Esteemed readers. If any of you remain, given my long lapse in posting, I hope that this small offering will bring you joy. Or at least reassure you that I am among the living and that I actually do work, and even write, away from this small series of calls into the abyss of the Internet.
The play of the day is the recent publication of an article I wrote for the now in print Bloomsbury Handbook of Electronic Literature.
If you care about literature, or if you don’t but you care about me, or if you care about neither but are in support of knowledge production much more generally, get thee to a library and find this book. If nothing else, it will turn you on to an incredible collection of works worth reading.
[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.
Comrades, oh dear comrades!
The play of this autumnal day is the publication of my most recent article (co-authored with my lovely and brilliant colleague, Katie Kelp-Stebbins) in Media Fields.
You can read it here if you so desire.
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.
A recent article in the New York Times reported Cleveland’s apparently successful efforts of to revitalize its downtown real estate market. The theater district, Playhouse Square, is at the center of the narrative that both the Times and the local press seem to be telling about the city’s emerging renaissance. It has taken nearly 30 years and over 55 million dollars to produce the new economic and aesthetic landscape downtown. This May, the district plans to unveil the final touches on its lengthy redesign process. Among them will be the largest, permanent outdoor chandelier in the known world.* According to Cleveland.com, “This 20-foot-tall, awe-inspiring work will be adorned with 4,200 crystals in the style of the grand chandeliers in the theater lobbies. It will hang over the intersection of East 14th Street and Euclid Avenue.”
Whatever your position on the development models Cleveland has used to help recreate its urban center, it certainly was something the city required. Empty skyscrapers and deserted downtown streets do not bode well for anyone in the city. And, as exemplified by the struggles of Detroit, it could have been, well, scary.
What I wonder, though, is what sort of story the revamped Playhouse Square itself tells the broader population of Cleveland, and indeed, the world with its peculiar aesthetic. The chandelier is perhaps the most garish of its urban signs. As the language used by Cleveland.com suggests, the project gestures toward the imagined good old days of the industrial revolution. Big money was spent on art and culture in Cleveland and its surrounding cities in what was then known as the Steel belt. Clevelanders are still fond of referring to the long stretch of road through the cultural gardens as “Rockefeller’s driveway.” Because, it was. Millionaire’s Row was home to wealthy denizens of the industrial age and they helped found, fund and develop some of Cleveland’s most well-regarded cultural institutions. But Rockefeller left the city in a fly-by-night escape from taxation. And the stretch of Euclid all those millionaires once occupied has certainly changed its shape in the years since they (and many others) fled to Cleveland Heights and other suburbs.
The development corporations are, perhaps, not the best folks to offer public art that might more dynamically engage Cleveland and its history. But I do wonder why a city which was so devastated by the collapse of the industrial economy would be so excited about a public display glorifying exactly that long-gone source of wealth.
With an estimated 34.2% of the city’s residents living below the poverty line,** Cleveland’s enormous chandelier might also be read as a mask for its ongoing failure to address the needs of its working-class and working-poor citizens. It connotes a kind of luxury the vast majority of Clevelanders have no chance of attaining, and the rejuvenated downtown real estate market means, too, that such people will not be enjoying the view from city-center apartments.
I’m not saying I don’t like chandeliers, or theater, or all the perks of neighborhood redesign and gentrification.*** I am, however, suggesting that a serious critique of public art is necessary because such promotional constructions do cultural work. They function in the urban sign system to make meanings that are sold and consumed by locals and outsiders alike. Highlighting ironies, arguing for and against installations, marking the ways urban stories are told to begin with: this too can do cultural work. And perhaps it won’t do much for the real estate market, but imagine what it could do for the future of urban planning and, thus, for the future of your city, our city; the future of the city.
* I am so not kidding.
**This percentage, estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau, is for Cleveland proper. It does not include the technically separate municipality of East Cleveland where the poverty rate is estimated at nearly 40%.
***Full disclosure: I happen to have a chandelier hanging in my mudroom. It’s true. It’s also true that it’s made of plastic. I live in a gentrified neighborhood in Cleveland and I love it. I also go to Playhouse Square, a lot, to see plays and eat at the new restaurants and wander the streets. These facts do not, I think, diminish my capacity to think about the greater consequences of the sources of some of my quotidian pleasures.
I recently came across a link to this promotional video for the city of Cleveland.* Titled “A Cleveland Anthem,” it does a more or less predictable job of articulating an image of the city as full of food, drink, sports and rock and roll (oh, and shopping. Obviously. Lots of shopping.) . It also presents the Cleveland populous as a ‘go-your-own way’, hardy and rabble-rousing sort who won’t be kept down and who don’t really give a shit what you think about them or their city. It sells Cleveland in the vein, as my friend pointed out, of the ‘keep Austin weird’ campaign or any number of other off-center city attempts at self-promotion.
I could offer several of criticisms of the video, point out the ways it elides immense and problematic urban phenomena precisely by offering a more digestible version of Cleveland’s hard-edges. But I won’t. Because promotional videos are just commercials. Pepsi sells Beyoncé sells Pepsi sells Beyoncé, and so on, ad infinitum. Capital dressed as culture unfurls its tentacles in all directions. The “Cleveland Anthem” was never going to be about urban blight or development or cultural revolution or even about the sometimes wildly engaging things Clevelanders are doing with and for their city. That wasn’t its investment in the city or its audience.
But there is a way in which such material works its way into popular conceptions of what cities are, what they do and to whom they really belong. However much I may despise (or, for that matter, adore) some of the ways Cleveland fashions itself for an audience, or the way any city I care for does, those representations matter well beyond the bounds of their brief viral explosion on Twitter.
So if no city is going to produce feature-length, in-depth, Marxist-leaning documentaries about its complex and various tribulations, triumphs and speculative futures,** what, exactly can we do with what they do produce?
Three modest proposals:
1.) Basic media literacy and regular old literacy campaigns: People can read the way they are being sold by and sold to only if they know how to read visual and textual products. This is not a particularly radical solution, but it’s one of which I am particularly supportive. Literacy matters more, perhaps, in Cleveland than many cities. Given the abysmal statistics, any increase in literacy could mean a very different sort of city and a much broader scope of participation among the populous.
2.) Alternative cultural products: While the internet may not be so liberatory a virtual space as Marshall McCluhan and his ilk initially imagined, it does offer relatively wide access to a variety of tools that allow for mashups, remakes and novel production of all kinds of alternative urban narratives. If we want to have a hand in the representations of the cities we live in, we might aim to contribute a voice or two to the din. “The Cleveland Anthem” is ripe for hacking. The city is yours only if you make it.
3.) Opt out(ish): I think there is a general human need to lay claim to the cultural mystique of our cities. We tend, as part of this need, to adopt the slogans and stories shared among us as our own–sometimes without critically engaging them. But perhaps instead of fondly swapping theme songs, we might do a little more conversational legwork and ask, among those we love in our cities and those we might not know at all, about what it actually means to sell a city and to whom we might (or might not) want to sell it. I am not suggesting that opting out of the whole affair of urban representation is a good idea. I don’t think it is. I’m suggesting that we try to consciously mark what it is we feel about representations of the places we inhabit and that we share those feelings, in some way, with those around us. This is the softer stuff of cultural criticism, I suppose, but I like to believe that even in a hard city, soft is still something.
*See also this, very different sort of Cleveland material, which happens to be hilarious.
**Too much to ask?
A group of friends of mine, all of whom live within a three mile radius of my house,* often meet on Sunday evenings during the summer to cook and eat together. There is little peculiar about such gatherings, I imagine, but living in Los Angeles means a lot of outdoor dining. What is commonly known as the ‘Fortress of Ballertude’** serves as host with great frequency for our Sunday Summer Suppers. The most recent dinner there happened to occur, thanks to the late summer holiday and an epic barbecue,*** on a Monday evening.
What, prey tell, does this have to do with the city, you ask? Well, the back yard of this particular domicile is intoxicatingly Angeleno. Its residents laid red brick on the dirt floor of the small fenced-in back yard a few years ago. A partial canopy of bougainvillea which leans in from three sides of the yard gives way, if you look straight up, to a view of four waving palm trees. When the grill is going, they pipe music in from speakers wired through the walls. Those sounds combine with the noise from passing walkers and traffic.
It is as close as I have come to the plutonic ideal of what nights in the summer should feel like in Los Angeles. It doesn’t hurt that most of those in attendance are amazing cooks, so whatever they bring or create at the fortress satisfies the late, hot afternoon appetite.
But mostly what makes the Sunday Supper an institution is the city itself. If you make a home here, if you let yourself love the occasionally too-hot summer nights and the people with whom you choose to spend them, everything else will blossom to compliment you and it and them.
I leave the Sunday Suppers and often find myself stupidly grinning on the walk home in the kind warm breeze.
Palm trees are not native to Los Angeles. And the recent heat wave was likely man-made. Almost all of the folks who sit around the table are transplants from other distant cities. But after such good pot luck, I don’t care. I just love the city and its inhabitants. I love the summer. And wish I could stay forever.****
*This is extremely rare in Los Angeles. Particularly given that this group of folks are mostly friends I won in college. The sprawl and the job market has it that most Angelenos have a cohort more widely dispersed.
**Not my choice. I swear.
***See previous post.
****So, if you follow this blog or are thorough about your footnotes, you already know I’m leaving Los Angeles. For this, and the quickly waning days of summer weather, I feel I should be forgiven for all my swooning about the city until I depart.
I am currently trying to eek out the last, resistant concluding paragraphs of my dissertation at a bar called ‘The Faculty‘ in East Hollywood (this particular section of which is apparently referred to by locals as Hel Mel because of the small collection of businesses at the intersection of Heliotrope and Melrose).
It is not lost on me that cities, as much because of the way they name their neighborhoods, their streets, their addresses, offer a kind of poetic license to the wanderer. We make our own fictions just by choosing our route through their strange and glorious linguistic ecologies. So I, jobless would-be professor, work at ‘The Faculty’ though I lack, alas, work as faculty.
Much has been written on the atomising nature of car culture in Los Angeles. All of us (who can afford it) ferrying ourselves to and fro on the wide network of freeways that cover the sprawl–isolated in our capsular space, shuttling forward at high speeds (or, given the traffic, at virtually no speed)–are said to be without a public space any longer, without even a notion of our neighbors. Our fellow Angelenos, so close yet still so far away from us, are themselves isolated inside, captured, really, by their cocoons of metal and steel and rubber.
I agree, for the most part. The automobile, and more-so, the automobile industry has made this city a network, has collapsed the center and spilled what remained of its guts in all directions, morphing LA into a labyrinth of commerce devoted to the isolated spender with a big trunk. Car culture has bulldozed and forgotten what was once a functional trolley system. It has, too, brought with it a near-constant cloud of cancerous pollution which weighs heavy in the air on hot days and seems always to specifically target the poor and the marginalized, the communities built up against the complex of freeways for whom car ownership is less and less possible. As ubiquitous as it is, it denies access still to exactly those who pay the largest price for its excesses.
But one hates to ignore, at least I hate to ignore, something compelling, something common in our not-so-new, ever-mobile cybernetic selves. Even when we can in the same breath critique the automobile (certainly LA’s most emblematic, if not its most common cybernetic appendage) and its impact on the production of the city, might we too find something of value in it? That human thing, as I see it, might just be the total release such strangely fashioned, such costly privacy affords us drivers in a city that belongs not to drivers but to cars.
Every once in a while I like to test this theory of mine out. Usually simply by singing, loudly, along with the music playing on my car’s quickly failing radio. But sometimes, to maximize effect and highlight in the extreme the kind of solitude a car can provide, I scream.
I roll down all of the windows and scream as loudly and for as long as my lungs allow. It’s a habit I picked up in college when I was first learning the freeways. It felt at the time like a way of marking space in a city that is under constant self-erasure. Now that I know Los Angeles well, or at least well enough that even in its continuous transformation and re-fashioning it feels like a city to which I belong, the screaming just feels good. Or if not good, it at least always feels.
That, in the end, is sublime. And it is also the stuff of connective tissues between us, post-human and machinic though we may be. Maybe no-one hears me literally screaming past at 70 miles per hour. But they don’t have to. Because once in a while I bet some other driver, in their very own strange shell, is probably screaming too.
“Traffic is Junkspace,” writes Rem Koolhaas, “from airspace to the subway; the entire highway system is Junkspace, a vast potential utopia clogged by its users, as you notice when they’ve finally disappeared on vacation …”* I think maybe the utopic on the highway is indeed clarified by a kind of absence. But even on packed highway, utopia as the someday Los Angeles comes as all no-places (which are perpetually absent, after all), all would-be places that are not yet but still might impossibly be, come. It comes as hope in the form of some kind of speech, some sign-making. Perhaps particularly in the animal universal of one long, loud, zooming primal scream.
*Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace,” October Vol. 100 ‘Obsolescence’ (Spring 2002) pg. 180.
I am teaching a course this summer on junk. I consider the term broadly. So does Thierry Bardini, whose exceptional Junkware was the inspiration for my syllabus, in a round about sort of way.
Yesterday my students and I discussed Julio Cortázar’s “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris.” And, may I say, this story is absolutely wonderful.
Cortázar is deceptively inviting to teach. His bizarre, perfectly wrought short stories beckon because you know, for the most part, that students will adore him and the dark and complex, surreal worlds he produces. But his work, because of his nearly unparalleled erudition and critical, formal radicality, can sometimes produce classroom conversations that are difficult to direct.
It’s always, though, worth the effort.
And besides, when the main character in the text you’re teaching has the peculiar problem of vomiting up baby bunnies,* you’re guaranteed to engage your students. You’re also guaranteed to take great pleasure in re-reading the work–again and again and again.
*If this isn’t an exceptional metaphor for all kinds of things, I don’t know what is. Why it hasn’t made its way into popular lexicon is beyond me. Think about what it could offer to our thirsty ears: “Oh man, Alli sure is vomiting up the proverbial bunny.”