued it throughout my young life. I drank Angostura bitters and cooking sherry trying to get wasted. A friend and I would regularly wander through a vacant house in his neighborhood. We found a case of budweiser hidden in the attic and spent a week drinking it on a wooded hillside. I was a good beer drinker and kept away from hard liquor until it was available at which point I drank that as well.
Like any kid with an interest in consciousness alteration I smoked weed. My earliest experience of this was smoking shaky garbage out of a modified soda can. I got ridiculously fucked up, laughing, spacing out, trying to express profound ideas that when spoken aloud seemed facile.
My younger cousin was similarly drug obsessed. This was not surprising. His father was a long time user of everything but had a particular affinity for heroin in his youth that bled into a cocaine haze in the late 80’s. He spoke openly about everything dangerous. I loved him for it.
He would revisit the crimes he’d committed in his younger life, terrifying and alluring stories of muggings, stare-downs with stick-up men when he was running drugs for the Strong Island Boys and fights he’d been in and won. For a thirteen year old he was an intoxicating enigma. It’s only in adulthood that I’ve been able to recognize how poisonous his effect on my life had been.
Both me and my cousin were incorrigible pill fiends. We stole everything we could from our parents medicine cabinets, at least anything with an orange label warning against driving. This was our litmus test for acceptable drugs and we took nearly anything. It was the early nineties and there was no wikipedia to tell us what exactly it was we were taking.
One day my cousin discovered a joint in an empty pill bottle and two rohypnols. We are still unsure of why these were in his mother’s possession. The joint was quite a find. Very young people lack access to glassware and generally have little skill in rolling cigs, joints and spliffs. To find an assembled and unblemished knuckle bone was an incredible stroke of luck.
We planned on smoking the joint in his father’s backyard, but in his manic periods he could show up out of nowhere to talk at us for hours. Sometimes these discourses were war stories, sometimes they were celebrations of Rush and the drumming of Neil Peart and sometimes they were obvious delusions. He was convinced that the neighbors were undercover cops and that they were survielling him. He claimed they were trying to break into the house surreptitiously. This was crazy but also normal. We were used to it.
For some reason we acknowledged the joint in our possession. He wanted to smoke it with us. For a 13 year old me this was as good as it was likely to get. Doing drugs with my super-criminal uncle seemed like exactly where I wanted to be. The three of us smoked in the backyard and re-entered the house to play Metallica songs ineptly (I was on guitar while he played the drums). It was heaven.
The next weekend I returned to the same house containing the same people. Once again my cousin and I smoked weed in the backyard. Instead of joining in for an encore of our partying the week prior, my uncle entered the basement that served as my cousin’s room enraged. We thought it was a joke initially but it abruptly became clear that he was deadly serious. His wife had smelled it and he stated that we were putting his children in danger. We both became alarmed. He threatened to call the police and have us taken away.
We were kids. We did not consider how remote the likelihood of him actually calling the police was. This was a man who kept a sawed off shotgun under the couch in a houseful of children.
His face was a horrible mask, a rictus, and he was sweating. Both my cousin and I were terrified, crying and begging him not to have us taken away. He took a can of catfood from the pantry and opened it, then held it underneath my cousin’s mouth. He told him that he would call the police if he didn’t eat it. I offered to eat half and my uncle refused. It would have to be his son.
It seemed like it took forever for this to happen. Time dilated and then ripped in two. The moment was frozen in a three dimensional structure that was infinite. Tears ran down my cousin’s face as he brought a spoonful of cat food towards his quivering mouth. And then the prestige: My uncle didn’t really want him to eat that cat food. He just wanted to make sure we didn’t get into the habit of smoking weed every weekend. The guy who gave us cigarettes was concerned about this.
In junior highschool I hung out with a group of boys who were all very committed to weed. We would smoke shitty pot out of a shitty bowl in a shitty basement. Then we would play Super Mario World and eat garbage. I would suck doritos dust from my fingers as I walked home. I wish that my high school years had followed this pattern but it was not to be. There were several attempts on my part to acquire harder drugs. One of my classmates sold me ketamine that upon closer inspection was baking flour. I was a safe kid to do this to.
By high school I was drinking all the time. I spent my weekend nights destroying myself. I loved it until it became terrifying and even then I kept it up. Every few weeks I would black out and do something absolutely fucking insane, like fightclubbing myself half to death or leaping onto subway tracks.
I was divorced from all of that after a lengthy period in a ‘therapeutic boarding school’. I assert, to head off my own doubting mind, that I was cured of alcoholism by my connection to Alcoholics Anonymous. Though I’ve done a great quantity (and variety) of psychoactive substances in the intervening 22 years, I have not taken a drink. For a long time drugs were not a part of my life either.
AA is a weird thing. It’s probably the most significant mutual aid society in the world. It is, with exceptions, an organization with no hierarchy and a decentralized organizational form that runs almost entirely on volunteer labor and member financing.
It’s also got an amorphous mystical streak, a working class syncretism that draws on the creatures of the Christian pantheon and pairs or replaces that with a grounding in the AA cosmology. There’s a generalized spiritism that pervades the membership in which people receive prophetic dreams and come into contact with the divine. AA’s eloquent co-founder Bill Wilson was particularly revered. Saying “I’m a friend of Bill’s” is a kind of speakeasy password for people on the water wagon to identify one another.
Bill Wilson was and remains an interesting person. For the purposes of this essay it feels necessary to say that Wilson first achieved sobriety after a profound spiritual experience while undergoing the “Belladonna treatment”. Belladonna is a powerful (and deadly) deliriant with the alkaloids scopolamine and hyoscine doing the heavy lifting. For reasons that aren’t clear to me this was a commonly applied treatment for alcoholics in the youth of the 20th century, and while people are more likely to experience horror or heart attack from it, apparently it put just the right amount of tweaking on Wilson’s brain to bring him to God. Later in life Wilson had a number of therapeutic treatments with LSD and recommended it as a means of achieving the spiritual experience that successful sobriety requires.
I clued into this when reading the history of Alcoholics Anonymous in a book entitled Not God. I decided that if the founder of AA had endorsed psychedelics as a means of getting closer to divinity then who was I to poo-poo them. But I wanted something different than acid. I’d taken an interest in mushrooms, the eating kind, the wild edible kind. I loved how they looked. I loved their expressiveness, that they were essentially the orgasm of a being that lay hidden beneath the soil. I knew that some of them were visionary.
I also loved stealing. This was not considered appropriate behavior for a sober member of AA but I was an outlier in a great many ways. Borders Books, the now defunct chain of bookstores, had a strict no-chase policy for shoplifting and so I stole from there shamelessly. I would just walk out the front door with a stack of books. One day amongst the field guides I found The Mushroom Cultivator. I took off with it.
I was disabused of my visions of growing mushrooms and getting really sober on them when I began reading the book. It was trafficking in terms I didn’t understand and it became clear to me that I would have to acquire skills and knowledge that were beyond the grasp of a high school dropout. As for so many adolescents at the dawning of the era of computing I had fuck all in the way of learning skills. Even acquiring genetic material was a problem. I had no internet access and less of an ability to identify mushrooms in the field. With my hopes dashed I put the book aside in my collection of stolen fictions and guides.
I maintained my sobriety for a long time, taking no drugs and drinking no drinks. Even after an unexpected and verbally explosive fight with a sponsor that was the final straw in my active participation in the fellowship I stayed clean.
It wasn’t until I had been in Arizona for a few years that I resumed my acquaintanceship with cannabis and I did so with gusto. It was not long before I was smoking everyday and for the most part I experienced few ill effects. Almost everyone I was friends with smoked, and while they probably weren’t doing so when they awakened in the middle of the night it was commonplace enough to convince me that I did not have a problem. All things considered you could very well have built a house out of the quantity of weed I smoked between 2007 and 2016.
Not long after this I was introduced to psychedelics. A woman I was seeing was gifted some dark red DMT, which at this point I realize was a fortunate novelty. This coloration of the drug is called “jungle spice” by drug nerds and is thought to contain alkaloids other than Dimethyltryptamine. As far as I can gather this is a result of the solvent used to extract the drugs from an acidified solution of mimosa hostilis root bark and lye.
I smoked it in her bed. It smelled like a dream about burned plastic and in a matter of seconds I was watching elves marching in a conga line from every bit of materiality in the room. They were happy, joyous and free. Just to observe them was to have information imparted to me about the nature of materiality. Chairs and dust and wall sockets weren’t inert objects. They were bursting with spirit. They contained the language of eternity within them.
Not long after this I had my first experience with psilocybin. The same woman had scored extracted material. After many years of interest in the substance I am still not clear on how this was accomplished. The internet is replete with instructions on how to do so that are quickly refuted. Most of the ‘teks’ for producing it are beyond my understanding.
We dissolved it in water. It tasted awful.
A half an hour later I was walking in a circle in a broken fountain filled with stagnant water and considering the possibility that I was involved in an exchange of information- that the fungus was somehow experiencing what it is to be a human being while I was experiencing what it is to be a mushroom. I woke the next day with a profoundly bad headache. I vomited with such force that I shit on the bathroom floor.
It is important to say that not only were these experiences that did not harm me, they were experiences that made me feel wonderful. My mood has really never been stable. I have a hard time navigating a normal life and my experiences of an abnormal one had been similarly horrible. I felt as though these insertions of the bizarre and transcendent were the missing piece, that they would make me whole.
It wasn’t long before I was growing mushrooms, a development that was endlessly pleasing to me. It felt like a victory over my younger self’s inability to learn. The acquisition of this knowledge involved a great deal of trial and error and I felt proud of my tenacity in the face of repeated failures. It didn’t really occur to me that I was growing drugs in a rental and that this might be a dangerous thing to be doing. I also started extracting DMT from a large quantity of root bark I had acquired. Again, I felt like a genius.
Things went well for a time. I explored my mind and expanded my universe. A spiritual life that had been in decline for many years was given renewed vitality through my contact with the images and entities of the psychedelic state. The world was full of life and spirits were erupting from it.
Unfortunately I was also falling into deep and lengthy depressions. This had been a problem before the psychedelics entered my life and would remain long after I’d put them on a shelf. In addition to these periods of deep, disabling sadness I was also becoming increasingly paranoid. This is a tricky subject for me. Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not after you.
In addition to drugs, teaching and grad school I was also involved in protest politics. I co-hosted a show on pirate radio with friends, got arrested once and got nearly arrested a ton of times and was outspoken about where I stood on things on my social media accounts.
This coupled with my history as a defendant in a federal terrorism case left me with a shaky foundation on which to engage in other felonious behavior. This was made worse after I and a number of friends made FOIA requests to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Tucson Police Department.
We received no records from any of these agencies and I thought this was a very bad sign. As we had all been arrested by TPD, I had been arrested by the FBI, and the Arizona Department of Public Safety had been found to be surveilling social media accounts of activists around this time the idea that there were not records in these agencies possession was not just unlikely but impossible. As they are allowed to ignore the mandates of the Freedom of Information Act if the party they are related to is the target of an investigation I became terrified. I kept doing my drug stuff but at a cost.
Eventually I left Arizona. I moved back to the home of my childhood. I started growing mushrooms again. But they weren’t working. I attribute this to my long use of SSRIs.
The classic psychedelics are all serotonergic, meaning that they bind to the receptor sites that are the loading dock for serotonin’s regulation of ‘normal’ consciousness. There are a number of changes in this neurotransmitter system that occur with the long-term use of these antidepressants. Because of serotonin’s relative abundance after the inhibition of its reuptake there is a pruning of receptor sites. This means there are fewer places for classical psychedelics, which are all serotonin analogs, to dock. This diminishes the power of the medicinal experience of these drugs.
This was a frustrating phenomenon that I attempted to circumvent in a variety of ways. At the point in time I’m discussing my only reliable access to psychedelics were those that I could produce myself. So it was mushrooms that I tried hammering away at this problem with. I took very large doses in excess of 10 grams to little effect. I tried mushroom enemas (there is historical precedent for this among the bits of mesoamerican indigeneity not destroyed by the arrival of Europeans on the continent). Neither of these seemed to work and so for a while I abstained.
Not long after I had an absolutely miserable experience with a psychiatrist and decided that I was done with this regime of care. I chucked my sertraline in the toilet and was determined to weather whatever miserable withdrawal symptoms occurred. None did, or at least none that I noticed and after two weeks I downed a ten gram dose that transformed consciousness into a brief but memorable visionary immersion in a world other than my own. I was thrilled.
For some months I did okay. I was mercifully unemployed during the months that preceded the 2016 election which insulated me from interacting with the hateful white working class and their paymasters.
My father and I had plans to move to Vermont. I was stagnant on Long Island and thought that perhaps opportunities would open up for me in a different place. This wasn’t very strategic thinking on my part. A rural area in decline was not a place to reinvent oneself economically. We also had plans to start a business growing specialty gourmet mushrooms, also a stupid idea in hindsight. It’s a fact that most small scale mushroom growers go out of business within a couple of years and we would suffer the same fate.
But I didn’t realize either thing early on. I threw myself into the renovation of the barn into a growing space. I was alone a great deal of the time and this didn’t bother me at all. I liked the solitude and hanging about with the dogs. I liked getting stoned at night in the twilight and quiet of nowhere.
My mushroom supply had been diminished by my repeated ten gram efforts. I had about five grams remaining in addition to a bag of Peganum harmala or Syrian Rue, an herbaceous perennial with high concentrations of the alkaloids harmala and harmaline. These chemicals are necessary components of the ayahuasca experience (although different plant sources are used in the preparation of that particular sacrament). They act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors, preventing the gut from deactivating these consciousness altering compounds. While they are absolutely necessary for orally administered DMT with psilocybin it simply turns the knob up to 11. Taking an MAOI is extremely dangerous for anyone on SSRIs, leading to a dangerously high level of serotonin. This will bring the sufferer to death’s door. I was impossibly happy to have cleared the hurdle of eliminating psychiatric medication from my body.
The trip was fascinating. I lay in a field on the property and closed my eyes. A deep red blossomed. Music played in the distance. I felt the euphoric bodily sensations of a mushroom high with nausea lurking around its edges. I made my way inside and laid on the couch. Then the visions began.
The first thing to say is that there was a spontaneous composition occurring throughout the experience in which complex musical arrangements unfolded, shifting from an odd synth composition that followed a tessellated worm burrowing through time and space to a somber piece on the piano accompanied by falling rain. There was a deeply felt love throughout and then abruptly it was gone, leaving my back on planet earth, exhilarated.
This was the last transformative experience in my psychedelic life, though there is an argument to be made that all of life is psychedelic- it’s just that we have always been experiencing this one with few interruptions for most of our lives. We are wildly high. We simply don’t realize it. For the next many years I would experience a profoundly bad trip.
I used mushrooms and LSD periodically throughout this time but they were dulled and muddy, not quite horrible but disappointing. Sometimes I would cry quite a bit which felt cathartic but didn’t deliver me from the misery I navigated day to day. During one LSD experience I had a golden hour in which I felt none of the fear, shame and despair of the prior two years only to be returned to my baseline of spiritual agony.
Perhaps this is why I avoided another foray into psychedelia last weekend. Not for fear of a cataclysmic experience- life itself has been cataclysmic- but a reticence to rock the boat. I have my little schedule of eating, of talking with my mom, of watching television and it’s far from perfect and definitely not what I’d wanted out of life but it’s manageable. That it happens everyday following the same patterns allows for a feeling of control. I know when to take my psych meds and how long it takes them to deposit me into the bliss of unconsciousness. I know that I’ll have at least one good idea about what to write next as I cycle uphill.
I miss that brave person who would step out into the unknown. Being him was amazing. He was a comic book character come to life with chiseled cheekbones and perfect ways of saying ‘fuck you’ to the villains in his story. He never could have anticipated where this story was headed and his ability to avert disaster is very much in question- it seems as though the plot had been outlined long ago, script intact, with pencils only awaiting the ink of experience before it went to press and waited for him to begin reading his own exploits.
It’s assured that I will take these substances again but when is not clear. I yearn for them and the strangeness they engender. I miss the freedom from my own small concerns, the big ideas that arrive like a meteor, tearing a hole in the ideological atmosphere of my life.
I grew up on the water, and not in the sense that I lived on the border between land and sea although this is also true. My father and grandfather owned and operated a commercial charter boat. These used to be called ‘head boats’. It was a walk-on business and they charged by the passenger. The earning power of the working class had not yet been completely eroded and the Long Island sound wasn’t in full ecological collapse so people paid without much complaint. Fishing was good and filling your freezer was worth the 20 dollars.
The customer base was made up of people who couldn’t afford their own boats and so they departed from Queens and places even further afield early in the morning to get onboard. The clientele was a melting pot of African Americans, Asians of many extractions, Greeks, Frenchmen and the odd Irishman alongside the generic white flight Long Islanders entering the dotage of their retirement years. I was too young to know that this was a social rarity, to have so many tones of skin and voice crammed cheek to jowl and somehow managing to keep things cordial despite the endless tangling of rigs and the overpriced beer we sold in the galley.
Hundreds of years after the first enclosure of the earthly commons these inheritors of nothing pushed back against being locked out of the protein factory of the oceans. They or their ancestors had been enslaved, displaced, persecuted and impoverished and they didn’t even have the joy of the water. Property lines, parking tickets and living by the skin of their teeth kept them from accessing beaches, piers and boat ramps.
Even the pleasure they enjoyed on the relatively cheap fleet of charter boats that prowled the Sound had a sell-by date stamped on it. Draggers sailed the ocean catching and killing everything that swam. What capital can’t control with fines and fences it simply denudes to feed back to the masses, breaded and frozen or canned. The fewer fish that were caught the more desperate they became to make their 20 dollars count. In time the Long Island Sound was largely a wasteland.
My summers would be spent among these men, navigating around them and learning less of the world than should have been possible. I was five and free of insecurities. Things were not bad at home and it was too early in my classmates lives for them to have learned the joys of bullying. I was an okay person in an okay world. I had little sense of the ecological disaster looming over the water and the mariners who made their living upon it.
What we fished for followed the seasons. We hung out close to shore during Spring, fishing for flounder amid the mudflats, using mussels that my father pulled out of marshlands not yet eliminated or befouled by suburban development. Sometimes I would come on these trips. The labor of children is useless. I would get stuck in the sucking mud and need rescuing.
In summer it was a mix of things. Porgies (or scup or sheepshead) during the day, feeding on clam along the sandy bottom adjacent to rocks and wrecks. Then it was bluefish at night, boiling up after bunker (or menhaden) and chasing shiny metal jigs. There was no bait on these trips but they bathed the boat in blood. Blood has its own unique stink. People spoke of how there used to be striped bass, abundant, so many that they would catch all they could carry. Most failed to make the connection between the one and the other.
In Fall we sailed for blackfish. These were explicitly denizens of structure along the bottom. They liked rocks and wrecks and reefs. They fed on crabs of all sorts and it was a subject of spirited debate as to which type of crab was best. My father was renowned as a fisherman of this species in particular. In high winds it is difficult to place a boat over a wreck and he would direct two miserable deckhands as he situated the boat, doing some sort of blue collar calculus to put us on fish.
All the bait was extracted from still living creatures. Mussels were sharp. It was easy to cut the shit out of your hands opening mussels, and the flesh within was insubstantial. Clams were easier. You could get in a rhythm, shucking them by the dozens. Robbed of their shells they would tense until their flesh was sliced into strips. Crabs were easy although the conditions under which they were prepared were awful. There was no way to turn them into bait without getting your hands soaked in Novembers that were biting cold. We would throw them on the cutting board and hack them in half with a cleaver. Their limbs would keep moving even after their bodies were cut in two.
None of this bothered me. It was a fact of life that these creatures were slated for processing into death for things more palatable to the human tongue.
This was in the days before bag limits. Where in the present there are strict seasons, limits to how many fish a person can keep and restrictions on the size of the fish that are kept, none of that was in play thirty years ago. People kept everything they caught in whatever quantity they caught it and woe to the person who proposed that this wasn’t a sustainable way to fish.
The fish we caught were thrown in five gallon buckets with their swim bladders protruding from their anus due to the rapid change in pressure. There they would slowly asphyxiate over the course of the day. The more fish that there were the faster the oxygen went and then they floated in death, immersed in rapidly warming water. I don’t even know if they were fit for eating at the end of the day.
There were creatures who did not fit into the scheme of things. People referred to them as garbage and treated them as such. The most insistent and pernicious of these were small fish called cunners that shared the structure on the bottom with more desirable species. They would clean a rig of bait with their small mouths and had some luck avoiding the hooks intended to puncture their lips. When one made it onto the boat most people would stomp the heel of their boot on the their head. Then they would kick it under the deck and into the water where it would float, lifeless.
Sea robins were another species that anglers hated. They are strange looking bottom-dwelling creatures with a giant bony head and appendages below their fins that appear to be part of some means of tactile navigation. People would hurl them on the deck or simply stab a knife through their skulls. Some filleted them and used their meat for bait. Chinese people would keep them and ask that they be cleaned at the end of the day. They are the only fish that I’m aware of that talk. They would make a deep croaking noise as they desiccated and drowned on air.
The overwhelming goal of all these acts of wanton cruelty was the extirpation of these beings from the fishing grounds. Like ranchers with wolves, coyotes and big cats no one cared at all what role these fish might fill in the hidden ecology of the sea floor.
When the boat blew its horn three times it was the end of the day. The deckhands would begin cleaning fish. Some were alive and some were dead and as it was a process that needed finishing before the boat reached the dock it didn’t matter. This is one of those instances in which, if fish had a capacity for covetousness, the living would envy the dead. Children are told that fish don’t feel pain, a convenient myth perpetuated by adults who don’t want to take responsibility for brutality visited upon things less powerful than themselves.
Customers could request their fish be cleaned in one of two ways. The most common of these would be to fillet them, which an able deckhand with a sharp knife could accomplish quickly. It just takes a 45 degree cut and then a turn of the blade to run along the creature’s spine. If you cleaned a living fish you would feel its disembodied flesh twitching, shocked by the insult it had just received. Other people preferred their fish beheaded and cleaned of scales. This seemed more merciful. At least their brains were separated from the rest of their body before a rasping tool was run against the grain of their scales.
None of this was any of my business as a child. I was not of an age where anyone wanted to entrust me with a knife and even if they did the work had to go quickly. There were rhythms of the day that needed adhering to. A kid would slow that down. And I don’t think I registered the cruelty of any of this except when it was blatant and pronounced. Otherwise it was just business, accomplished with little joy by men who could smoke with no hands.
I can remember seeing a man trying to stomp a cunner. Every time he brought his foot down the fish would slip out and he followed it, stomping and missing until he got it in a corner and then began kicking at it. It was still alive when he threw it in the water. A seagull dropped from the sky and ate it whole. These birds would follow the fishing boats as they moved towards shore. Guts and skins and heads would be hurled off the stern and they would dive and clean up the rotting carnage that we left in our wake.
I was a sensitive kid and as I ran unthinking into the realm of adult knowledge I felt pierced by it all. There was an ecological sensibility that trickled into my little mind from a monthly subscription to a magazine called Ranger Rick, written for children but dealing with the painful subjects that parents exclude from their children’s awareness for their own benefit. This is where I learned about extinction, about desertification and about climate change.
Children are powerless. We’re all powerless. In the face of an oncoming apocalypse all we can do is feel impotent and terrified or remain terribly deluded.
I decided I would boycott McDonalds to protest the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. I wrote little stories in my grade school classes about the looming climate catastrophe. I urged my father to discourage the wanton killing of the cunners and the sea robins.
None of this did anything. I saw the failure of the dismal power of one. When I lay awake at night I wondered if I would be vaporized in my sleep. My class had been introduced to the idea of nuclear war via a duck and cover exercise and I became acutely aware of my species’ own possibilities for extinction.
This is also when the idea of God came into question. I was disabused of my belief in the Easter Bunny one ugly morning in my sixth year of life and the questionable beings of childhood magic collapsed like dominos. If the Easter Bunny had been a lie perpetuated for unknown reasons by my parents than so was Santa Claus, so was the Tooth Fairy… and then the most horrible realization of all. I had seen no evidence of God despite innumerable powers being attributed to him. How likely was it that this was the most significant lie?
I became obsessed with a conundrum. If God was God then all my doubting and questioning was transparent to him, had even been preordained. My desire to understand this impossibly powerful being was something I could not cease engaging in but would also guarantee that I be cast into hell. I would lie awake and wonder if it was worse for such a creature to not exist or to exist. If not then there was nothing when I died. It would mean the eradication of my consciousness, an end to the troubling thoughts that plagued me. On the other hand, if God was real and if his gaze should pass my way I would be a thought criminal slated for eternal suffering.
I asked my grandfather once how he knew that God was real. He said that he knew this because it was in the bible. It was the first time that I realized he was stupid.
When I was 13 I thought that I would kill myself. I don’t remember if it was serious or not. I think I just wanted to feel different than I did, to save myself from the misery that gained on me year after year. I confided in a friend that this was something I was thinking about doing and word reached my parents. Then I was ushered off to a psychiatric hospital in Nassau County. It was boring. Pointless.
When I got out I had to go to the docks one day to meet my father. There was a German man who crewed a boat owned by my uncle. He’s dead now and good riddance to him. He captained a ship captured by the British in World War II. I suppose he was just following orders.
He berated me in front of customers and crew alike for what I’d done to my father by threatening suicide. I walked off the dock and tried not to cry. If he knew then surely everyone else did too.
Years went by. My father left the family business. I’m sure interpersonal toxicity had a lot to do with it. The kind of disputes that fishermen have can blow up to violent proportions. But he also said he had contributed to the destruction of an ecosystem and that this wasn’t a thing he wanted to continue doing. I agreed. We had recently gone to a meeting about the problem of hypoxia in the Sound. The fertilizer and dog shit that was washed towards the bays from suburban lawns was prompting blooms of algae that would consume oxygen as they decomposed leaving behind swaths of dead water.
And I watched the landscape change. Where there had once been potato fields and orchards, wooded second growth denuded for the ship building needs of the British Navy grown back after hundreds of fallow years, now there were endless fields of sod for the manicured lawns of the subdivisions. I felt angry at this. My only fond memories of childhood were of walking through these places, the thrill of fright at a place so absent of humans commingled with hope that perhaps I would find a door, some way out of who I was becoming and who I was expected to be.
I worked the boats on and off throughout my adolescence and adulthood and I learned lessons that only the truly stupid can impart. About racism, about class, about sexism and killing the pain of everything by drinking. I learned that my childhood efforts at averting or even considering the manifold apocalypses that were bearing down on Homo sapiens were the ludicrous whims of a naive child. And I learned that fish don’t feel pain.