“Oh my God, terrifying vistas of reality and our position therein are being opened up to us all. This is the worst thing that’s happened to mankind and in the studio they’ve opted for a new dark age but your commentator has gone stark staring mad.” New Dark Age by Rudimentary Peni.
It is fairly well-established that H.P. Lovecraft was a devout racist. The HBO adaptation of Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country, an inversion of a number of Lovecraftian tropes, set many fingers to typing about the blatant and unapologetic hatred, even terror, that he felt toward black people. Therefore, it’s pretty unimportant to repeat such a widely known and irrefutable fact. But, I don’t think it covers all the bases.
There are other currents of hatred and fear throughout his work. Like many of his characters, Lovecraft’s internal world was plagued by sinister dreams that were animated by the fears of empires long gone. He was a man of state, but the wild kind, haunted by the possibility of a radically altered world.
For myself, I first read Lovecraft at twelve. Expecting kids to be deep readers seems overly ambitious, but maybe this just reflects the low expectations, shitty education and dumb adults that I was exposed to. In a time where we consider the things people post on Facebook to be statements of unadulterated fact I think I’ll forgive myself for being blind to the hatred and fear that animated Lovecraft’s writing. Or maybe it resonated because I was being trained in the very same hatreds.
Much of his writing is (debatably) in the public domain, which has allowed numerous editions of his work to circulate, distinguished from one another only by cover art, and the book I picked up delivered in that regard. It was a splash page of terrifying figures rendered in shades of gray and red. Odd pieces of anatomy, strange doors and stairs and windows… I was catching on, slowly, to the fact that cool book jackets could disguise shitty books, but I went for it. A family day trip to Vermont was a perfect opportunity to refine a migraine by reading in a moving vehicle, and the relief of vomiting on the side of the road and then passing out wasn’t even a thing I really disliked.
I dug in. The book was a collection of his more refined (and probably more financially viable) stories. There was none of his bad poetry or his shit about Kadath, just endless descents into madness by various doomed protagonists and awakenings of incomprehensible beings.
It scared the fucking shit out of me.
It was seductive. Underneath the mounting paranoia of the inevitably white and tweedy heroes (or something… they were rarely if ever heroic) there was a love of the mystery and a fascination with the exterior. The world I was growing up in was known. The earth was mapped, the sea would be too, and space was sterile. Things were gridded and I didn’t like it at all. The beings of Lovecraft’s pantheon were terrifying, but they came from somewhere else- another dimension of space. I felt something like hope when I read about these impending nightmares.
Regardless, after reading The Dunwich Horror the treeline became a place where indescribable creatures with frightening appetites could be hiding. Since dogs hated these things I felt comforted by the obese lab that came along, and I didn’t fall asleep until late into the night.
I got older. An encounter with a shoggoth would have been preferable to day to day life. I didn’t reflect on the politics of Lovecraft until much later.
Around the age of twenty I was fortunate enough to read Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. It was another book that revealed a hidden dimension, in this instance the junctures at which the people working under the various lashes of power to establish a global capitalist economy attempted to bust through the ‘strange geometries’ that so threatened the order of a Lovecraftian world.
These people, their resistance to regimes of exploitation, and their dreams of something better circulated on ocean currents. In their lives and their deaths they were mutilated. Pirates and slaves sought freedom under threat of death. Women claimed rights so offensive that they were burned or drowned to banish them. Indigenous people fled, or hid on ships that would go pirate if only the crew would seize the captain’s blunderbuss. And ‘anabaptists’ preached the heresy of a kingdom of God on Earth, another assertion that was worthy of a violent and public end.
In a classic fashion, the economy of the revolutionary Atlantic had brought together its own grave diggers. In their numerous manifestations they were tied as metaphor and as death sentence to the realm of monstrosity, and the hydra was the most common referent. The chief theorist of the monstrosity of the working class was Francis Bacon, who appropriated the myth of Hercules and his labor of defeating the creature, to illustrate the disciplinary project faced by the masters of the nascent global economy.
With poetic flair he named the Hydra’s heads, each one representing a threat to order and reason: Indigenous people, steeped in tradition and landed knowledge, their relative wealth a lure to the miserable colonists; dispossessed commoners, with their own traditions of cooperation- the Irish, the African, and the travelling people; pirates were the third head- both those preying on the shipping lanes and those simmering aboard the Virginia Company ships, waiting to mutiny; the fourth terrible head was comprised of what Marx would call the ‘lumpenproletariat’- those who relied on petty crime to survive;head five, the scourge of nobles, was the assassin; ‘Amazons’, rebellious women, also required ‘putting down’- they led the bread riots that characterized the food crises of 17th century Europe, and could be witches as well, fit for burning and unfit for work; and finally, considered the most dangerous head of all, were the anabaptists, who threatened all order with talk of a ‘church from below’, where the paternal authority of protestantism would be overthrown by the urgings of the spirit. (p. 61-65)
The parallels between Lovecraft’s pantheon of Great Old Ones and Bacon’s use of the hydra as parable provide a glimpse into the mind of the reactionary, both in the 17th century and the 20th century. The people who represented a threat to the functioning of a very specific type of society take on monstrous dimensions: They are threatening, mysterious, and unpredictable. And they are everywhere.
Lovecraft’s stories take place in numerous locales, though Arkham is his most notable setting. From there one can head on a number of directions.
Out in the country, in the village of Dunwich (unsurprisingly the setting of The Dunwich Horror), you might encounter the Whatelys, specifically the ‘decadent’ Whatelys, the spawn of respectable farmers gone to rot. There, amid fallow fields, below stone tables upon which the otherwise invisible ‘Indians’ of Lovecraft’s world dance, Lavinia Whateley (who is, God forbid, an albino, physically disabled, and worst of all unattractive) gave birth to two children. Her father, ‘half-crazed’ but steeped in esoteric knowledge (you could call him an ‘organic intellectual’) presided over the births.
The more precocious (debatably) of the two boys, possessed of “thick lips, large-pored, yellowish skin, coarse crinkly hair, and oddly elongated ears”, dared seek knowledge that he should be denied. After being refused access to a book, Wilbur breaks into a library seeking said book, and is justifiably mauled to death by a dog.
What’s the ‘horror’ that came to Dunwich? Ugly people? Different people? There are several of the Hydra’s heads reared up in this story: The self-taught scholar; the rebel woman whose womb produces strange and unpredictable children; the ‘Indian’; the child who seeks knowledge above his station. Lovecraft’s villains are the victims of the revolutionary Atlantic.
Lovecraft’s most famous story, The Call of Cthulu, follows a similar course: The narrator’s uncle, a professor of Semitic Languages at Brown, dies mysteriously after being jostled by a “nautical looking negro”. As the protagonist pours over his uncle’s papers he comes upon a bas relief of a fantastical creature. Sculpted after troubling dreams by the “neurotic” son of an “excellent family” (it is interesting that the heroes of these stories can’t even stand thinking about stuff that the swarthy, deformed and wild minds of the minor villains think about all day), the young man seeks out the uncle and delivers the sculpture.
Later, the hero reads of one Detective Legrasse, a policeman who raided (read “suppressed”) a purported Voodoo meeting who turned to the protagonist’s uncle for information about a similar statue. Among the learned men who assembled to examine it, one asserts that a ‘deliberately bloodthirsty and repulsive’ group of devil-worshipping “Esquimaux” possessed and worshipped a similar statue. Mind-blowing stuff. It really “disclosed an astonishing degree of cosmic imagination among such half-castes and pariahs as might be least expected to possess it”.
Then there’s an interlude of a police massacre in which 47 religious celebrants are arrested and seven killed extrajudicially by police. But because the modern world is merciful, only two of the celebrants were sane enough to be hung. The rest were sent to institutions.
The story goes on in this fashion. There’s talk of “half-castes”, “mulattoes”, “waterfront scum”, and “negroes” throughout. Again, Bacon is summoned. The indigenous people, religious heretics, and nautical proletarians are attempting to subvert the ordered world of academics, who keep history in the past where it belongs, and police, who shoot those people who have escaped relegation to the dustbin of history. The villains are villains because they want to turn the world upside down. Their diversity makes them dangerous- the terror of miscegenation in Lovecraft’s writing is paramount. People who challenge categorization are not just worthy of distrust, but of extermination altogether.
Lovecraft is Francis Bacon for the early 20th Century. Less respected, perhaps, and certainly less well-connected, but dreaming the same nightmare: That all those hydra heads are out there. The dockworkers, the ignorant and pitiful rural working class, the people who have failed to adequately mix their atheism with their puritanism. The opus is teeming with a desire to hang on to the power relations of the contemporary age.
The things that are worth mentioning in regard to Cthulu are that (I’m going to assume that Cthulhu is gender-fluid and not human) it is a chimera. Cthulhu is an assemblage of animals thrown together. Cthulhu’s incomprehensible nature, the terror it inspires, the shocking thing about Cthulhu, is its size and the diversity of its elements. The second thing is that Cthulhu doesn’t die. It may be inactive for spans of time, sleeping, dreaming, but eternal.
For Bacon such monsters are a call to action. Exterminate them or break them. It was a new day for an ascendant class and hacking heads off was just another hero’s labor, not to be shirked or shied away from.
For Lovecraft it’s a form of paralysis. There are monsters everywhere. Fail to know them adequately and you’ll miss the moment that you’re held in their mouth; know too much about them and you might turn into one. Past and future are terrifying, as is the present, always teetering towards one or the other. It’s only the random violence of policemen’s guns that can clean up the mess.
In both men’s summoning of the monstrous, it was the blasphemous coming together of social forces that was the key threat to the societies that they envisioned as just and correct. It was, and is, the working class in all its manifestations that should be feared and, ultimately, killed. But the cosmic horror that both men face is that you can’t kill the monster. The story doesn’t work without it.
So for the specter of class war. There are so many of us. We are so different. Our cults exist in far flung places. Our icons and our statues get torn down or buried in museums, but we dream beneath the waves, waiting for the stars to align, to once again sow terror among respectable men of state.
Note: I should revisit this. I missed some points but it is already too long and my body and brain are on fire. It takes quite a while to get things done when this is happening.
Walter Benjamin: Dead person. A theorist of art and society. Deliberately overdosed on heroin rather than be captured by the Gestapo (fucking A right).
Karl Marx: Dead person. Storied theorist of capitalist society. Impregnator of maids. Afflicted by boils. Doubtlessly a genius, most likely a total dick.
Rush: A rock band consisting of Geddy Lee, notable for his piercing voice and cadaverous appearance; Neil Peart, acclaimed drummer and dead person; and Alex Lifeson, notable for his relative invisibility contra his bandmates.
Ayn Rand: Dead person. Miserable human. Author of bad novels. Champion of capitalist individualism.
Piotr Kropotkin: Dead person. Anarchist saint. Russian noble. Geographer.
Fixed capital: Machinery utilized in the production process. Transfers ‘dead’ human labor into products. Incapable of producing profit.
Variable capital: Human labor expended upon raw material. The only facet of the production process that is capable of producing profit.
Commodity: A thing that both satisfies a human need and that has an exchange value in which it has equivalence with other things through the medium of money.
Capitalism: The water that we’re swimming in. Representative of all your hopes and fears. Engine of misery.
Ayn Rand is one of those authors that you try to read in high school because you think you’re smart. After a day of effort you realize that the book, whether it’s The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, or Anthem are painfully boring and largely pointless. I was such a young person, drawn to things that were reputed to be intelligent and still ignorant of the fact that my high school teachers were profoundly stupid.
I fucking hate South Park. While there is an appeal to watching characters bounce around on their gigantic testicles or witnessing penises take flight and explode, at this point it’s an unavoidable reality that the creative team are nothing more than alt-light trolls who shit on people with enough conviction to try to improve the world.
I will make an exception as to the ideology espoused: At the conclusion of the ‘Chicken Fucker’ episode, Officer Barbrady finally reads Ayn Rand (and thereby conquers his illiteracy) and concludes “Yes, at first I was happy to be learning how to read. It seemed exciting and magical. But then I read this: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read every last word of this garbage and because of this piece of shit I’m never reading again.”
That’s pretty much how I felt, though I did continue reading. The Cliff Notes version of her work is basically that there are people of vision and genius who need to transcend the grasping fools who would impede their aggrandizement.
If such a thing strikes you as gross and stupid, it is. One of Piotr Kropotkin’s lasting gifts to nascent radicals is the assertion that there is nothing that ‘great men’ do that is not born of the sweat and technical skill of the lower classes. Without the weaving of children they would go unclothed. If not for the yeoman in the field they would have no food. Nor would they have the necessary raw materials to depart the masses and found a territory of brilliant and talented individuals (yes, this is indeed a plotline in Ayn Rand’s work) without the misery of people laboring in mines. Capitalism doesn’t need an ideology, and if it did it surely wouldn’t be this drek. Its total penetration of human life appears to be natural and that pretty much takes care of its ideological needs.
It’s a somewhat embarrassing fact that I like Rush. And it’s not an attempt to be ironic. Whether it’s familiarity or just their technical skill I get pretty stoked when I hear Red Barchetta. I’m keenly aware of their politics too. Somehow these people who basically mastered the complicated skill of crafting radio hits were dedicated Randians, and you don’t have to dig too deeply to become aware of this.
They are painful in their devotion and stupidity. For instance Anthem (from the admittedly awesome record Fly By NIght) is an immediate call back to Ayn Rand’s novel of the same name. The verses of the song are a testament: “Live for yourself. There’s no one else more worth living for. Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more.” You could compose these lyrics by printing and cutting up any three comments on the Fox News website, throwing them in the air, and rearranging them randomly. The song concludes with a lyric so silly that I almost feel pity for them: “Well, I know they’ve always told you selfishness was wrong yet it was for me, not you I came to write this song.”
Okay, sure. In a sense this is true. Neil Peart wrote the song so he could make some money. Definitely for him. But any capitalist, beneath their bluster, needs a consumer. If a prog rock radio hit falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear Geddy Lee scream then you’ve just got three nerds without a pot to piss in hanging around and talking about aliens. No one does anything in our society simply for themselves, as much as people love to barf up Milton Friedman for Dummies soundbites.
There are plenty of songs in a similar vein, from the anti-union ballad The Trees to the outright statement of dislike of their fans voiced in Limelight. These kind of elitist assertions of derision for the rest of humanity by the glorious ubermensch artist happen, but nobody takes them very seriously.
I never really got into Walter Benjamin. I certainly admired him. Just the fact that he overdosed on morphine rather than be arrested by the Gestapo earns him a statue as far as I’m concerned, but his work was in the vein of the Frankfurt School which I’ve never liked all that much. This might be intellectual laziness on my part. They were working during a time of great danger and attempting to grapple with the rise of fascism in Europe. While the fascists ultimately lost, they’d done a great job of exterminating the people on my team and they probably deserve my attention.
The only essay of Benjamin’s that I’ve read is The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The thrust of the essay is that (in 1935) society had reached a point of development in which art was being produced on an industrial scale. His assertion was that in earlier societal development the work of art had an aura, which was itself socially produced. It was housed in a place of worship or on display in a gallery. There was only one such thing, unique in all the world. David or the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel were not things that could be reproduced. In part their singularity was their value.
But a new thing had occurred. Processes for mass producing images and sound had developed and they suplexed this prissy sculpting and painting from the top rope of the ring. The eye behind the camera lens was the eye of a technician. The portrayal of reality became a simulacrum of discrete moments assembled for presentation to a mass audience. So it was that before Fordism the mass production of images became accessible to all. The reality of the theater captured perception.
This is all very smart and very important. But there’s a Marxian concept that doesn’t really get deployed in the essay. Value theory, the core insight of Marxian economics, doesn’t get played around with and I think it has a lot to say.
As Piotr Kropotkin would assert, there is no one who is great (though there are plenty of heroes). Artistry under capitalism is a complicated thing. For one, what the fuck would we even call art? Do the ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ posters you can buy at “Bed, Bath, and Beyond” qualify? I fucking hope not.
Or perhaps the disneyfied photographs that appear alongside captioned platitudes on bus shelters and billboards rise to this level? Perhaps it’s comforting to the pensioner fighting frostbite to be reminded that Frederick Douglass existed and has some wisdom to offer her as she sits in the cold, waiting to be ferried to some futile doctor’s appointment. Is the new season of Vikings art? Or is it a way of insulating the world from some sort of refutation of the terminal boredom we live with?
We’re in a post-propaganda world. The weaponization of images, words and sound isn’t something that we’re likely to recover from. You can’t believe your lying eyes, but you very likely want to. We know that underneath it all is an engine, some diabolical vitamix, liquifying us in furtherance of some impulse or dark dream.
There is a duality to the use values of the cultural commodities we consume. They satisfy a need, and I’m completely honest about the need they satisfy for me: I’m fucking pacified. Television is a drug and I’m an addict. Even the most puritanical modern human shoots this heroin into their eyeball. It’s what we talk about, where we go fishing for identities that we’d like to try on, and the neurological sedative that we return to at the end of a day.
On the other end of things it provides a means of social control and it doesn’t even have to be designed to accomplish this goal. It’s enough that it transfixes. There’s no need for a government to coordinate it: The Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to continue its grand enterprise of apologizing for imperialism without a bit of prodding from the state.
And of course these things are a means of accumulating capital, but I really don’t feel qualified to speak to the economy of television and film. It’s a collision of advertising, sexualization, ticket sales and kitsch that is beyond me at the moment.
Music functions similarly. I spend a lot of time in doctor’s offices. Mostly there is a pleasant vacuum of stimuli. The background noise of humming HVAC provides just enough audible fuzz to allow me to space out and simply stare. It’s heaven, to be in an in-between place at an in-between time. Thought disappears. Sweet relief.
But sometimes they play music and I take umbrage at this. This isn’t fucking Walgreens (where I am under the impression that they play Sting just to hurry me through the store). The worst, the very worst, was an office where they played modern top-40 country. I developed a deep antipathy towards everyone who worked there and decided that they were, if not bad people, dangerously stupid.
Joseph Goebbels would be hard-pressed to develop something more diabolical. The only difference is that the end-goal of this shit ear garbage was to inspire either drinking, fucking, or (ideally) both, in a particularly dumb, armed, and trucked package, instead of facilitating a genocide and the construction of a war machine dedicated to global conquest (it’s already been accomplished).
Is it art? I guess so. So, having established that I hate everything, let’s talk about Rush some more.
That they consider themselves to be artists is abundantly, grossly clear. It’s in the lyrics. But this is capitalism. If you’re an artist then you’re an artist for money and if you’re doing something for money then it’s your job. So, Peart, Lifeson and Lee are workers, but they’re workers in a music factory.
Working in the music factory takes some skill. Depending on what exactly you’re trying to accomplish it can take years of training with no compensation (although it is true that you can be utterly talentless and be a musician- go ahead and listen to the Misfits). So, you first have to make yourself.
This likely requires hours of practice and in some instances schooling in a conservatory. Following on that you need just enough of an input of aspirational ego not to jump ship on the process and start selling guitars at a music store.
Following this there are the weird tasks of forming a band. Since most people are horrible this can take a while. Hats off to whoever made Cream come together. Eric Clapton is an asshole, Ginger Baker a psychopath and Jack Bruce (was) an alcoholic.
It’s possible (likely even) that this work process requires that you have a powerful addiction to a mind-altering substance. It’s part of whatever remains of the ‘aura’ Benjamin was speaking of. Tragedy is part and parcel of all of this. We like our artists troubled and it helps if it’s the kind of troubled that they somehow survive and talk about in Rolling Stone.
So, our rock stars have been produced. The value embodied in them by numerous drugs, educational processes and egoism are moved into a recording studio where a recording engineer, who has way less capital crammed up his ass then the musicians, works with them to get a perfect cut for consumption by the masses. This is a process that involves a lot of machinery, from the mixing board to the guitars to whatever other shit ends up in a recording studio. Chips? Beers?
From there the master tape moves to pressing. WAY more fixed capital involved here. The fixed capital embodied in the recording is distributed across however many CD’s, tapes, vinyl records, whatever. They’re sent to market. Apparently some UPS guy moves them around unless there are strategic air drops of Rush records in counterinsurgency campaigns. Otherwise a tragically stereotypical salesperson sells these recordings in Sam Goody to the sad fuckers buying the music. (Yes, I realize that this is no longer a way that people access music, and it will be acknowledged several paragraphs down).
It’s probably a thing that the musicians go on tour. This appears to be some sort of homage to the reliquary of authenticity. It fulfills the yearning for nostalgia of weekend warriors to hoist a beer and sing along to the verses they know. They confirm that Rush isn’t a clever artificial intelligence kicking out radio hits for the mullet set. They’ve imparted a facsimile of aura to the plebes to get ready for another day running the gauntlet with a morning dose of Spirit of the Radio.
I went to a Rush concert when I was 13, accompanied by my drug buddy cousin and my psychotic uncle. It was the “Test for Echo” tour, which is definitely one of their more forgettable records. We were in the cheap seats. I was supposed to be enthralled by the image of Geddy Lee prancing on the stage and Neil Peart playing an obligatory drum solo on his ridiculously overbuilt set. There was even a laser light show component. I was still bored out of my mind.
So these are the inputs: Highly capitalized living labor; stacks and double bass drums, a recording engineer and mixer laboring away on expensive equipment to assemble the cacophony into something digestible; the marketing geniuses responsible for convincing people that this music is indeed something worth buying; the road crew committed to creating a sufficiently seamless tour for their pampered charges; and the poor schleps who produce the music as a consumer product and the bitter nerds who sell it.
This is a formulation that mostly applies to a brief period in history, just a passing phase as music passes through a progression of production processes. I’m old enough to remember Sam Goody, (which I’m pretty sure means I’m on my way to ancient). but an interesting thing occurs on the way out of this particular era of production: We transition to music that is primarily distributed via the internet.
This is an interesting passage. The living labor embodied in music is ever more infinitesimal. CD’s get tossed in the trash because who fucking needs them? They’re delicate, it’s too fucking easy to lose the liner notes, and who wants to have one of those tacky CD towers? We’ve got an endless array of computer programs and streaming services that are infinitely more durable. Some of them allow us to circumvent the commodity form altogether. Shazam and Napster (and whatever other services allow you to download stuff for free) allow us to access music without paying for it. Regardless of the streaming music services that make an effort to monetize the last live Rush show, the commodity transitioning to a different economic form is essentially free. Has it transcended capitalism?
Probably not. It’s definitely rendered lyrics about the ‘art’ being performed by the musician themself a joke. It’s definitely for us, not Neil Peart (or his ghost? Kids? I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know how this shit works). We don’t have to pay. The most that all but the cheesiest musicians can hope for in terms of payment is some ‘tip’ money via Venmo or the purchase of a t-shirt when they’re on the road. Otherwise you might get some praise or some respect (which are indeed rare in the life of a laborer). And unfortunately praise and respect don’t get you paid. How are you going to spend months in a farmhouse being a fucking genius when no one has to buy your records?
To wrap up, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction might, instead of losing it’s aura, has nothing else. The extent to which digitization has shifted the balance between living labor and machines is profound. The incredible productivity of the reproduction of images and sound may have pushed the work of art from the commodity form out of the realm of exchange value to nothing more than a use value.
This was an assertion of autonomous Marxist collective Zero Work- that capitalism had reached a point at which there is so much amassed ‘fixed capital’ that there is no longer any value being created and that we are transitioning to a post-value world. Work, in this society, is simply a means of social control.
Maybe contemporary art is just this: A mechanism for social control that is no longer a bearer of value. Drive your Tesla through the homeless encampment while your Spotify account queues up Red Barchetta. Instead of dodging air ships you can run down the people that remind you of the inevitability of death. Sure, the song doesn’t really mean anything, but what does?
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.
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.
I read with interest your article published in the Telegraph on September 19, 2020 entitled “How My New York Dream Has Turned Into a Violent Nightmare.” I frequently flip through the innocuous news feed on my phone as I migrate between the spaces that comprise my painful and disappointing life as one of the psychiatrically disabled. What pops up in this digital space is occasionally interesting and frequently banal, but of all the objectionable things that rubbed sand in my eyes this morning the most offensive was your article about the perils of being rich in Manhattan.
I should preface my criticisms by stating that I do not live in New York City. I cannot afford to. Instead I live in Suffolk County and sleep on a couch in a basement apartment that I share with a relative. Poverty is much easier to hide in the suburbs. The luckiest of us occupy couches, closets and spare rooms. Otherwise we sleep in cars. When that’s not an option it’s simply a matter of sleeping rough, spending nights in shelters or the woods and the days hiding in public libraries.
I don’t travel to New York City anymore, not out of a fear of violence but due to the exorbitant cost of making such a trip. And leaving aside COVID-19 restrictions, I cannot enjoy the cultural amenities you mourn. They are too expensive. I am not living anyone’s New York dream.
With all that said, your references to violence visited upon friends and acquaintances seem rather overstated. Getting spit on is a far cry from being choked to death or shot in a stairwell, and even a good solid punch in the back of the head pales in comparison to being sodomized with a broomstick.
I think your lack of perspective might stem from the sea change this represents. Until recently such encounters were an unthinkable peril for the upper classes. First Guiliani and then Bloomberg had effectively cleansed the city of the poor and the implicit danger they represent. You speak of an air of permissiveness that “commentators” reference, but I have to make an assertion that permissiveness runs both ways. In a city where brutal inequality is upheld by brutal police why would anyone feel incentivized to adhere to an unstated social contract?
When you reference your New York dream I wonder if you have ever considered the dreams of the mangled poor beneath your feet- that they may awaken without a police officer prodding them with a nightstick, ready to run their name for any outstanding warrants. Or that they wake up at all as the cold of winter descends. Or perhaps that they be allowed to access healthcare that would help them to avoid lapsing into the psychotic states that offend you. In fact, it seems to be the case that your overall objection is that you and your class have to see these people at all, and that they have not been locked away in Riker’s Island for your convenience.
Your reference to observing protesters ‘kettled’ in the park that your apartment overlooks fails to identify who was doling out violence in this scenario. You’ll have to forgive this reader for assuming that you were speaking of the protesters, the hooligans who dared litter the sidewalks with glass from the posh restaurants and ‘corporate-lite’ storefronts where you enjoy your well-deserved brunches and purchase commodities that are wildly out of reach for most of us. Are the culprits in these “running street battles” the protesters who had the nerve to bruise the fists and truncheons of the NYPD as they beat and pushed and bullied those objecting to the shooting deaths and violent assaults that are perfectly acceptable as long as they’re committed by cops?
And let it be said that there is something particularly offensive about your references to jet setting. A sit-down with George Clooney? Heli-skiing with Navy Seals? How lovely for you. I guess violence can be celebrated when it’s perpetrated by a handsome American who doles it out overseas. It’s as though you’ve been placed in the midst of an action movie fantasy as the leading lady, ready for capture by the terrorist hordes, ready for rescue by the leading man.
There is a bit of an intermezzo in your article when you discuss your efforts to cram not only eggs but your own humanity back down your throat (with assistance from a mimosa or two) as you ponder, seemingly with some shock, the idea that your lifestyle might be disgusting as you observe families utilizing a food pantry operating out of one of those pesky eye-sore homeless shelters. I wonder how the waitstaff and cooks feel about the New York that you love. Is it possible that they look less than charitably on their posh overlords as they take public transportation back home to one of the outer boroughs that they and their families have been relegated to? I hope you tipped them enough to not have spit in your drink.
You speak of an escape to the Hamptons and Catskills by the wealthy, as if this will somehow allow them to hide from the poverty and desperation that they have created. As someone who has served in the reserve army that makes the miserable trek East every morning to all but wipe the asses of the rich I have to assert that you’re just as hated on Long Island. You simply don’t have to look at us when you’re dipping hors d’oeuvres in bowls filled with Gwyneth Paltrow’s self satisfied cluelessness. In fact, one of the poorest places in New York State lies on the automobile route to your upper crust enclaves, the Shinnecock Nation’s Reservation, a place where your lament for the passing of the invisibility of the poor would echo as if shouted down a well. But it’s possible that you travel by helicopter.
Without a bit of irony or an attempt to name the Upper West Siders for Safe Streets fiasco you discuss residents’ reports of increases in “drug dealing, prostitution and assault.” Leaving aside for a moment the hypocrisy of those making these ‘reports’ I’ll take a moment to challenge yours. You make mention of the fact that on your sojourn home from brunch you were struck by the bleak economic situation that has descended upon us. Why then the surprise that people would turn to the use and selling of drugs or to prostitution? I would posit that these are activities that should be legal, and that effectively are legal for the wealthy. Serial predator Jeffrey Epstein and his professional groomer Ghislaine Maxwell hail from the pool of human turds that you consider yourself so lucky to hobnob with. It is only when the poor and the desperate fall back on these survival activities that it becomes offensive to the tut-tutting bourgeoisie.
And circling back around to the hypocrisy previously referenced, the increase in assaults that was ‘reported’ omits the spirited calls to violence by the West Siders for Safe Streets themselves, which include incitements to kicking people in front of busses and spraying them in the eyes with insecticide. And since we’re all so sensitive to quality of life issues it bears mentioning that one of these internet warriors urged people to smear public benches with dog shit to discourage shelter residents (and literally anyone else) from sitting on them.
It is interesting that you end your screed against those people who are surviving the unsurvivable by bemoaning your recent encounter with cockroaches and rats and the satisfaction you derive from ending the lives of these other unfortunate survivors. It is almost impossible to miss the equivalence implicit here- that you view those people forced to battle their demons on street corners as nothing more than vermin to be poisoned or bludgeoned to death. But I assure you with a fair degree of certainty that despite whatever campaigns of violence your class visits upon them the immiserated masses will continue to survive, mostly by the skin of their teeth. I wish I could say we’re coming for you but the reality is that for now at least we’re too busy surviving.
In closing, please decamp to London or whichever other metropolis you feel has been successfully remade to provide you with emotional stability and condominiums from which to view the forces of law and order as they assault those who object to a world that is grinding them into slurry. But don’t forget the events of 2011 in your country of origin when the amorphous and unknowable masses enacted their brief but furious revenge on a society that cares nothing for them. And please consider the possibility that the upper class with whom you identify must either submit to a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth or live with the possibility that it is only misery and violence that will be subject to redistribution.
Post-script: On the day following the publication of your article William Barr designated New York City, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington as “Anarchist Jurisdictions” and threatened to withhold federal funding unless police agencies are granted complete impunity. This sends a clear message from the Trump administration to lesser branches of government that any objection to the current paradigm must be crushed or the targeted municipalities will be financially strangled. Maybe you will get your New York dream back after all, a dream built on the nightmares of the poor.
I ride a bike a bunch. I am not one of the unsung heroes of cycling who make their way to work in all kinds of weather and at all hours of the day with nothing but a rusting Huffy beneath them, but I’m not a spandex clad hammerhead either.
I ride a modest touring bike that might have been an object of envy a decade ago and I ride it for whatever modest benefits it might bestow upon my unfortunate brain and midriff. If any kind of class analysis can be derived from a close look at cycling it is this: The strongest cyclists ride their shitty bikes to work every morning while the weakest cyclists ride their vanity projects to the coffee shop for Saturday brunch.
As with so many things I find myself outside the entire paradigm. I ride several times a week. It takes me an immense amount of time to get out of the house. I hate changing my pants and I have no idea why. This is the major barrier to getting started.
It always feels good at the beginning. I like climbing and I live in a low spot so there’s one waiting for me no matter which direction I choose. Cars rush by. I live in a place that could be considered ‘bike unfriendly’. This should bother me more than it does but when I crunch the numbers my earning potential is maximized by riding in wealthy neighborhoods.
The best year of my life followed on the heels of a near-fatal car accident in Southern Arizona. I was riding eastbound on a road that marked the southernmost boundary of a university and was left-hooked by a student ogling young women rather than paying attention to traffic. My memory of this event consists of the moment of terror that preceded my front wheel making contact with his truck.
I can’t remember however many fractions of a second it took for my ass to leave the seat or my head to connect with his passenger door. Those moments are lost to me. Then there was the peculiar feeling of surfacing from the type of unconsciousness a head injury produces. It is like being born. Light and sound begin to coalesce into sensation. It takes a while.
I remember a bit of the paramedics cutting away my shirt. I heard a young woman say “It says ‘fuck’ on that guy’s chest,” which is true and also another story. It wasn’t until I arrived at the hospital that I truly regained consciousness.
I was in a great deal of pain. In addition to the head injury I had separated my shoulder and gotten road rash all over my face. I demanded morphine and it was given. It felt a lot less awesome than I thought it would, producing nausea instead of blissful nothing. Then, because I lacked health insurance, I was released into the hands of my roommate of two weeks with a prescription for vicodin.
Being as industrious as I am I contacted a lawyer the next day. All told it wasn’t much of a windfall. I got about $10,500 from his insurance carrier and they paid my $50,000 hospital bill. For me that was a tremendous sum of money and between the settlement and student loans I lived a luxurious life in which I indulged my two greatest loves: Not working and second hand bikes.
But the joys of personal injury litigation are not really what I hoped to write about here. Instead it is the profanity of the American suburb as it plasters the remains of the other-than-humans who scurry between sad patches of second growth forest in a relentless visitation of insult upon injury.
Roadkill is one of those atrocities that we witness and forget. No one needs to think about it. It’s simply an accident, and not one that requires an exchange of insurance information. Really it’s the animals fault, too stupid to follow signs or observe red lights.
They are unworthy of a burial. That would be a ridiculous thing to do, to stop and watch the life ebb out of a raccoon’s eyes. To put your massive hands around it as it leaks blood and lift it into your car.
What would your spouse say? Leaving aside the matter of parasites that riddle these lower order creatures, what order of logic would you be succumbing to if you were to work a spade into the dirt of a suburban backyard under a motion sensing light? What would it say to cradle that tiny body and beg for forgiveness as you laid it in a patch of earth somewhere between the above ground pool and the aluminum shed? And what of the children? No one wants them to grow up weird.
As I rode uphill today I neared a train station. A raccoon lay ahead, fallen where the curb meets the road. Curbs are rare where I live. Roadkill less so. Denied the dignity of death in the forest where funerary bugs and keratin eating fungus do their work the corpses can sit for days or weeks by the side of the road. I gave it a wide berth to avoid the smell. This is at once a futile and a dangerous thing to do. Too far off the shoulder and I might end up in a similar position to the creature up ahead and the stink of death would still be in my nostrils.
As I passed it slowly lifted its head, the rest of its body still splayed on the asphalt. It stared at me and followed my passage with what I can only imagine was dazed and confused terror. I rode on for another quarter mile and stopped. I felt sick and I felt wrong. There are quandaries that one encounters in life and how you reconcile yourself to them can say a great deal or perhaps nothing at all. One is faced with all the actions that the broader society prescribes for the alleviation of suffering, none of which are adequate or even defensible. When the one who is suffering can’t speak or understand what is said the dilemma is amplified. Animals aren’t afforded the luxury of DNRs.
Should I have gone back with a sense of manly duty and an appropriately sized rock to enact the dubious mercy of bludgeoning a scared and dying thing? This would afford me cover to humbly and regretfully tell the people who’ve accepted my narrative about myself that I put it out of its misery, painting a thin veneer of responsibility over what appears to be sadism. All things are put out of their misery given enough time. There’s really no need to assist in this momentous inevitability.
There are other dubious kindnesses that I could have visited upon this creature. If it had survived, if it was not merely casting its gaze about at the purple twilight of the forest of the dead with me as interloper perhaps I could have rushed home for a towel in which to wrap it securely and then ferried it to the wildlife rehab. But it is likely that this would just force it into a half-life in an enclosure where it would serve as an imprisoned ambassador for all the wildlife that are already in the crosshairs of the great extinction.
Finally, I suppose I could have left it in the cool cover of some relics of an effort at landscaping that were regularly rendered futile by the encroachment of weeds. This is what I would want for myself, to stare at the sky as everything transitioned to blinding white light, cradled by grass prepared to accept my flesh as it melted off my bones.
I didn’t do any of these things. The purpose of such minor heroics seem to only whitewash the overwhelming testament to our folly as a species. The suffering of that creature was unavoidable and mundane, a tiny sum deposited in the ledgers of capitalist society’s tally of neglectful cruelty.
I rode on. At the boundary of a nature preserve I passed a fox flattened by the rush hour procession, too small to garner the interest of the highway department, a grisly stole that would be nothing but fractured bones by next spring. Another year and it wouldn’t even be that, just shards of calcium washed downhill.
I thought about all the classes of schoolchildren that would likely visit this preserve. No doubt a docent and a teacher would try to impress on them the fascinating interdependence that allows any kind of life to flourish. What will they make of the deer lying bloated on the green of an adjacent golf course, intestines bursting from its stomach in deep purple loops? I think very little. They will have no one to explain to them that they have been bequeathed a world that is doomed.
Any grade school teacher with self-preservation on their mind will studiously avoid veering into the horror that is running these children through the chutes of this fucked up rodeo. The deliberate blindness and denial that is required to lift oneself out of bed is what is actually being taught. It is a training regimen that demands that they not notice the animal rotting before their eyes and that if they do that they be incapable of generalizing the implicit logic of such a thing. Always, always deny the violence of speed.
I ended up on one of the major thoroughfares that connects east to west. I rode past yet another golf course, this one clearly unable to scrape through the six months of the coronavirus’ assault on the dubious sociality of middle-class America. The grass was tall, the trees all dead. It was curious, this uniformity. As though they had forged a suicide pact.
I was pleased with the end of the golf course. There are few things more offensive to me than the persistence of this game, the origins of which lie in the earliest colonialist impulses of the British empire, a test case for the horrors yet to come. As I rode past at my usual sluggish pace I noticed a box turtle so flattened by traffic that it could have been a leaf pressed in the pages of a book.
There was a Walmart across the road. As I passed it I could feel the square become a box become a tetrahedron. A dead animal that could have lived for a century catty-corner to a temple to the dead labor of the suburban poor from whom a well-defined black line was drawn to the sweatshops of Southeast Asia. From there a thinner and more amorphous tendril finished the perimeter of suffering with a perennially despondent outsider as the final node.
The profanity of death cultures is rarely adequately punished. The amount of rope required doesn’t exist. The earth can’t drink all the blood. Truth and reconciliation gives neither. We just have to teeter on the landscape that the past has created and try not to think about the bodies beneath us and the implicit threat that they portend.
From September of 2019 to February of 2020 I pursued an MSW at a large state university. That I got into this program at all seems anomalous. My work history is laughable, my participation in life on a voluntary basis non-existent. The only reasons I can think of for my acceptance were a well written admissions essay or perhaps simply that they wanted my money.
In retrospect my desire to attend this program was a profoundly bad decision. I have a friend, loving and well-intentioned, from whom I accept as biblical truth any suggestions for improving my station in life. But what works for him is generally not what works for others and in this instance were especially ill-advised. My efforts to participate in bureaucracies both large and small have not worked out to my benefit. I drown in them.
I had misgivings about the program from the start. The winter of 2019 was not kind to me. It was my third year of profound depression and I was realizing that this might be something I would experience forever.
I had been accepted to the program and was wrestling with it. Mental illness had sapped any enthusiasm I might have felt for what I was about to do and smashed my confidence like a fleet of wooden ships. The amorphous horror of the whole endeavor was upon me before I even began, but I have a foolish penchant for trusting in the benefits of forbearance.
After attending a series of orientations to the program I was tweaked. The word ‘professional’ has a filthy smell and I was about to bury my face in it. The suggestion that I might very well be expected to drug-test other human beings and that I needed to have a degree of enthusiasm about it horrified me.
Following this orientation I panicked for days, my body on fire in that way that is particular to overwhelming anxiety. I took a camping trip to Vermont with a close friend, mostly out of a desire to prove to myself that I could still function, and spent the entire time searching for a cell signal so that I could talk to my mom or taking enough Klonopin to put me to sleep. I was desperate to go home but found no relief there either.
The first semester was an endless procession of doctor’s appointments in which I tried in vain to be given a diagnosis rooted in an observable physical problem. I went to endocrinologists, had sleep studies, got MRIs and not one of them revealed anything abnormal. This is the misery of psychiatry. There are no tests, scans or samples that can reveal a cause for the crushing weight of the illness. It’s just there, unwilling to reveal much about itself, a presence that suggests a moral failing or a defect of character.
The difficulty I experienced in navigating coursework cannot be overstated. Even if I were a person with a normal brain and constitution I think I would be hard pressed to care about the assignments. The classes were so painfully normative, so divorced from any immersion in the actual experience of mental illness, addiction and poverty that I felt my suspicions were validated. Though I know people who have escaped this role the ultimate purpose of the profession as a whole seemed to be to act as an extension of the state and to enforce the particular form of biopolitics that this moment in history demands.
Ultimately to finish this degree would have placed me in the position of some sort of cop and I wanted none of it. Even the most innocuous positions that I could have attained would have been horrid. The fact that America offers mental health counseling and drug rehabilitation services to the homeless is a sick joke. As if the extension of some victim blaming talk therapy would be a balm to the trauma of being completely divested of resources. As if taking away the only comfort a person has, regardless of how it’s destroying them isn’t an act of cruelty.
Towards the beginning of the second semester I took a medical leave of absence. It wasn’t a hard argument to make. I was crying constantly, enduring the strange discomfort that emerges in my limbs when I am stressed past my breaking point and was unable to pry myself away from these experiences to do my coursework. I took my leave, which freed me up to swirl in the endless vortex of my body and mind. I haven’t gone back.
Recently a friend invited me to attend a concert. It was after work and I was tired, stewing and bubbling about my poor life choices and the fact that I had sold a bike that cost more than I would make in wages en toto at this inadequate part-time job. I deliberated for a bit but decided to go. He texted me the flyer, a flavorless advertisement for music in a park.
When I arrived I saw no one that I recognized. I saw no one period. It was one of those events where the only people in attendance were the ones who organized it or were performing there. This used to be a phenomenon that bothered me. I would find my atheism challenged by the feeling that someone was watching and judging me for my attendance. It’s changed for me in recent years. I feel comforted by well-intentioned efforts that amount to nothing. That’s the story of my life.
As I walked off in search of my friend I heard someone call out my name. Female, Unfamiliar. A young woman walked towards me and gradually recognition dawned. She was a former classmate from the social work program. I felt surprised that she recognized me out of context. I try not to be memorable. It feels safer to me.
I think the proximity of my departure from school was so close to the COVID-19 shutdown that no one noticed I was gone. I could have taken this as a point of departure before we communicated further but there is an honesty in me when it comes to my own faults that is probably a virtue and definitely a liability. So I told her that I had left school and that it had to do with my mental health.
She inquired if I would be coming back to the program and I promptly vomited up all my critiques of social work on the ground at her feet. That I saw it as a mechanism of control. That it is another way of pathologizing poverty and disciplining the poor. That it was essentially a strange tertiary instrument of violence and I wanted no part of it. That as someone who is mentally ill I found it to be incredibly paternalistic, endlessly attempting to relocate sickness in the individual instead of in the profoundly sick and wildly violent society we are forced to live in. That any work performed upon human beings ultimately reduces them to raw material, from which the laborer is completely alienated. And that the product of this labor, a more perfect human, is unattainable.
This was a lot to take in I’m sure. She maintained some grace in the face of my diatribe. She said these were all interesting critiques and that the program we were both enrolled in would be improved by hearing them.
This was kind of her but the truth is that even if I were to return armed with these criticisms they would never be heard. This was a program meant to spew out social workers as if they were ground beef. Any assault on the ideological pillars of the profession would simply fall off the side of the ship as it headed for the iceberg that is the future.
I said goodbye to her and I don’t think it is likely I will ever see her again. If I do, it will most likely be as a client than as an equal. I hope that if this is the case some small part of her will remember this conversation and recognize me as less of a product and more of a human being.
But this is unlikely. From what I observed of what passes for ‘social work education’ it has been completely colonized by the neoliberal impulse that manifests very clearly in the non-profit sector. Firms churn out services with the same blind logic of accounting that Chinese manufacturers and African goldmines adhere to. The product in this case isn’t a pallet of product or a weight of metal and is instead the convoluted metrics of healing that are always imposed on the poor: Are they able to work at Dunkin’ Donuts? Are they numbing their pain with the right sorts of drugs? Are they allowing society to mete out violence upon their children or are they intervening in the process?
Perhaps this is sad, perhaps it is heroic, and it is unavoidably a fact: I will not do these things. I will not lie and tell someone there is a future for them. I will not exert myself to convince them that anyone cares, and the only way I can accomplish this is to absent myself from the process altogether.
There is a cost for this refusal. I have been paying it down my whole life. I’ve not encountered a cog in this society that I haven’t tried to throw a wrench in. When there isn’t a wrench available I simply shove in my arm. My spirit wanders around on stumps like a Mellvillean whaler crying out for alms, and perhaps too late I’ve realized that I have indeed placed myself in the position of ‘client’ in Social Work’s sloppy division of the world into recipients and providers of services.
I drove through the campus of the Desisto School today. My memories of the place were of darkness, of a hidden cult tucked away from the world and endless distances traversed in the snow. Instead I drove through wealthy New England villages with the usual trappings of ski shops, yoga studios and restaurants, each of them promising an innovative take on farm to table cuisine. Zoning laws prevented a steady winnowing away of the land until the houses were cheek to jowl and the darkness that only a conifer forest can produce was replaced with the blinding glare of the American suburb.
I think I was hoping for ghosts. For an air of menace. For tall grasses encroaching on crumbling buildings that somehow contained relics of the misery doled out within. More than anything I envisioned a tree erupting from the roof of the mansion, life somehow struggling through the rotting carcass of a building that was mortared with the ego of an utterly forgettable megalomaniac. A stake through the heart of a monster who wasn’t quite dead enough.
Instead I felt bored. It was so much smaller than in my memories. Close to the road, only a few miles from a good cup of coffee. All of the buildings had been razed except the building I slept in, the gymnasium that served as a waystation on my way out and the mansion itself. They appeared to have been completely and thoroughly emptied. The mansion was collapsing on itself.
There was no opportunity to enter the buildings. While the buildings were profoundly fucked the grounds were actively maintained with a landscaping crew undertaking the seemingly impossible task of mowing the grass. They didn’t give me a second look. Perhaps they were used to gawkers stopping in. Maybe it happened everyday. It all seemed unlikely to me. How did something that did so much damage to so many children have the evil so thoroughly drained away?
But then it is worth saying that some of the evil didn’t drain away. It just moved, dressed up in a sheriff’s uniform. It became a dangerously corrupt piece of shit in a new place. In a failed bid for congressional office, right wing border hawk Paul Babeau came undere scrutiny for his time as headmaster of the school. Despite his emphatic denial of any knowledge of the punishments being foisted upon the students under his care in a home movie leaked to the media Babeau stated “They need to feel hopeless; they need to feel depression and complete failure. They have to bottom out and then be able to work through it.” I have been working through it my whole life.
I came back from Desisto school changed in a bad way. While it was beyond a doubt that I entered the school an angry kid I emerged enraged. I lay awake at night fantasizing a wholesale slaughter of the staff and administrators. Sometimes these fantasies were an action movie pastiche in which I would toss out pithy one-liners as I stood in the center of the dining hall doling out punishment. Other times it was a slow stalking of them through the night, eliminating them one by one. To admit to such thoughts in the present is the highest breach to a number of taboos, but this is all I got out of the Desisto experience.
My life hadn’t been normal before and it wasn’t normal after. I very quickly became a member of an AA group in my area and thought that this would be sufficient to heal me. It wasn’t. I boiled over. The hostility that I felt against authority figures, suppressed for an adolescent lifetime, turned white hot. I punched trees until my knuckles bled. I terrified my sisters with the enormity of my anger. My father and I circled one another like animals ready to lock horns.
I was enrolled in a public school for damaged kids. All I remember are grey skies and long bus rides. I was choking on myself.
A teacher failed me for a paper that addressed the political underpinnings of technological development. I thought it was very smart and challenged her assessment. An F? At the very least I should have been passed with a C. She dismissed my objection. I hadn’t written for the question.
I was incandescent and launched the kind of verbal assault that only a teenager steeped in violence can achieve. I pointed out the herpes sore on her lip. I told her that I would murder her whole family. Then I walked from the room, intent on leaving this school and all its ilk behind.
The teachers at this school had some kind of panic button. As I walked down the hall towards the door I was confronted by two security guards tasked with keeping us from leaving. I threw a futile roundhouse punch at one of them and then ended up pinned to the floor for a time, the institutional tile cool on my cheek. It was hard to breathe.
They deposited me in a closet that served as a stop-gap padded room in this place. I slammed my head against the bricks as they stared at me. Blood ran down my face. I didn’t care. This would be my last day in a school of any sort for years. It would mark the beginning of another boring journey as a person who was peripheral to the world, just hanging on as I chewed the gristle of my life, ruined before it began.
To close, in Colson Whitehead’s 2019 novel The Nickel Boys the protagonist of the story comments upon a man who was imprisoned with him in a state run institution: “Chickie Pete and his trumpet. He might have played professionally, why not? A session man in a funk band, or an orchestra. The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place. Doctors who cure diseases or perform brain surgery, inventing shit that saves lives. Run for president. All those lost geniuses- sure, not all of them were geniuses, Chickie Pete for example wasn’t solving special relativity- but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.”
I don’t want to present the idea that there is a direct parallel between the plight of a black boy in a reform school in the 60’s and myself. But then I do. Once the world has convinced you that you are not worth saving you turn into something else. Something abnormal, a stripped and sprung cog in a machine that insists on punishing you for the horrors it has already inflicted.
Violence bends you. Violence breaks you. It turns you into something that you never wanted to be. And then, when you have finally relaxed into the shape that it has made for you the whole thing shatters. And then you’re nothing at all.
S and I warmed to each other and he began to tell me about his escapes, of how on one occasion he hid under a couch for two days, pissing on the carpet until he felt he could leave safely. I had always wondered why it smelled like urine in the common area.
As we established trust we made the leap from telling war stories to making plans, and in the bitter cold of Massachusetts in January we devised a scheme to leave. In hindsight this plan would have been better executed in the Spring.
One night at 12:00 AM we left our bunks. No one woke up, even when we broke the lock that separated us from our shoes and coats. Then we ran in darkness towards the gym and auditorium where we had never played a game or watched a performance.
It was unlocked. We pilfered clothes from a stash in a closet, then made our way to the basement where we hid beneath a tarp behind a boiler. We stayed there for 24 hours. We each had a baseball bat, and in the event that a member of the staff happened upon us we were going to beat them into unconsciousness. This almost occurred. One of the maintenance men came to the basement. I readied myself to attack, but he left after and there we stayed.
To make the hours tolerable I engaged in a pleasure I had not enjoyed for 7 months, which was cursing. These words were edited out of our vocabulary through a number of punitive measures. From then on, every sentence was a proper noun sandwiched between “Fuck”. I still speak this way.
When the next night fell we emerged from hiding. We walked across the campus. S knew the layout of the administrative offices and the plan was for him to enter and steal the petty cash drawer, allowing us to get bus tickets to a destination that was yet to be discussed.
From this point on details become hard to retrieve. I remember walking along railroad tracks and things being fleetingly beautiful. Snow was glowing under a generous moon and the windows of houses gave off orange light. I imagined the families within and how their children might be built right, not crazy or dangerous like me. We talked as though we were kids on an adventure. Eventually we reached a highway. We walked beside it, moving with the big trucks through the snow.
We caught a ride from a trucker. We bought bus tickets to Albany and slept in the mission, smothered in the odor of clothes that never get dry and feet. Eventually we were cast out by the minister. He was not his brother’s keeper.
We split up. We had different survival strategies. I slept under a loading dock on the SUNY Albany campus, then over a heating grate, soaked by rain and feeling death evaluating me, and then I was arrested for vagrancy. A cop threatened to shoot me in the head and leave my body in a ditch and I wished our roles were reversed.
Jerry, a friend of my father’s, picked me up from the police station and began to drive me back to the place I’d escaped from. There was no point in telling him that I would be sitting in a corner in a cold shack and staring at the wall, making up sins so that the staff would consider me to be sufficiently repentant. We stopped at a diner and when he used the bathroom I ran into the woods. Jerry is dead now, killed on a highway off-ramp.
After this I called my parents and told them that this would be the last time they would hear from me. I wouldn’t go back. Being on the street was deadly but at least I was free.
My father eventually arrived. I don’t recall him asking me anything much about where I’d been and what I’d done. These things were mostly boring anyway. I froze. I starved. My life was threatened. As far as I am aware these are the commonplace indignities that homeless people endure.
I drove through the campus of the Desisto School recently. My memories were of darkness, of a hidden cult tucked away from the world and endless distances traversed in the snow. Instead I drove through wealthy New England villages with the usual trappings of ski shops, yoga studios and restaurants, each of them promising an innovative take on farm to table cuisine.
I think I was hoping for ghosts. For an air of menace. For tall grasses encroaching on crumbling buildings that somehow contained relics of the misery doled out within. More than anything I envisioned a tree erupting from the roof of the mansion, life somehow struggling through the rotting carcass of a building that was mortared with the ego of an utterly forgettable megalomaniac.
Instead I felt bored. It was so much smaller than in my memories. Close to the road, only a few miles from a good cup of coffee. All of the buildings had been razed except the building I slept in and the mansion itself. They appeared to have been completely and thoroughly emptied.
There was no opportunity to enter the buildings. The grounds were actively maintained with a landscaping crew mowing the grass. They didn’t give me a second look. Perhaps they were used to gawkers. It all seemed unlikely to me. How did something that did so much damage to so many children have the evil drained away?
But then it is worth saying that some of the evil didn’t drain away. It just moved, dressed up in a sheriff’s uniform. It became a dangerously corrupt piece of shit in a new place. In a failed bid for congressional office, right wing border hawk Paul Babeau came undere scrutiny for his time as headmaster of the school.
Despite his emphatic denial of any knowledge of the punishments being foisted upon the students under his care, in a home movie leaked to the media Babeau stated “They need to feel hopeless; they need to feel depression and complete failure. They have to bottom out and then be able to work through it.” I have been working through it my whole life.
I came back from Desisto School changed in a bad way. While it was beyond a doubt that I entered the school an angry kid I emerged enraged. I lay awake at night fantasizing a wholesale slaughter of the staff and administrators. To admit to such thoughts in the present is the highest breach to a number of taboos, but this is all I got out of the Desisto experience.
My life hadn’t been normal before and it wasn’t normal after. The hostility that I felt against authority figures, suppressed for an adolescent lifetime, turned white hot. I punched trees until my knuckles bled. I terrified my sisters with the enormity of my anger. My father and I circled one another, animals ready to lock horns.
I was enrolled in a public school for damaged kids. All I remember are grey skies and long bus rides. I was choking on myself. I threatened a teacher’s life, tried to leave the school grounds, was restrained by two security guards, and charged with misdemeanors for my threats. This life experience became standard, but it never stopped feeling novel.
In Colson Whitehead’s 2019 novel The Nickel Boys the protagonist of the story comments upon a man who was imprisoned with him in a state run institution: “The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place […] Chickie Pete for example wasn’t solving special relativity- but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.”
I don’t want to present the idea that there is a direct parallel between my experience and the plight of an African American boy in a reform school in the 60’s. I have insulation that such young men couldn’t have dreamed of, and more second chances than I really deserve. But still, I know this: Violence bends you. Domination breaks you. It turns you into something that you never wanted to be. And then, when you have finally relaxed into the shape that it has made for you the whole thing shatters. And then you’re nothing at all.