Friends, Wizards, Comrades,
The play of the day is my most recent publication, co-authored with David Lyttle, at Fall Semester. Now available online here. This work is in the second volume of their truly wide-ranging and fantastic collection of essays on aesthetics, politics, and so much more. I’m proud to have been included as a part of their fascinating and entirely necessary, perhaps more than ever, interventions. Our essay is part of a larger project (some of which is available in the last post.)
Enjoy! Critique! Or just lock yourself in a room and practice ritual magick!
[Dearest readers! What follows is a.) a small gesture to those few among you who might have been hoping I would actually produce content on this long-ignored blog, and b.) a small call for resistance in a dark political night. Things are bad. But I want to continue to believe in discourse and in truth. The following paper is a small portion of a larger project I have been working on with the inimitable and absolutely magickal David Lyttle. We first delivered it at the annual meeting of the Society for the study of Literature, Science, and the Arts in Atlanta, GA in November of 2016. Enjoy! Or critique. Hopefully both.]
By David Lyttle and (yours truly) Allison Schifani
“Magick is a culture.” So writes Alan Chapman in his Advanced Magick for Beginners.* Today, we are trying to take Chapman more seriously than perhaps he took himself by looking at the rituals of Western esotericism, also known as magick, as creative technologies that may be employed to engage and shape what Catherine Malabou has called “our brain.”** And to do so for radical ends.
Malabou looks at recent developments in neuroscience to position brain plasticity not only as a material fact, but as a political opportunity. We hope to look at chaos magick, a particular contemporary version of Western esoteric ritual practice, in terms of what it can do to and with the brain in order to answer the call Malabou makes.
Malabou writes “The word plasticity […] unfolds its meaning between sculptural molding and deflagration, which is to say explosion. From this perspective, to talk plasticity of the brain means to see in it not only the creator and receiver of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a mold.”***
Utilizing the juxtaposition of chaos magick and brain plasticity we hope to outline ways in which we might think of magick as already enacting in its practice epistemological gestures that parallel Malabou’s reading of brain plasticity. We also look to studies in neuroscience and psychology which point to magick in practice as a brain-shaping technology. Magick can provably shape the brain, we argue, yes, but it is also geared to do so in ways that do something to “our brain,” that is to say, in ways that can radically reshape the social milieu and work against capitalist productions of identity and the self.
There are a number of reasons, in any critique of capitalist productions of identity and the self, to look to magick. Western esotericism has remained countercultural, and if not ‘occult’ in the sense it perhaps once was, its wide collection of rituals, texts and epistemological structures persist in their resistance to legibility, and make magicians difficult to identify. Magick itself remains without a coherent identity. It could be said to understand itself as its own “agent of disobedience to every constituted form,” and also, just as Malabou’s plasticity, Magick “refuses to submit to a mold.”
Magick also remains counter-cultural in the sense that it is largely ignored by popular discourse (even discourse on religion or mysticism). This allows us a number of possible exploits. Our larger critical project, putting neuroscience, philosophy, and magick within the same milieu of resistant possibility, is, we hope, its own kind of magickal act.
For the purposes of this short exploration, we will be focusing on what is known as ‘chaos magick,’ rather than any number of other traditions. Although chaos magick exists primarily at the fringes of culture, it has in places had a broader cultural influence through the work of artists, writers, and musicians. For example: Genesis P-Orridge (of the bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV) founded an organization dedicated to magickal and artistic experimentation called the Temple Ov Psychic Youth. Comics writer Grant Morrison popularized chaos magick primarily through his series, The Invisibles, whose central plot follows a group of anarchist sorcerers conspiring to fight nefarious forces of control and domination. The writer William Burroughs (who P-Orridge describes as a “magical mentor”) became involved with chaos magick late in life as a member of the chaos magickal order known as the Illuminates of Thanateros.
The origin of chaos magick as a distinct esoteric tradition can be traced to the 1978 publication of Liber Null by the English occultist Peter Carroll. In Liber Null, Carroll proposed a paradigm of esoteric practice that did not require practitioners to use any one particular set of symbols or rituals, or to adopt any specific belief systems (supernatural or otherwise). Chaos magick adopted the skeptical, empirical approach to magick previously advocated by occultist Aleister Crowley, but went a step further by attempting to strip away obfuscating jargon, complicated symbolism, and specific metaphysical assumptions. By distilling magick to a set of simple, adaptable core principles and practices, chaos magick effectively lowered the barrier of entry to magickal practice, insisting that anyone could do magick. Chaos magick also eliminated the requirement that magicians must “believe” in any supernatural explanation for how magick works. Psychological and purely materialistic models are given equal footing with supernatural explanations, although practitioners are cautioned against dogmatically adhering to any belief system, and encouraged to entertain multiple, possibly conflicting models simultaneously. As Carroll writes,
It is a mistake to consider any belief more liberated than another. It is the possibility of change which is important. Every new form of liberation is destined to eventually become another form of enslavement for most of its adherents. […] The solution is to become omnivorous. Someone who can think, believe, or do any of a half dozen different things is more free and liberated than someone confined to only one activity.
Chaos magicians often utilize altered states of consciousness (called ‘gnosis’ in the discourse of Carroll and later writers) in conjunction with ritual and symbolic manipulation. Such states include sexual excitation, exhaustion, absorptive trance induced by meditation, hallucinatory states produced through drug use, sensory deprivation, and others. Gnosis is proposed as a means of disrupting the filtering and censoring mechanisms of the conscious, rational mind, allowing ritual and symbol to act directly on the precognitive and unconscious level.
Chaos magick is deeply invested in embodiment. And its investment, while plastic, always returns to a rootedness in the singular, experiential phenomena that can be produced by and through the body. It also ties both magical potential and liberatory capacity to the body.
(Carroll again:) There is a thing more trustworthy than all the sages, and which contains more wisdom than a great library. Your own body. It asks only for food, warmth, sex and transcendence. Transcendence, the urge to become one with something greater, is variously satisfied in love, humanitarian works, or in the artistic, scientific, or magical quests of truth. To satisfy these simple needs is liberation indeed.
The body, in this discourse, thus becomes a site of multiple potentialities. While it may be the site of care for the self, it is utilized as a way to destabilize imposed notions of care in favor of processual critiques of ‘self’ and ‘identity’ that can be accessed through physical experience. Gnosis works in part because these states of extreme experience derail the capacity of the practitioner to attach herself to a narrative of a stable ‘I.’
If we think in terms of Malabou, part of the material body on which ritual works would include, of course, the brain and the shape of our understanding of the self to which the conceptual formation of the brain is linked. But the idea that magick works on the brain need not be a metaphor for ideological critiques alone.
How do ritual practices, the focused use of language, and the various extreme states of being collectively referred to as ‘gnosis’ actually function to exploit neuroplasticity, and change the brain in measurable ways? Research addressing this question is, of course, still somewhat young, but there are several intriguing examples that hint toward the efficacy of these practices as tools for changing the brain, and by extension, the self.
Much of chaos magick involves the use of intense, focused attention, and the practice of meditation is considered a foundational tool for cultivating the ability to direct one’s attention. Meditation is perhaps the most well studied example of how embodied ritual practices can change both the functionality and physical structure of the brain. Numerous studies of experienced meditators (typically Buddhist monks with years of training), have shown that this practice changes the brain at both the functional level (brain wave activity as measured by EEG, functional connectivity as measured by FMRI) and the structural level (marked differences in cortical thickness in several regions, specifically those associated with emotional regulation, bodily awareness, and cross-hemispheric communication). Furthermore, the effects of meditative practices on the brain can manifest in a relatively short time: one study demonstrated that just 11 hours of meditation can induce measurable changes in brain structure in novice meditators.
Other methods for producing gnosis include the use of psychoactive drugs, a practice directly advocated by many in the chaos tradition and in western esotericism more broadly. Earlier this year, scientists released the first modern brain scans of patients who had volunteered to take LSD, among other hallucinogenic drugs. According to The Guardian’s summary of these studies:
The brain scans revealed that trippers experienced images through information drawn from many parts of their brains, and not just the visual cortex at the back of the head that normally processes visual information. Under the drug, regions once segregated spoke to one another.
Further images showed that other brain regions that usually form a network became more separated in a change that accompanied users’ feelings of oneness with the world, a loss of personal identity called “ego dissolution.”
And, of course, one of the central goals of gnostic ritual is the dissolution of a stable ‘self.’
Malabou’s own exploration of neuroscientific discourse is also deeply invested, if not in ‘ego-dissolution’, certainly in the implications of brain plasticity in terms of the possibility of gesturing toward the other by means of understanding our own material selves as plastic. Hers is a vision of plasticity that extends from the brain to its milieu–not just its body, or its environment, but its world.
In addition to the use of gnosis, chaos magick relies heavily upon the strategic use of language, rigorous self-analysis, and the manipulation of symbols to disrupt and alter existing patterns of perception, thought and behavior. Many of these techniques are similar to those used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The underlying premise of CBT is that upsetting emotions arise due to distorted patterns of thought and self-talk, and the treatment process consists of systematically disrupting these patterns and replacing them with new, more adaptive ones. CBT is one of the most successful and empirically-supported types of (non-pharmaceutical) psychological treatment in use today. Moreover, recent research has suggested that CBT, like meditation, can produce measurable changes in brain function and structure. Collectively, these results suggest that language, focused thought, and self-interrogation can indeed change the brain in lasting ways.
Certain practices within chaos magick can be seen as a sort of intense, D.I.Y. variant of CBT, in the sense that they serve to systematically uproot and replace patterns of thought, speech and action. However, there is a crucial difference: CBT, like many forms of psychotherapy, is designed to make patients more “functional” and able to cope within the broader social, political, and cultural frameworks in which they exist, without challenging those same frameworks, or implicating them as potential sources of the patient’s suffering. In contrast, magickal practice, rather than simply helping practitioners better navigate existing power structures, encourages critical engagement with the self and the broader structures in which the self is embedded. In Malabou’s terms, CBT proposes a model of flexibility, where magick seeks plasticity.
One potential pitfall of reading magick as a technology of resistance (even if that resistance leverages brain plasticity) is that capital produces itself as a magical. Melinda Cooper has called capital ‘delirious’ but this is a critical language that could just as easily be reframed in occult terms.+ What is the ‘invisible hand’ of the market if not an occult force? And its modes of abstraction and speculation also seem to be squarely within the category of magic. Not to mention symbol manipulation, the central component of magickal ritual practice. Ideological structures of contemporary capital remain bound tightly to the symbolic. This said, to think of resistant technologies in terms of magick is both novel (especially when we put magick in conversation with brain plasticity) and ‘old hat’: many of the resistant projects of the 20th and 21st centuries have appropriated capital’s magical logic. What this means is that both plasticity and magick are ambivalent in their relationship to the larger structures in which they operate. They can be leveraged for or against the status quo.
And if magick does not directly engage, or even care, about its impacts on the material brains of practitioners, its aim is certainly one of material change more broadly, and material change through individual and collective practice which can thus move on to change to directly shape the world.
To cancel the fluxes, to lower the self-controlling guard, to accept exploding from time to time: this is what we should do with our brain. It is time to remember that some explosions are not in fact terrorist — explosions of rage, for example. Perhaps we ought to relearn how to enrage ourselves, to explode against a certain culture of docility, of amenity, of the effacement of all conflict even as we live in a state of permanent war. It is not because the struggle has changed form, it is not because it is no longer possible to fight a boss, owner, or father that there is no struggle to wage against exploitation. To ask ‘what should we do with our brain?’ is above all to visualize the possibility of saying no to an afflicting economic, political, and mediatic culture that celebrates only the triumph of flexibility, blessing obedient individuals who have no greater merit than that of knowing how to bow their heads with a smile.++
Chaos Magick, if it does nothing else, positions itself and its practitioners as open to the explosion. It is firmly anti-docility and vocally against the effacement of conflict. In other words, when practiced radically, magick is plastic. And the way it utilizes plasticity means that it might also help us to more sustainably and equitably use our plastic brains.
*Alan Chapman, Advanced Magick for Beginners, London: Aeon Books, 2008, pg. 18.
**Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain? Trans. Sebastian Rand, New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
***Malabou, pg. 6.
+Melinda Cooper, Life as surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era, Seattle: U of Washington Press, 2008.
++Malabou, pg. 79.
I had the great pleasure of hosting a few nature-loving friends over the course of last week. Aside from the lizard and bird-spotting you can do pretty much anywhere in Miami, we also managed to head out for a day to the 15 mile bike loop in Everglades National Park, Shark Valley.
The ride is flat and easy. The glades engulf you as you trek further along. If you’re lucky (as we were), and it’s not too trafficked, you can ride for miles with only the local wildlife as company.
The alligator population is such that sometimes you actually have to swerve to avoid the creatures as they nap—their long, dark bodies sprawled half along the pavement, half dipped in the still waters alongside it. I lost count of the number of these odd beasts we spotted somewhere in the low twenties.*
The landscape is also, of course, dense with a wide variety of strange wetland flora as well. It makes for an expansive and alien environment for a desert creature like me. And beautiful.
I spent much of the ride thinking about two things: 1.) The impending flooding of Miami and its surrounding areas, which will, you can be sure, eventually make painfully clear the consequences of our shared disavowal of climate change, and 2.), the reminder a friend recently gave me that the outline of Florida you see on any given map is a fiction. The borders are porous in the state. Land is sometimes dry and sometimes wet. The water level, not the cartographer, marks the shifting outlines of this bizarre jutting mass, a sort of vestigial tail of the continental U.S.
Much has been written about the (political) trouble with maps.** But to my knowledge, considerably less so about the ecological consequences of ordering space cartographically. If we understand Florida as solid ground to stand on, we do so in part because we believe in the fictive representation of its borders on the maps we make of it. And that representation in turn allows us to ignore the material facts of ecology, and of our participation in it. Maps also, I think, quite likely aid in the disavowal of the material facts of the State.*** These are not separate issues. And their mutual imbrication will be made only more clear when refugees cross borders to escape ecological disaster just as frequently as they currently do by cause of political catastrophe.
Riding through the glades, despite the tourists and the paved path, is one way to encourage a different kind of map making: one more rooted in the body and the experience of place (both very messy affairs) than the ordered work of dividing land from water, self from other, us from them. It seems that we will certainly, in the coming years, need better ways to make alternative maps. Because the water is coming. And we might have been better off if we had acknowledged that it has always, in some way, already been here.
* We also saw a female crocodile (apparently the only one typically in the park). And, of course, birds of various sorts flew alongside us as we rode.
**See, in particular, the lovely work of Michel de Certeau.
*** Think, for example, of the recent claims made by presidential hopeful (and all around asshole) Donald Trump about the necessity of a literal wall along the U.S./Mexico border.
I am a swooner. I just am. People make me swoon. Weather can too. I swoon over good coffee. And cities. I am, perhaps more than anything else, a city-swooner.
I think I might have always been a seeker of special places. When I was a kid I used to make myself a tiny squat in a corner behind a huge houseplant in my parents’ living room. I liked the way the light shot in through the leaves, and that no one could find me there. I liked the idea that even the small animal that was me could choose a space, embed herself and her imagination in it, make it her own. That corner was likely the first clear indication of an obsession with place and space that has followed me across the three continents and 7 cities I have called home. And yes, I fell for all of those cities. Hard.
It might be safe to say, though, that I have never swooned with such intoxication and ecstasy as I did over the city of Cleveland. And my heart, though it has often been broken, has never felt quite so crushed by a departure as the one I now face, sitting as I do in my small apartment in Miami, far from the smoke stacks of the ArcelorMittal Steel Plant, and the grey skies of the Midwest, and the shores of the great Lake Erie. Oh Cleveland. My Cleveland. I long for you.
It is difficult to point exactly to what it is about the city that so captured me. Certainly the exceptional availability of cheap beer helped. And the first real snow falls of the season. (I only understood what Robert Frost meant by ‘downy flake’ after the winter of 2014).* I loved the architecture, even, perhaps especially, the dilapidated mansions of Millionaire’s Row and the decaying industrial warehouses all around. I even grew to love the Browns. Oh, and the dive bars. The not-so-divey dive bars. The Metroparks. The flats. The hot dogs. The utter, insane, giddy joy induced in everyone when, after so many dark months, the sun comes out on the first 60-degree day in Spring.
Mostly, though, I think it was Clevelanders. They are a scrappy, long-suffering, hard working, weird and sometimes misanthropic bunch. And even if they might say otherwise, sometimes, to each other, they love their city. And, after a while, an amazing crowd among them seemed to love me too. And god, did I ever swoon over them. So, so much.
But, woe, oh dear readers, this is my last Cleveland post for the foreseeable future. And thus, because I swooned so, let it stand as a declaration of my absolute, my undying, my completely sincere adoration for Cleveland and for its glorious, bizarre, and beautiful inhabitants. Let it be a call, loud and echoing, into the abyss of the internet. I sing your praises, Cleveland. I sing of your cursed sports teams, of your waterways once aflame, of your art, and your grace, and that strange smell still lingering from the hey day of industry that is sometimes carried by your bitter winds. I sing of your bagels. I sing of the market on your West and the snow banks on your East. I sing of your booze. I sing of your brunches. And I sing most of all for those within your borders, and those poor lost souls, like me, who long to return. I sing of your glory. For it is your own, hard-won glory. It is only, always yours. Oh Cleveland. My Cleveland. I love you.
*See his “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening“.
Everyone, it seems, in neoliberal camps, in maker-collaboratives, in venture capital firms (although, I admit, in very different ways) is swooning over the figure of the entrepreneur. We, in contemporary U.S. culture, like the start-up company. We applaud the risk-taker. We cheer on people with big ideas and little capital who make things in their garages no matter what the naysayers, well, say. (And no matter that the ‘garage’ is likely not a garage at all).
I like productive outliers and do-it-yourself-ers. I like ambition, too. Don’t get me wrong. But I have developed, of late, a resistance to the rhetoric of entrepreneurialism. This will not be surprising to many among my (small in number but totally glorious) readership. And they will already understand why I want a way of describing creative, novel intervention that knows the banner of entrepreneurialism is a very clever way to obfuscate the facts of contemporary labor: that is to say, that it hides the logic of precarity by suggesting creative work (without pay, or with only meager compensation) done in one’s leisure time is an individual and social good. And, of course, by suggesting that those among the entrepreneurial ‘creatives’ who do their work well will both change the world and grow spectacularly rich doing it. The fact that very, very few entrepreneurs ever get rich seems to consistently escape popular notice.
What may be worse, however, is that the kind of entrepreneurial ‘spirit’ we seem so vocally to root for is never about real, culture and world-altering public good. (Which, by the way, we expect to just emerge and never to pay for.) What we want is for the entrepreneur to wow us with his new, exciting gadgets, social media platforms, and sexy, quick solutions to slow, difficult, problems. Such problems are not per se technological in nature but are instead enmeshed in social and political networks as much as they are in the world wide web.
The discourse around the entrepreneur has also sucked the marrow right out of creativity. ‘The creative’ has become equated with the entrepreneur. Producers of art are only ‘creatives’ if the result of their labors can be monetized. That sleight of hand, to swallow up creativity and spit it out as not a way of engaging in the world, of connecting with others, of authentically expressing desires and hopes and political critiques and inviting sustained thought and reflection, but rather as a way of getting investors is more than a trick. It is a violent foreclosure of alternative futures in favor of one, endless, awful reproduction of the capitalist status quo.
We may be deeply compelled by the ingenious creatives among us, but maybe, as Benjamin Bratton (in this very engaging and smart anti-TED TED talk) among others have suggested, we need not uncritically celebrate the idea man without an accompanying, difficult, slow and well-grounded critique of his ideas and of the idea of the ‘creative’ itself. That new gadget now being developed, we should all have learned by now, is not going to save us from ourselves and it absolutely will not save us from global capital.
My sincerest apologies, dear readers, for my long absence. The perils and pressures of the academic job market and its accompanying existential dread have kept me away from you. The other thing that has kept me away from you is the subject of this post. I have, to the shock and dismay of many of my friends and loved ones across the country, become a Browns fan.
Before moving to Cleveland I knew nearly nothing about professional football, nor had I ever, excluding my attendance at the occasional super-bowl party (driven in large part by my intense desire to consume chicken wings and queso dip), bothered to watch the sport on television.
But Cleveland is a football city. It is populated by long-suffering, devoted, blindly faithful lovers of the Browns. And such fervor, despite abysmal evidence of the team’s inability to succeed, does much to woo the uninitiated. The sheer commitment Clevelanders are willing to offer the Browns is astounding. So astounding, in fact, that in less than a year its pull was strong enough to put me on a bar stool in front of a screen, screaming and weeping and drinking, to watch the opening game against the Browns’ long-time nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It did not, initially, go well. As I sipped my second beer, I watched the Browns crawl into half-time down a painful 24 points. This was a familiar sort of awful for fans. Since the 1999 season, the Browns had lost 27 games to the Steelers. Cleveland’s most beloved team has also logged a painful ten years since they managed to win an opening game.
But in the second half, we (you see how bad it’s gotten… ‘we’?) pulled it together to close the Steeler’s lead. Quarterback Brian Hoyer (an Ohio boy making good) won 230 yards—this includes a glorious 9-yard touchdown to Travis Benjamin. It was beautiful.
Yes, Browns’ punter Spencer Lanning was literally kicked in the face by the Steeler’s Antonio Brown. And yes, when all was said and done, we lost: 27-30.
But for a minute, it felt like we might win. And I’ve never seen anything like the manic, if still somewhat cautious, joy that filled that bar. Never. I swooned in that second half. I was moved. I screamed. I became a Browns fan.
I think the charm of sports (though I myself have never played or followed until finding myself at that West side bar, in this odd Rust Belt metropolis) is in the way they help us tell stories about ourselves. And the story of the Browns is compelling because it seems so well-matched to the story of the city the team inhabits.
Cleveland has deeply felt the the blows of the post-industrial economy. The city was among the hardest hit by the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. It was, long before that, devastated by the fall of industry. It, in short, has had a very hard time figuring out what it might take to win in a world that is quick to turn from the gifts it has (and has been asked) to offer.
The Browns’ history parallels the city’s own suffering. Like Cleveland, the team had its hey day. In the 50s and early 60s they were the league’s premier franchise. And then, the crash. Since the team’s last championship victory in 1964, its showing has been meager. A friend of mine told me that apparently their loosing streak is so bad as to be statistically, strikingly anomalous. It would be easier to accidentally win a championship than it would be to lose as often as the Browns have lost.
But this city loves them anyway. And so do I. Maybe because the one thing a city needs to survive the wild ups and downs of the shifting market is the same thing it needs to support a perpetually losing football team: hope. If we make different choices, if we build a future out of the stuff of our battered dreams, however implausible, maybe we might have a chance.
I am not a fan of the speculative capitalist economy. I’m not a fan of the Steelers. These negative statements share a foundation in the belief that the way things have been does not foreclose their possible futures. Change is possible. Cleveland could win.
And, if you’ve been following, they just might. The Browns’ played the Steelers again on October 12th. Final score? Browns 31, Steelers 10.
And nobody got kicked in the face.
The future, my friends, for our cities, for all of our teams, is wide, wide open.
David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, is set in an imaginary Cleveland.* One of the suburbs of this almost real city, East Corinth, resembles, when viewed from above, the profile of Jayne Mansfield. Foster Wallace’s Cleveland is also bordered on the south by the man-made Great Ohio Desert (or G.O.D.). Built of black sands, it offers “a point of savage reference for the good people of Ohio. A place to fear and love.”** And in his Cleveland’s downtown the skeletal remains of General Moses Cleaveland himself are buried in the shadow of the Bombardini Building; “his rest thus largely untroubled save by the pole of a sign which jutted disrespectfully out of Cleaveland’s left eye socket, the sign itself referring to a hugely outlined parking space in front of the Building and reading: THIS SPACE RESERVED FOR NOMRAN BOMBARDINI, WITH WHOM YOU DO NOT WANT TO MESS.”***
I love the intense and bizarre version of Cleveland Foster Wallace offers the world. I love it in part because somehow it manages to be close to the very real Cleveland in which I now live.
Of course, his imagined landscape contains within it some of the extant features of the city—the freeways, for example, are indeed those that criss cross this terrain. Lake Erie, too, plays a key aesthetic role in the text. Shaker Heights remains in the novel not unlike what it is in the actual, everyday Cleveland. What Foster Wallace gives to his readers is another way to shape the space, to charge it with humor and meaning. The fiction, even as it keeps some of the material stuff of the city, alters the genuine article.
As far as I can ascertain, Foster Wallace had spent virtually no time in Cleveland when he wrote The Broom of the System. That doesn’t mean he, like the rest of us, didn’t know the city in some way. Cleveland, despite its peripheral status in the pantheon of U.S. American cities, still looms large in the country’s imagination. Cleveland means something to people, even to people who have never had the pleasure of roaming its streets.
Much of the popular conception of Cleveland has to do with its grim fall from economic grace in the post-industrial era, but its image has also been marred by a few key media events as well, chief among them the infamous moment when the Cuayahoga River caught ablaze and made the national news in 1969.^ Mayor Perk’s own hair followed suit on live TV just a few years later.
I think these bursts of troubling publicity about Cleveland are likely what allowed it to serve for Foster Wallace, and for many, as a middling epitome of U.S. American life in the 20th century. Its sometimes sparsely populous sprawl, its defunct mills as well as those that still belch big black plumes into the Ohio sky, its blue collar culture and its ceaseless striving to be reborn into the contemporary abstract economies that rule the planet—all of these things help make it as beautiful as it is often absurd. Cleveland is both a ‘here’ and an ‘elsewhere’ of the urban in the United States. It is able, like Foster Wallace’s Cleveland, to be both entirely real and wholly fictional, entirely our own and entirely other. In other words, Cleveland wields the strange and compelling power of most cities: somewhere in the balance between its actual landscape and its imagined construction it holds the contradictions of city life and of ourselves.
I think Cleveland, though, does this better than most cities. Not because it is more flexible in the imagination than a Los Angeles or a Chicago, but because what it lets us project onto it is harder and darker, but perhaps also more hopeful, than what we aim at other urban worlds.^^ We may not all be capable of creating the kind of Cleveland Foster Wallace so engagingly did. But we do all, in the city or elsewhere, make it up. And in that way, we make it our own. In order to survive in the world we need good city stories to tell ourselves. We need bad city stories too.
A sense of place never comes only from geography or architecture. It also always comes from those who inhabit it, speak about it, picture it: in all the ways it is, it isn’t, and the ways it might be. Urban fiction is thus both a way to know our cities anew, and to change them.
*First published by Viking Penguin Inc. in 1987. (My edition: New York: Penguin Books, 2004).
^The river has actually lit up like a Christmas tree on at least 13 separate occasions. But it is not alone. Fires fueled by industrial waste were sparked in rivers across the United States throughout the 20th century.
^^Where, you ask, is your supporting evidence for this claim? Troll my previous Cleveland posts for some anecdotal proof. Otherwise, you will just have to choose whether or not to trust the instincts of Itinerant Me. Always a gamble in cases such as this, for my Cleveland is, of course, like yours–always the product of real space and of some imagined place, both elsewhere and here.