I tried to learn nothing from this year. It worked out. The thing is a) death and suffering have nothing to teach me and b) I’ve been numb to concepts I don’t understand since mid-2018, which is when I took my doctoral qualifying exams and started to write my dissertation. I finished the last round of edits the same week Virginia Tech shut down.
You have to be stoic to write a dissertation in under 18 months. I’m not bragging – I rushed since my program only funds students for four years. The anaesthetic habit comes in handy when I watch the news, but now I’m stuck with this residual bitterness towards fascinating ideas, especially the sort of counter-intuitive, baldly mad concepts that can shake you out of a depressive stupor, which might have helped with lockdown claustrophobia.
Writing a dissertation also made me resent artists because artists don’t have to render their thoughts in logico-formal terms. If I haven’t found the words for the pandemic it’s because no internally consistent frame of reference fits around it and I’m not clever enough to describe the pain. For a while I did try. If the times were really unprecedented, like everyone was saying, I knew I had to give it a shot. I envisioned this as an aesthetic rather than a sensemaking project. No explanation, just poetic refraction. But descriptive writing’s not my strong suit, and my efforts amounted to little more than a few maudlin unfinished blog posts on my Google drive.
In Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze writes that thought “needs that revolution which took art from representation to abstraction.” I like this argument because it vindicates the difficulty I’ve alway faced trying to represent my thoughts formally. My career is what happens when an INFP tries to make it in academia, i.e., tries really hard to turn that P into a J. Thanks to the internet, our shared assumptions about what it means to think – my bastard definition for Deleuze’s “image of thought” – are going in the wrong direction. The motion is not from the realm of the representative to the abstract, but representation to hyperrealism or capitalist realism. It’s spiritually perverse and can only lead to depression. I think it’s the major function of capitalist techno-power: to make everything feel too real.
And I prefer explanation to description when I feel alone. I mean existentially alone, alone in the youthful self-absorbed sense. Description assumes we’re on the same page; explanation suspects that the world is mysterious; philosophical explanation is fiction that vanquishes the epistemic darkness. The one explanation I have for 2020 is not philosophical. Capitalism is bad. I didn’t need a pandemic to get that.
At the year’s end I’m not exactly in a good mood. I feel the kind of neutral-alive that powers the survival instinct – Beckett’s can’t go on / must go on. The thing is that life is indifferent towards the way we feel about it. So is politics, as Kim Stanley Robinson claimed in Commune Mag, the same outlet where I published an article about acid communism.
I thought about the acid communist thesis a lot this year- the possibility that the communitarian vision of the 1960s counterculture was not actually untenable (as learned consensus has it) but that hypercapitalism stripped it of political leverage. That’s a crude version of the idea, anyways. Mark Fisher proposed a historical research project to examine this possibility, but he committed suicide before he finished the book’s introduction.
Back when covid seemed abstract and sensational, I drove to Indiana under a sky that looked pregnant with aliens, true to Midwestern pop-culture sci-fi form. I had a grant to do research at a historical archive of psychedelic science. In the stacks I found drawings made by subjects of underground LSD research in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Precisely what you’d want from such a record — pages & pages of trippy anthropomorphized hammer & sickle symbols, so much Freudian imagery that you’d think the psychiatrists made subliminal suggestions to their patients. I wish you could have seen it.
That was 12 days after my dissertation defense. Archival research was an appropriate rebound exercise. In the twilight of the PhD long-game, where every minute of the day is subject to your own self-made future, it was fun to mess around with other peoples’ histories. For the grant I’d proposed a project about how the digital turn impacted psychedelic research methodology and what this said about the politics of late 20th century science. Historical materialism with philosophy of technology in its guts. The once and future acid communism, if anybody cares to do the work, would follow the same technique. Specifically, it’d look at the 70s and 80s to figure out how and why we all started to feel enclosed in a cybernetic time loop. I like this essay about it more than the one I wrote. Incidentally, after Biden’s win, a few people on Twitter made the same joke about the return of the end of history.
I am still curious about what happened between the 60s and the 90s. I don’t believe that the hippie movement brought about its own bloody undoing. It’s nice to think about where we’d be without Reaganism & neoliberal economic policy but I agree that this imagination has to be grounded in historical evidence. The ambition is immense; it would need to be a collaborative effort. There must be more than a few people taking it up. Maybe they’re all around Goldsmiths University of London, where Fisher is a canonized legend, and maybe I’ll find some in Brooklyn – I get the keys to my new apartment next week – but I bet they’re mostly online. Despite everything I’ve ever written about the internet, I’m here, too.