Tag Archives: alienation

On the vapour trail

fig. 1. On the vapour trail with a friend.

Of the many pleasures that I indulge, the one I am perhaps most fond of is walking. I walk—everyday if possible. Mostly I walk by myself. At this time of year, the streets of Canberra’s north are marked by the fall of autumn. Amidst their rustling the trees shed their leaves, and so many seem aflame with the turn of the season.

To walk is to leave all that confines me behind—for a time. The walls, curtains, and ceilings of my house bound life fall away, and the light and the sky and the clouds pour in and push me on from one street to the next, along one more path and another.

Lately, the northern suburb of Downer—what a name!—has come to fascinate me. Downer has a good supply of alleyways that strike paths between streets, like much of the city’s north. I have set myself the task of navigating them all, in the hope of at last finding the fabled north west passage out of Canberra. Thirty years I have searched. Near the border of Downer, one such path (what I have come to think of the suburb’s true gateway) was once marked, appropriately, by some particularly striking graffiti—translated words from a Rimbaud poem: Now is the assassin’s time.

Occasionally I spy someone gardening or tinkering in a yard. I am struck by their situation while I am passing. I am not opposed to their attentions—how could I be? But I ponder the various ways private property shapes our being and fixes us upon the phantoms of ownership and possession. The details, the maintenance, the endless renovation of a vanishingly small décor, in search of a life sold off for a wage that can never truly be recompense for what was lost.

Private property tends to foreclose the possibilities of the drift or denigrates our wandering into a strictly formalised ritual—the holiday or temporary escape from the drag of work and home. In contrast, last year during lockdown, I found that the streets of my suburb became more alive with drifters. I had never seen so many people walking the streets of this town on weekdays. It was strange only because I am used to the quiet of the streets as work and school takes hold of the day.

I have had the good fortune of having the burden of wage slavery mostly lifted from me over the last year. Unlike times past this has not resulted in crippling poverty and a humiliating relationship with social security. And so now when I can—which is most days—I drift. And while drifting I dream as much as pick over the present anxieties that bother.

Today—yesterday, what does it matter—I struck upon a game to play while walking. Inspired by the surrealists and the clouds above.

On the vapour trail—aka Follow that cloud!

A game for one or more. This is a game suited to cloudy days, preferably with a sky full of lively cumulus. However, do not disregard the chilly serenity of the far-off cirrus, perhaps even more conducive to poetic revery. Take heed also of the possibilities of the sharp shock and squalls of the cumulonimbus. Note that this game is not suited to the dreary stratus, that overwhelms the sky in suffocating monotony.

First, pick a cloud. Now follow it. Negotiate all obstacles—pathways, roads, fences, creatures animate and inanimate—to keep it in sight. The game ends upon the whim of the chaser, or the coherence and evanescence of the cloud.

The game can play out in two main ways. It is first of all simply a question of following that cloud—no matter what. Keep it in sight and turn to the task at hand. Or, secondly, the chase can combine a fanciful accompaniment. For instance, once chosen, the cloud will provide ample material for fantastical confabulations. Whether by recourse to paranoia-criticism (is that a face before me?) or a fable more attuned to the ephemerality of the cloud itself (and so the necessary decline and demise of every sky palace), you must remember that any and all clouds in conscious relation exceed their objectification as mere phases in the circuit of convection and fluid dynamics. The materiality of this object is not a question of its independent existence—which it has, no doubt—but rather what one makes of it beyond the travails of alienation and utility.

An example: Yesterday, while walking south along Atherton Street toward the corner with Durack I sighted a nice plump squarish cloud with rounded edges. It immediately appeared to me as a continent undergoing the terrific transformations wrought by plate tectonics, millions of years telescoped into moments. In the north, the continent took on an anvil shape, while to the south of this peculiar peninsula a vast river delta opened. To the south east an archipelago spun off from the continent as the coastline fractured. In the utter south two lumps become great promontories broke off and formed independent islands, not long before one crashed back into the south east, and the other sunk for ever—perhaps—beneath the indifferent waves of the sky. And then, I reached Durack Street, and this nebulous continent passed from my grasp. All that remains I will to leave to the speculations of those psychopaleogeographers I once met in a dream.

fig. 2. The continent shortly before its destruction.

And so, another game to play within and against the alienations of the present as we plot and plan the insurrections to come.

CAPITALISM AS WILL AND HALLUCINATION

fig. 1. Illustration by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon. Taken from the original publication of Faith of Our Fathers in Dangerous Visions (1967). For more on Mao, see the situationist image and text, below.

Some thoughts on Philip K. Dick’s Faith of Our Fathers

Over the years I’ve found myself returning to a Philip K Dick short story called Faith of Our Fathers.  Or, to be more exact, I am haunted by the central conceit of this story. The idea at its heart resonates long after the details of the story begin to fade.

First published in 1967, in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology, Dick imagines a future in which the Cold War has been won by the East. The protagonist is a minor bureaucrat in Vietnam. Though “protagonist” doesn’t get to the heart of Dick’s main characters, who are often thinly veiled versions of himself inextricably enmeshed and propelled by the situations they find themselves in, rather than being actors and shapers of plot and destiny. Anti-protagonists perhaps.

Of course, as so often happens in Dick’s fictional worlds, not all is as it seems. However, in Faith of Our Fathers, Dick elaborates a subtle transformation upon his familiar theme of the false and the true. As the protagonist at first suspects and soon discovers, the apparent world is not the real one. But rather than finding a single hidden truth, the protagonist discovers that the truth is multiple, ‘a variety of authentic experiences’ hidden by a single, consensual hallucination.

Here Dick is playing with the intuitive sense that reality is singular, unitary and most importantly objective—in the sense that there is only one reality, no matter how big or potentially infinite it is, and that its being is independent of a particular subjective experience of it. The concomitant of such objectivity in this case, is the idea that a false reality would almost certainly be the result of a subjective experience, whether through a defect in an individual’s perceptual capacities (e.g. as the result of a psychosomatic impairment like schizophrenia) or through the “external” alteration of perception (e.g. as the result of mind altering substances).

Dick upends this common sense in Faith of Our Fathers, insofar as he presents the false reality as singular, and in a way objective, whereas the true reality is multiple and subjective—though not exactly in the latter case. In later comments upon this work, Dick seemed more concerned with resolving his story’s conceit to the question of different subjective experiences of the one true divine reality.[1] Here, unfortunately, Dick offers a less interesting insight into his story, than the story alone. We do well to remember a comment of Marx’s: that we should not judge an individual merely by what they think about themselves, but rather by way of an examination of the conflictual social and material relations in which they find themselves.[2]

Indeed, it is the central conceit of Faith of Our Fathers and not Dick himself that speaks to us today (see some earlier comments of mine, here, on why I think we can use an author’s works for other purposes, even one’s at odds with the author’s intentions). Global capitalist society is the consensual hallucination that we have been submitted too, bolstered by the soporific ubiquity of money, wage labour, and the commodification of the entirety of our desires, no matter how mundane or extraordinary. Indeed, the singular achievement of pro-capitalists has been to cajole enough people into believing that there is no alternative to the rule of the market, and even more incredibly that its reign is in effect the most rational and even most natural form of human organisation. That the contemporary global market is a type of shared delusion, a hallucination in which we poor saps are drugged in a haze of commodity choices and the struggle to simply survive by means of—or in the absence of—waged labour, has become increasingly stark.

Living as we do in a world in which the West “won” the Cold War, what is perhaps most illuminating for us is the sense that such a victory resolved none of the underlying issues of the Cold War—in particularly, the purported success of the capitalist model. Indeed, this is far more obvious almost 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union than it was in the first few years of the 1990s. In this sense, the sheer mundanity of Dick’s imagined Eastern Bloc victory aptly describes both the banal triumphalism of the US in the wake of 1991, and the mundane horrors of globalisation and accelerating climate change that we have enjoyed as a consequence.

To be clear: in no way am I advocating for the so-called “communism” of the Eastern Bloc that Dick himself found repellent. Undoubtedly, the people of the old Soviet Union suffered under a hallucinatory nightmare version of “communism” that was cynically used by Stalin and his successors to mollify the truth of the continued existence of all the old garbage of class society. If we dig down into the reality of life in the Soviet Union, what is clear is that the working classes had little or no control over the state or the economy, a state of affairs conspicuously reminiscent of the “free” West.[3] Indeed, the symmetry of the contending sides of the Cold War was a common trope in some of Dick’s greatest works of the 1950s and 60s. Dick’s novel The Penultimate Truth (1964) is perhaps the best exploration of this theme. Also check out the brilliant short story Foster, You’re Dead! (1955) regarding one of the more egregious stupidities of the Cold War in the US.[4]

To be honest, it’s been some time since I last read Faith of Our Fathers. The detail fades, the central conceit is crystal clear. Time for a reread.

fig. 2. Image and text taken from the article ‘Le point d’explosion de l’idéologie en Chine’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 11, October 1967. Translation of the article available here. Translation by me of the text accompanying the illustration, below.

PORTRAIT OF ALIENATION

This Chinese mass, arranged in such a way that in itself it composes a screen portrait of Mao, can be considered as a limit case of the concentrated spectacle of state power (see Internationale Situationniste no. 10, pages 44 and 45), of which “in the under-developed zone… all that is [considered] admirable is gathered together in ideology and—at the extreme—in a single man… to be applauded and consumed passively.” Here the fusion of the spectator and the image of contemplation seem to have attained a police-like perfection. Sometime later, by believing it useful to go even further beyond this degree of concentration, the Chinese bureaucracy was able to leap over the machine.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Additionally, Dick was keen to distance himself from those commentaries that tried to assert that he was advocating for the Eastern Bloc’s victory in the Cold War. See the Notes to both versions of Dick’s Collected Short Stories. Here, I’m referring to Volume 5 of the Subterranean Press 2014 edition of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, pp. 472-73.

[2] See, Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).

[3] Note I am not advocating for a working-class state. However, the far more interesting and tricky question of the self-abolition of the working class, and the destruction of the capitalist state and economy in the red heat of communism is for another time.

[4] In this regard, also see the Situationist International, Geopolitics of Hibernation (1962).