a blog

Category: nonfiction

Amerijuanican Nationalism


Americans love to use drugs. Though the tendency to get high is universally innate across mankind—from the sanitized prescription pills of suburban moms to the bitter, muddy kava of the Polynesian Islanders—America is a paragon. Americans consume more drugs than any other country. We use drugs to alleviate pain and we use drugs to get high. We take for granted a goody-bag of a month’s worth of opiates for getting our wisdom teeth removed. We talk about our pain, and we expect it to be cured. The desire to do drugs is just as much a product to sell as the drugs themselves. We suffer from a wide array of uniquely debilitating mental illnesses that have been turned into marketable accessories, reifying suffering into identities we can feel a sense of belonging to. The drugs cure that, or cause that, it’s hard to tell which. It’s hard to tell where the physical pain ends and the mental craving begins (or where the physical craving ends and mental pain begins)—they exist in a sort of reciprocal relationship, mutually determining each other in the depths of the collective unconscious. This infinite oscillating condition is where our desire to do drugs is located.

It should be no surprise that a country with this general attitude toward drugs and pain would develop a sophisticated stoner culture, with seemingly infinite words for cannabis, infinite ways to consume it— water bongs, gas masks, bubblers, glass bowls, gravity bongs, DIY soda cans and apple pipes, various types of vapes, THC oil, and as many forms of weed edibles as there are possible foods (this is not exhaustive). Many of those things are completely alien to people of other countries, where the stoner culture only goes as far as putting a little pinch of hash in a cigarette. The intensity and depth of the collective desire is transformed into a seemingly endless multitude of ways to talk about it. Just like with talking about their pain, or their mental health problems, or almost anything else, Americans love to talk about how they smoke weed loudly and incessantly.

Against this backdrop we have the phenomenon of the “4/20” holiday. America’s secular founding precludes the possibility of nationwide religious holidays rooted in meaningful ritual practices, so our society fills that space with a series of holidays that celebrates nonreligious aspects of the country’s history to sanctify these civic aspects (Independence Day, the military holidays of Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, President’s Day, Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Jr Day). The result is that the federal holidays do not reflect the lived experience of people, or what aspects of life people celebrate. Those that are meaningful have some kind of connection to their seasons (Memorial Day and Independence Day in their connection to the summer, cookouts, the pool, and so on; Thanksgiving and its connection to the fall harvest; Christmas, connected to the winter, is both religious and celebrated worldwide, and thus a complete exception). Other events—specifically Halloween and the Super Bowl—that have plenty of real ritual meaning and widespread observance, have no formal state recognition, and it is not the norm that workers have the day (or the day after) off from work.

The days we do get off, like Martin Luther King Jr Day, President’s Day, Columbus Day, don’t have any comparable widespread ritual tradition and are thus more associated with retail sales. Any future federal holiday will likely be tailored as a symbolic concession to certain demographic groups, and will have not been practiced before by anyone before, much less the general majority. Such a holiday will also have little meaning beyond retail.

Because marijuana has long been outlawed, the observance 4/20 is (or was), in a sense, an act of resistance, although the end of prohibition and the mainstream acceptance of the drug is obviously changing that. Since marijuana is still officially a schedule 1 controlled substance, it’s criminal in the eyes of the feds to celebrate 4/20 anywhere, even in the most liberal places, where the tentacles of neoliberalism have already sanitized and whitened the drug such that it is another inoffensive commodity-accessory of a marketable identity. Like with gay culture, repression of marijuana use pushed it into underground channels—and created a series of signs, manners, rituals, and other mutual understandings for those in the know—at the margins of society. This marginalization makes those ritual meanings more intense than they would be otherwise. And like with gay culture, the intensity of those meanings makes it a prime target for the appropriation by capitalism, which opens up those networks of desire so that it may consume, digest, and sell them back to society at large as something wholly transformed.

The transformation of marijuana from something deviant to proper bourgeois has been going on for a long time, but accelerated dramatically this decade, particularly with the trend toward state-level legalization for recreational use. This year in particular it feels like we are on the cusp of a political breaking point (John Boehner is now on the board of a marijuana company, Chuck Schumer alludes to his “newly evolving” position on marijuana, among plenty of other signs). The mainstream acceptance and gap between what a sensible policy would be and the law as it exists now means that, aside from the interests of privatized prisons and pharmaceutical companies, the once fringe position of legalization should ripe for co-option even by the GOP.

Thus is 4/20, as both a specific event and a signifier for the cannabis culture as a whole, at a strange crossroads. It is respectable yet criminal, capitalist yet still largely part of a black market, forbidden to the elites of the security-clearance governing apparatus but ubiquitous for the elites of related systems of social control, and so on. In time, all that residual deviance may wash away and leave 4/20 just as much a consumerist social obligation as Valentine’s Day. But one thing is clear—Americans crave the relaxing buzz of weed intoxication enough to formulate a passionate identity around it. And where there’s an identity, there’s a market.


Hyperreal Trump renders House of Cards unwatchable

Although it may seem like a show like House of Cards would be more relevant and exciting when released during a volatile election season, the popular Netflix show appears bland and stilted compared with the political entertainment of real life. I’ve seen all the previous seasons of House of Cards and enjoyed them, which is why it’s a shame I can’t get past like three episodes of this season because now it feels so goddamn boring and irrelevant. Sad! Even Canadian Ted Cruz’s performance of a southern accent now seems more authentic than Kevin Spacey’s. Simply put, the real world is just too absurd, and even with the most wild plot devices, a conventional political narrative can’t keep up.

House of Cards seems to rest on certain popular fantasies about power and the people that hold power in modern society. Policy in America is decided by the intrigues of a network of cynical, self-interested people making bold moves on a sleek sexy chessboard, a board checkered in a clean, dark palette of deep navies and crimsons—America’s colors, but edgier, darker. Conversations are curt and cool; they scheme quietly. These characters contemplate paintings, they think about ominous symbols and they brood profoundly over the sinister consequences of their ambitions.


Wow, it’s like the blood is symbolic or something!

How boring! How low energy! Absolutely unbelievable. Can an understanding of “the political life” be any more out of touch? Just like the RNC and Nate Silver and whatever other seemingly serious soothsayers of this election cycle, House of Cards is caught hopelessly off guard by what is perhaps the greatest mind-bending, reality-warping spectacle in contemporary politics, Donald fucking Trump.

I presume the political insiders, whoever they really are, and the myriad politico-yuppie commuter class debutantes who live in Arlington like to think of themselves as aspiring to peddle influence in the hallowed halls of our republic in the pseudo-profound manner of Frank Underwood. Just like the horrendous Baz Luhrmann Gatsby adaption ironically inspired so many frat parties, the mythos of House of Cards gets all those Reese-Witherspoon-in-Election­ types hot and bothered for steamy affairs and wicked betrayals featuring lobbyists and Super PAC organizers. Sure, its fiction, and sure, we’re supposed to think that the Underwoods are immoral or something, and sure, whatever dramas govern actual politics can’t be so perfectly truncated for Netflix, but surely there remains something real here! I mean, how do you explain Nixon? In the same way, the RNC hup-hupped around stroking their cleanshaven chins farting about how Rubio would be the inevitable GOP nominee. Because Rubio has experience in politics proper, the real politics of powerbrokers giving fat donations in smoke filled rooms with presidential portraits on the walls, plotting, plotting, ever so coyly—whereas Trump is bound to implode because he’s not a politician, just a reality TV personality. As if there is a difference!


“You look up when you wish to be exalted. And I look down because I am exalted.”

In the aftermath of Little Marco getting absolutely pounded in his home state by the Centipede, a veil is lifted—one that was important for keeping coherent our fantasies about power. These fantasies hold  that power is negotiated and slyly calculated by the “establishment” experts or whoever behind the scenes, and that the “behind the scenes” world—of course kept secret from all but those in-the-know—is the true world of politics. These behind-the-scenes puppeteers are not affected by their environments, but rather they set the environments around them: they are absolutely in control. This veil therefore supported  the common pundit notion that somehow the true powerbrokers would grow tired of the Trump nuisance and scheme with their infinite connections to quash him. Or so many hoped. This obviously has not happened, and won’t happen either, barring a bold coup by Republicans at the Convention to affect a distinctly un-democratic establishment restoration.


“Into the trap!”

So the veil is lifted and the GOP establishment’s bluff is called, everyone all around is exposed as a hack except those with the foresight to max out on Trump YES on PredictIt immediately after the Iowa caucus. All the predictions, all the bloviating pundits with serious, furrowed brows and those awful faux-authoritative voices, the thinkpieces, the smug tweets, the righteous indignation of those properly racist Republicans, the righteous indignation of those triggered SJWs, those stupid Wall Street Journal head-pictures next to lazy provocations of headlines. And so on. They laughed at Trump’s preposterous Zarathustrian descent down the escalator amongst the gleaming gold of his great tower—but little did they know that it heralded an extended avant-garde mockery of everything they believed was true and real. They were the butt of the joke and they were that which kept it running for so long. He was everything they could have ever wanted: “I give them great ratings,” Trump boasts, aware of this mutually enabling feedback loop as only someone from the entertainment industry would be. Likewise, I’m optimistic that this post will get me more traffic than any I have made before.


“We’re gonna be so Brechtian it’ll make your heads spin!”

There never was any effective substance supporting Rubio or Jeb!—they had money and nominal influence and so on, but they both fatally underestimated Trump because they failed to understand that they were always fundamentally playing on his terms. Politics is no more than show business at its worst! And so they were always a few steps behind, and whenever they thought they had some real zinger to derail the Trump Train, it would materialize into nothing more than half-baked reactions to Trump’s more skillfully vulgar moves. At the worst, as with the Rubio small-hands/small-dick insinuation, the jabs would linger uncomfortably, unwelcome like stale farts. It was worth a shot, since their PAC-stocked pockets proved to be powerless.

Those who control the means of mass communication have lost control of its consequences. Once it became clear that Trump could not be stopped without great concerted effort by the whole cabal of the Media, a blitzkrieg of negative ads, myriad endorsements, the #NeverTrump hashtag, etc. They trot out Mitt Romney, a total fuckin’ square, still probably stuck in Plato’s cave—and even he is so indecisive he can’t even name a candidate he’d endorse as a Trump alternative. How stiff and artificial he looks! Might as well sum him up with one word since that’s what language is for: “Loser!” And with that the urgency of the endorsement is lost into its own ridicule, because honestly who cares what Mittens thinks anyway? After all, his mind is filled with thoughts about things like how Michigan’s trees are the “right height.” (We can only assume that The Donald’s mind has normal people thoughts, like fantasizing about having sex with eastern European models and wiping that shit-eating grin off Rosie O’Donnell’s fat fucking face.) Trump’s campaign is hardly about white working class resentment under late capitalism, or xenophobia, or a backlash against Obama, or whatever other endless reasons fleshed out in the endless thinkpieces. It is about the pretensions of political discourse and decorum imploding under their own absurdities, as if the heaping pile of shit and nonsense became self-aware and donned a wig speechifying some slogans: “Now we stage a play! Something by Genet!”


“It’s a true image, born of a false spectacle.”

It’s telling that Trump is described as someone who is more “real” than the other candidates, that he is “honest” and “tells it like it is.” Meanwhile the snakelike “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz says he prefers country music to rock because of the different ways they “collectively responded to 9/11”, officially making him sound like some kind of sleeper-cell Manchurian candidate who can only interpret American-ness in a manner reminiscent of The Thing. A guy with billions of dollars suddenly seems much more relatable just because his own bizarre simulation of American-ness is more joyously tacky. But if there is any lesson we can learn from this election, it’s that no words actually have stable meanings and pretty much any word can simultaneously mean its own opposite. We’ve always been in it, but perhaps we’re starting to realize that we’re in the Différance Zone. We all ask: Do we even know if Trump means anything he is saying? Does he really have all these hateful views? Will he actually make Mexico pay for “The Wall”? Are any of these actually real policy proposals? Who knows? But this sort of chaotic anti-meaning, paradoxical non-meaning, absolute ambiguity is a much better exercise in postmodernity than plenty of contemporary art projects, judging from the fact that it has already motivated millions of people to get off their asses and vote for someone who retweets Mussolini quotes. We can’t even determine if Trump tells lies or the truth because his whole campaign is an annihilation of the very possibility of these truths.

So if Trump is real politics, what the hell is House of Cards supposed to be? A fictional show about a hollow rendering of power in a democracy that romanticizes everything we now see as impotent delusions? Thus is House of Cards too fake—it demands we pretend that our political leaders are clever calculators and our pundits astute observers as opposed to screeching demagogues of various degrees of self-awareness. After all, on what planet can South Carolinian Frank Underwood get elected without shamelessly spewing tons of racist shit and exploiting the inevitable xenophobia of his constituents? And House of Cards demands that we believe that these “candidate-contestants” have any shame—that they don’t is perhaps the closest to an eternal truth as we can get. The writers of House of Cards propagate the delusion that the country is governed by narratives that resemble Shakespeare rather than a cross between Caryl Churchill and Brad Neely. If we need any more evidence that we’re living in the up-is-down, right-is-left doublethink dystopia, it’s that the people who make TV shows treat politics with more dignity than the politicians themselves. Frank Underwood is a real person and Hillary Clinton is merely playing his part.

The Life of Pablo: Flux After Death


The release of a Kanye West album is a fun time to be alive and on the internet because its popularity invites everyone to weigh in on it as a work of art. As Briana Younger writes, Kanye “creates #moments” which serve as points of collective critique from the very nature of its spectacle. Much has been said already: The Life of Pablo is a patchwork, not as conceptually focused as the previous albums, it’s long and meandering—feeling “unfinished” or, better yet, like it’s a product in an eternal state of unfinished-ness.

Yeezus was completely edited, stripped down to its abrasive core, primal anxious willing, mechanical willing. The Life of Pablo is that feeling reawakened, redeemed, re-whatever (it has to be re- something because above all else it is the Post-Yeezus album). I read somewhere that Pablo is in “flux” …. that sounds poetic enough for me. This sort of fluctuating sound also brings to mind the “old Kanye”/“new Kanye” distinction, which this album plays on. TLOP has the plodding, heavy buildup beats of Yeezus, the album with which it converses the most, but they are slightly more organic; TLOP relates to Yeezus like house relates to techno. And like the relationship between house and techno, the relationship between the old and new Kanye is hazy, confused, and ultimately indeterminate. The “life” of Pablo/Kanye is a fluctuation between the old tendencies and the new—the “traditionalism” of the gospel soul harmonies, the perfect sample, and so on versus the ominous post-industrial constructions of trap and drill. In Yeezus the latter triumphs, but The Life of Pablo throws both back into conflict and leaves it unresolved.

Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” and the politics of “Rausch”

This is a paper I wrote for “German Critical Thought II” (covering the time from Hegel to Habermas), one of my favorite classes at William and Mary taught by the wonderful Rob Leventhal. I’m particularly fond of this essay, and although it’s not perfect, I think a lot of the points I make will be developed further and recur in later writings. I’ve told various friends to read this so I’m posting it here to have it for reference.

In this paper, I will explain what I find to be the primary arguments in Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, in which he attempts to rehabilitate historical materialism against what he sees is the corrupting ideology of progress from social democrats that has tainted revolutionary Marxism. I will discuss Benjamin’s use of theological elements of the “messianic” and “messianic time” as well as the Jetztzeit that he contrasts with historicism’s conception of empty time.  I then closely examine Benjamin’s interpretation of Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus” which he uses to illustrate his conception of historical consciousness and progress. After examining Benjamin’s Theses, I draw parallels between his conception of historical materialism and his writings on profane illumination, intoxication and psychedelic experience, drawing from excerpts from his Arcades Project, letters, and notes on his drug experiences.

History is both “materialist” and “theological,” but Benjamin uses the latter term, and its “messianic” implications in a manner that casts aside its metaphysical and religious implications. Historical materialism “enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight” (“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” I). According to Benjamin, the human “image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption” (II) which carries over onto how individuals or collectives reflect on past, which “carries a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption” (II). Every generation is endowed with a “weak messianic power” which refers to an immanent tendency in people to repair, heal, or fix that which is damaged. This “weak” messianic power is what motivates revolutions, the breaks and ruptures in the historical continuum “at the moment of danger.” It is “messianic” without a Messiah, “redemptive” without a Redemption. These mystical-theological elements enter Benjamin’s historical materialism through the back door to illustrate the critical, healing, reparative function of memory.

Benjamin contrasts active memory with mere conservative Gedächtnis (remembrance) and Erinnerung. “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and never seen again” (V). Historical materialism blasts apart the historical continuum; active memory does not understand things as a chain of events, with their causes and effects in a progression of empty time, but as fragments, images “picked up” in reflection in the perpetual Jetztzeit, a word that, unlike Gegenwart (which means “present”), has implications of the mystical nunc stans, the “eternal now.” “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (VI). Memory always occurs in the eternal present Jetztzeit, and how the mind selects, picks up, seizes the myriad images of the past is always influenced by the immediacy of the now, “shot through” with messianic influence. Materialist historiography, in contrast to the mere additive method of positivist, empirical, universal history in “empty time,” “is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well” (XVII). The past isn’t just “out there” somewhere, it is actively built up or pieced together in the present, inevitably influenced by “weak messianic power” of a critical, political perspective; any moment of time in the present is the “strait gate through which the Messiah might enter” (XVII B).

Empirical, positivist historicism is formed around the notion of mankind’s “progress” through time. History is a series of causally linked events that form a constellation whose broad trajectory is the development, advancement, “progress” of the human race. As time moves on, things generally get better: “man” seems to perfect himself, to get more free, comfortable, powerful, technical, and so on. Benjamin cites William Dietzgen’s Die Religion der Sozialdemokratie to illustrate this view: “Every day our cause becomes clearer and people get smarter” (XIII). To Benjamin, progress in this sense is characterized by three dogmatic claims: the first being that progress consists of the whole progress of mankind and not just advancements in man’s ability or knowledge, the second being that this progress is boundless, “in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind,” and the third being that this progress is irresistible and inevitable.

Another flaw of historicism that Benjamin identifies is its inevitable empathy with the victors. Its history is the history of the victors of successive conflicts passed down to their heirs. The victorious rulers hold up the remainders of history as “cultural treasures” which historicists then give an almost totemic value with an empathetic relation to the past, setting them as milestones on a temporal road of the progress of man. But this empathy does not do justice to anonymous toil and suffering of the vanquished or oppressed classes that occurred simultaneously with the triumph of the victor. The historical materialist, by contrast, views these cultural treasures with suspicion and detachment, aware that “they owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is not document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (VII). Benjamin’s criticism of empathy in historicism is consistent with his friend Bertolt Brecht’s attacks on bourgeois and Aristotelian theatre. In Brecht’s “epic theatre,” like Benjamin’s rehabilitation of historical materialism, the spectator/audience/historian watches temporally-displaced events on the stage with a distanced, alienated, critical, frozen, messianic perspective, and, as a function of the theatre’s educational purpose, is ultimately oriented towards liberating, revolutionary, messianic activity. The historical materialist is alienated, distanced, estranged from the cultural treasures he studies, dissociated “as far as possible” from the barbarism that taints not just cultural treasures, but also how these treasures are passed down through time.

The political consequence of the historicist notion of progress is conformity and demobilization of revolutionary activity. “Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current.” (XI) The Social Democrats seek to achieve broadly Marxist aims within the framework of existing political structures to “reform” the system through gradual changes while retaining continuity with the past. Yet it is precisely this sense of progress and continuity that prevents revolutionary action, undermining its necessary urgency and opting instead for conformity with the status quo. This ideology of progress, which posits communism as a distant ideal and an endless task, has infected the Marxism of Benjamin’s time. Progress itself must be subject to critique: “The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogenous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself.” (XIII)

Benjamin uses a fascinating metaphor from art to evaluate this problematic notion of progress:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novusshows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what would be smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we would call progress. (IX)

To the angel of history, all time is simultaneously perceived in the now, the Jetztzeit, as a huge, ever increasing pile of wreckage, which he “fixedly contemplates.” It should be noted that this wreckage is something completely material. In his fixed contemplation, the angel does not find patterns and trends in the pile of wreckage, nor does he find that it has some directionality or trajectory in its development as a chain of events. Instead, the wreckage appears as one single catastrophe which only gets bigger as more wreckage is piled on, each new addition another document of barbarism. It appears as a state of perpetual crisis and emergency. The contemplation of this perpetual crisis is theological, messianic; the angel would like to fix, repair, and heal the damages of history and make whole the massive pile of material rubbish because his perspective is shot through with the messianic tendency. But a storm prevents him from setting down and fixing the wreckage, it keeps him in motion, filling his wings and propelling him “irresistibly” into the future. The storm is “progress,” blowing from “Paradise,” the mythic primordial state of human perfection, and its overwhelming force is what prevents the angel from seriously encountering the crisis and fixing the catastrophe. Progress masquerades as something positive and promises the endless perfectibility of man, as it comes from Paradise, but in reality it simply adds more broken stuff to the huge pile of junk. All of the angel’s efforts to repair are in vain because of progress. But perhaps if time were to stand still and come to a stop, or the storm of progress were to be ruptured or broken – truly revolutionary moves – the angel could at least start cleaning up the wreckage. The moment at which the storm is broken and time comes to a stop is the “strait gate” through which the Messiah can enter the world, so it should not come as a surprise that it is an “angel,” a theological image, which seeks to mend the broken pieces.

Just as the angel is perpetually unable to break out of the storm of progress and witnesses an ongoing state of catastrophe, so do the oppressed classes in history experience a sense of perpetual crisis. “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.” (VIII) In the struggle against Fascism, the oppressed classes must realize that their task is to rupture the temporal continuity of oppression, to think of it as an “emergency” rather than a “historical norm” on the greater trajectory of human progress. It is precisely this sense of continuity that revolutionary activity seeks to rupture: “The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action” (XV). Revolution breaks apart, overthrows the prevailing sense of time-continuum and attempts to enter a new age of history: “The initial day of a calendar serves as a historical time-lapse camera… Thus calendars do not measure time as clocks do; they are monuments of historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been apparent in Europe in the past hundred years” (XV). For the oppressed classes, every moment in time is a moment in which a messiah can enter the world to fix it, a moment in which revolutionary action can break apart the time-continuum and impose its new calendar as a monument to its discontinuity, for it wants nothing to do with a whole past of “documents of barbarism.”

The historical materialist likewise seeks to rupture the homogenous course of history in the reflection of historical subjects, which are “crystallized” into monads frozen in messianic time and torn out of the course of history. He “cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop” (XVI) in a moment of “unique experience with the past.” Materialistic historiography is built up into a montage of the monads of historical subjects understood in the Jetztzeit of messianic time:

      “Materialistic historiography… is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration as a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the opposed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history – blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is simultaneously preserved, cancelled and elevated in this work; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history. The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed(XVII).

The historical materialist isolates and crystallizes the historical subject into a monad so as to maintain his critical edge and to avoid regarding it empathetically.

It is important to note the connection in Benjamin’s philosophy between the rehabilitation of historical materialism and the “profane illuminations” offered by the Rausch, or intoxication, of certain psychoactive chemicals. It is impossible, and irrelevant here, to determine which of Benjamin’s ideas, if any, were directly influenced by psychedelic intoxication. But we do know that, on several occasions throughout his life, Benjamin tried hashish, mescaline, and opium, and wrote a series of fragments, or “Protocols,” on his experiences, which he possibly intended to compile into a complete work on the politics of intoxication. Benjamin was interested in the ways in which fundamentally materialistic chemicals enabled users to experience expanded states of consciousness, become caught in a place of not being self-identical, disrupt the subject-object relation and sense of temporality, transform reason and logic, and open doorways to new and alternative forms of aesthetic, philosophical, and political experience. He did not, however, consider psychoactive chemicals the true or only pathway to profane illumination, but that they “can give an introductory lesson (but a dangerous one…)” (On Hashish, 132). In fact, Benjamin was very cautious about using these drugs, which he called “poison,” and only did so for the knowledge gained from their use. What is important about these “profane” illuminations is that are brought forth by fundamentally material objects; there is nothing “sacred” or transcendent about them, even if they induce seemingly transcendent states of consciousness. Profane illuminations offer the possibility of a transformative, liberating experience of reality without recourse to the sacred illuminations in things like religion. They are purely anthropological and materialistic. Indeed, this seeming “transcendence” of the profane illumination is a channel by which theological and mystical concepts of Jetztzeit or the nunc stans, the messianic, and the monadology of historical objects enters historical materialism. Thus, intoxication takes on a political importance. Benjamin writes in a 1938 letter to Max Horkheimer: “Critical theory cannot fail to recognize how deeply certain powers of intoxication [Rausch] are bound to reason and to its struggle for liberation. What I mean is, all the insights that man has ever obtained surreptitiously through the use of narcotics can also be obtained through the human: some through the individual- through the man or through the woman; others through groups; and some, which we dare not even dream of yet, perhaps only through the community of the living. Aren’t these insights, by virtue of the human solidarity from which they arise, truly political in the end?” (145). Rausch offers direction towards a profane illumination, a deep, transformative and revolutionary connection to the world that can already be obtained through the human: “The reader, the thinker, the person who waits, the flaneur, are types of illuminati- just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention that the most terrible drug- ourselves- which we take in solitude” (134). The method of Benjamin’s rehabilitated historical materialism itself is intended to be a sort of profane illumination in an encounter with the past as a collage of frozen monad images shot through with messianic perspective.

Benjamin even describes revolutionary historical consciousness with a psychedelic metaphor in the Arcades Project: “A phrase which Baudelaire coins for the consciousness of time peculiar to someone intoxicated by hashish can be applied in the definition of revolutionary historical consciousness. He speaks of a night in which he was absorbed by the effects of hashish: ‘Long though it seemed to have been…, yet it also seemed to have lasted only a few seconds, or even to have had no place in all eternity’”(On Hashish, 140). The revolutionary consciousness of historical materialism sees reality with a psychedelic sense of temporality in the Jetztzeit, with time stopped, ruptured or broken and the objects of historical consciousness torn frozen as monads and torn out of their place in the historical continuum as they flash by. The psychedelic consciousness is instead on messianic time. “The present, which, as a model of Messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgment, coincides exactly with the stature which the history of mankind has in the universe” (“Theses,” XVIII); one is reminded of a DMT trip in which 15 minutes in “empty” time comprises whole eons in the messianic.

Benjamin also describes an enhanced power of allegory in psychedelic experience. In the Arcades Project, the imagination of hashish intoxication is characterized twofold by “a genius of melancholy gravity, another of Ariel-like spirituality” (On Hashish, 138), and human reason “becomes mere flotsam, at the mercy of all currents, and the train of though is infinitely more accelerated and ‘rhapsodic.’” Under the impression of hashish, objects and language take on distinct, dialectical “faces,” which refer to the “degree of bodily presence that allows it to be searched- as one searches as face” (138). “Face” is the deep, multifaceted psychic content that wells up in and through objects and language crystallized into a whole essence that reveals itself clearly to the intoxicated consciousness; “the opium-smoker or hashish-eater experiences the power of the gaze to suck one hundred sites out of one place” (85). Logic takes on rhythmic form: “truth becomes something living; it lives solely in the rhythm by which statement and counter-statement displace each other in order to think each other.” These faces or images are actively picked up in the moment as they flash by the psychedelic consciousness, which is in a state of total poetic thought frozen in time.

In conclusion, I have discussed elements of Benjamin’s argument in the Theses on the Philosophy of History and connected some aspects his kaleidoscopic montage understanding of history with his idea of “profane illumination” and lifelong experiments with psychoactive chemicals. What I feel is important about Benjamin’s approach to profane illumination is that, unlike some other writers in the incredibly small body of discourse on the subject of psychedelic intoxication (Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna), Benjamin does not fall into the trap of worshipping or mystifying the material objects that bring forth consciousness expansion. Psychedelics are set on the plane of the real, and they provide no insights that could not already have been conceived through the human. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s connection of the revolutionary historical consciousness with the mind on hashish gives a political dimension and urgency to consciousness expansion. I feel that his use of theological terminology in his rehabilitation of historical materialism is thus more “psychedelic” in its intent, rather than religious or dogmatic. Ultimately, I believe Benjamin wanted historical materialism to handle the past similar to how the mind on psychedelics experiences time and reality. Materialist historiography seizes the images of reality as they flash by in an eternal now seemingly outside of time, uncovering and producing allegories and relations between things that before weren’t so readily noticed.  On the level of the individual, Rausch can bring forth illuminations that in the collective could lead to liberating, revolutionary action. It is unfortunate, of course, that Benjamin died before he could fully articulate a revolutionary politics of intoxication, and yet also surprising that so few others have openly explored and discussed such a philosophically potent subject. Perhaps now scholars can approach it with a sharper critical edge, since the manic mass psychedelia of the 1960s has abated and public policies are starting to be developed that evaluate psychoactive chemicals (so far only cannabis) with a more level-headed and tolerant perspective.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. 1969. Reprint. New York: Schoken Books, 1976. 253-264. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. On Hashish. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. Print.

Vaguely connected thoughts on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”


Star Wars is myth and it is franchise and it is owned by Disney. It presumes to encompass the collective desires of our liberal bourgeois spirit—paradoxically, through a return to a mythic past, both in a galaxy far far away and in the experience of the cinema. Who really watches movies at the theater anymore anyway? I am not French. But I go to see Star Wars and enjoy it. So it is fitting that the The Force Awakens repeats the past to the word.

A sequel (or, in this case, prequel), like Episodes I–III, is not enough. That is why The Force Awakens is the essential remake. “Fans” want nothing so much as the total repetition of a myth. People recite Star Wars lines like Homeric bards. And so we want to see it again, performed in all its classicity.  How much happier the box office when the symphony is playing good ol’ Ludwig van than some contemporary avant-garde nobody?

Star Wars is an ideological universe with a hotly debated canon.

Myth and brand are composed of not just of a mere name alone, but of the world of symbolic instantiations contained within it. This is not just, for example, the lightsaber itself, but the image of the lightsaber trapped in ice, nudging its way, finally breaking out. To be canonical, the mass must be performed with complete devotion to its symbols. The communion wafer literally is the body of Christ.

Star Wars, like religions, is a lifestyle brand.

So we have a DisneyTM instantiation of Star Wars. It is satisfyingly PC; that there are women/black leads tickles my bourgeois liberal fancy. And is Poe Dameron a queer figure? Headlines in my news feed ask. But deep down, one misses the weird racism of the prequels—Jar-Jar, Sam Jackson’s pimpsaber, and usurious Watto are just a few that come to mind. What good is a myth if there’s nothing “problematic” that we have to confront about it at some point or another? Thus spawns Christian apologetics.

Spinoza against the Jacobins


In a piece for Jacobin, Harrison Fluss calls for a reevaluation of the civic religion of Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being, which he positions as something deeply influenced by the radical, “savage” philosophy of Spinoza. Fluss is right that Spinoza offers a potent alternative to the unresolved problems of liberal pluralism. But in trying to connect Spinoza’s philosophy with the example of Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being, he misrepresents Spinoza’s own views (and how these views can be of use for a contemporary project of collective liberation) so that he can affect a more sympathetic understanding of Robespierre. Beyond a distinction between public religion and private religion, Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being relates to Spinoza only tenuously through a proclaimed dedication to secular reason.

Aside from having a distinctly non-Spinozist anthropomorphic understanding of a God that “watches over,” “punishes,” and otherwise has feelings or passions, the Cult of the Supreme Being incorporated a loosely Christian/deist spiritual vocabulary with classical Roman flourishes into an ideological structure supporting a particular faction to maintain a religious hierarchy that exploits the fears and “sad passions” of men  for political power. In short, his conception would invariably reintroduce the problematic relations of ideological control Spinoza rails against in the Theological-Political Treatise. Perhaps Robespierre himself was not so radical, violent, and virulent in his hatred of Christianity as the Hebertistes, but that doesn’t mean that their claim of him reintroducing a cloaked Christianity and seeking to be its Pope isn’t without merit in some sense. Of course, their alternative—utter nihilism and death—was hardly better.

Spinoza’s appreciation of organized religion extends as far as the ability of its scripture to offer a community a common language of stories that provides moral guidance to generally inspire people to act in certain ways conducive to their best interest. But scripture need not be understood as “The” scripture of any particular religion, conceived from the top-down (as from the divine revelations of prophets or Robespierre’s imagination), but rather (like his entire metaphysical system) constructed immanently; its power and truth manifested in its real consequential existence in the minds of people—in how it actually influences how things act and are acted upon by each other.

On Bowie


Bifo writes about David Bowie’s 1977 single “Heroes” as a monument that marks the time when “the hero” in Western society faded and was replaced with a mechanical world of fragmentary experience subservient to the great Market-God. The algorithms of financial accumulation have since drained the world of its sensuous,  mythical experience and have mapped credit onto the silent materiality of things, sucking all language and meaning into a spiraling black hole. “We could be heroes / just for one day,” Bowie sings, anticipating the fleeting nature of his own art.

History’s turning point, according to Bifo (who cites Hito Seyerl’s The Wretch of the Screen)—1977—seems to be punk, the coinciding failures of the greater “punk project” with the capitulation of the Italian Autonomist movement (both liberating impulses failed spectacularly and were reintegrated into all-welcoming neoliberalism), at least insofar as this turning point includes the Eno-Berlin-Krautrock phase of Bowie’s great trajectory, which in any case is a popular choice for turning-points. Low, released the same year just months before Heroes, tops off Pitchfork’s Best Albums of the 1970’s, among other indicators of canonicity. And in some way it kinda sounds like what Bifo is talking about—Bowie’s Berlin/Thin White Duke phase is a definitive departure from the colorful baroque epic Ziggy Stardust into the ominous electronic waste-scapes of late capitalism’s dark future where the production starts to look less glam (“classic” or “classical”) rock and more techno. (Worth noting: coinciding with the twin deaths of punk and the autonomists is the release of Star Wars—opening a new field of mythic meaning whose art-function fits perfectly within the logic of neoliberalism.)

But it isn’t hard to tell that Bifo’s thing really isn’t about Bowie as much at it’s about his own work (language is hijacked by the financial accumulation of late capitalism and we need poetry to win it back) with some artist chosen as the figure (or one of many figures) to champion it. Bowie, a postmodern chameleon whose works are undoubtedly provocative and interesting regardless of whether one really gets into all of them, can serve as a champion for pretty much any ideological group. I actually recall seeing Bowie in a Louis Vuitton ad on the back cover of the Economist not too long ago, and his obituaries in that magazine and others of decidedly capitalist bent testifies to the fact that he’s hardly just a leftist icon. Queer blogs seem to emphasize his Ziggy Stardust stage, while hip-hop media’s remembrance of Bowie identifies him as the originator of classic samples. Everyone has a different favorite Bowie, and so on. Right around the time his underrated Young Americans came out he had probably been doing some coked out readings of Jung’s Wotan—one wonders if Stormfront would consider this instantiation of Bowie as Übermensch or entarteter Künstler.

And even if we accept the “Bowie as hero” thesis, the sort of hero-artist figure he assumes is hardly one that reawakens a primordial poetic sensuality uncorrupted by capitalism—no matter what ironic distance to the “conscious simulation at the heart of the heroic game.” Bowie’s penchant for reinvention tells, if anything, that it’s “simulations the whole way down.” But this isn’t to say that Bifo is wrong in his own remembrance of David Bowie. The whole ad hoc discourse around Bowie upon his death is a testament to our collective need to seek artists to articulate our multitudinous desires for collective liberation from the conditions of the present. When great artists die, they are reborn as texts, and we engage with them as readers are known to.