[According to Marcuse] utopia “functions as a negation of current actuality. The no-place of utopia doesn’t ever come about. But it draws a contrast with what is.
– Catherine Keller, Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy & Other Last Chances
Collective transformation takes place … Only as divinity “comes down” into intraworldly immanence… this new creation[can]happen…not as replacement but as renewal of our actual place.
The artist appeals…to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition—and therefore more permanently enduring. He speaks…to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity… which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.
– Joseph Conrad, quoted in The Gift by Lewis Hyde
Last Friday, at the end of our latest jazz event at The Other Side featuring NYC trombonist J. Walter Hawkes and guitarist Jeff Young as well as Upstate musicians, Orin spoke to the audience. He mentioned his oft-recurring afterthought that “we should have videotaped this!” But then he corrected himself: “But no, better to leave it like this: you had to be there.”
The next morning we left for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) where the amphitheater was to host a lineup of great jazz stars, to take up our seats at the “small tent” venue, a choice that’s become rather automatic over our years of attending such festivals.
This year, the reasonableness of our choice came home to me. On Sunday afternoon we left the small tent where we’d by then seen a variety of exciting, often adventurous performances, to take a seat on the grass above the amphitheater to catch Kurt Elling. We could have climbed down closer, but opted to stay above, our location well beyond “nosebleed;” in effect we were watching TV. Big stars like Elling are perhaps compelled to play such venues, where a smaller “in-person” big-ticket audience extends to a vast unseen one, little different than putting out the art on CD’s or on TV. Around us some people were attentive to Elling and the Charlie Hunter Trio, but many engaged in uninterrupted conversation, as tuned out as I am when in a bar surrounded by TV’s. In such a context, the “scene” established by celebrity power and screen hyper-reality, what does it mean to “be there?”
In this essay I am concerned with the normalization of “replaceability” in neoliberal (capitalist) reality. If the word brings to mind monstrous acts by young shooters following the collective white paranoia expressed in a “Great Replacement Theory,” it is also evident in the dreadful ongoing trance-march of civilization, a nightmare from which it is impossible to awaken, headed for extinction. Having imbibed the lesson of our replaceability for so long, we flock to the mega spectacles for the kind of blessing they bestow, a “surer thing” than the unduplicatable unmediated scene, where our presence or absence matters, like the local place, where exists the stage upon which we can still act.
It’s strange, but since having chosen to “stay put” in the urban place of my nativity (though I grew up suburban), following what I insist is a politically sound ideal of solidarity, I’ve asked myself many times if I made the right choice. I’ve behaved in my life like a feudal tenant farmer, or more accurately, a small Mom-and-Pop urban shop owner tied to the little business, rather than like a person with limitless horizons. When doubt assails me it comforts me not at all to say “I made the right choices for me.” Like the good New Ager I am I want to believe my choices were cosmically right, not just “right for me.”
I say “strange” because, since the 1970’s we’ve known there are Limits to Growth. We know our consumerist way of life is polluting the planet. We know about endangered species. More recently we’re confronted by the damning reality of climate change and approaching planetary extinction. Discourse on the left for the last several decades was about de-centralizing, returning to local agriculture and local economy, restoring the arena of agency to the face-to-face and the immediacy of local communities. From these and many other perspectives, staying put, re-establishing bonds of affection, as Wendell Berry calls them, becoming communities of interdependence that in intergenerational, fully diverse solidarity can stand apart from insatiable Empire, is the choice that makes sense. So why, I ask, is there all this doubt?
On my behalf – and yours if you should attempt the same – let’s say the simple decision to live simply is complicated. Staying put cannot easily feel right to those of us anchored in capitalism’s upward-directed dream. Imaginations get stunted over lifetimes of imbibing bigger equals better, virtual is realer than real, brand more trustworthy than no-brand. We cannot see the zeitgeist, that of attaining good for oneself, that is, to one’s ego-bound psychology, is intrinsically exclusive. America’s “dream,” calling individuals to freedom and fulfillment, does not come from the humble, unmediated source – the human soul – with its inclusive dream of unity. It is an imposed dream, top-down, shaping natural desires to fit a political reality defined by “the haves” who rely upon conditions of scarcity, real or perceived, to keep the machinery going. It has to assume human beings existing outside one’s own skin – and Creation generally – are/is less real than oneself, and, in the scarcity that’s been constructed for us, are thereby replaceable. Less often we see that what has us so obedient to the dominant zeitgeist is fear; for the replaceability includes us!
Today we call the dominant reality “neoliberalism.” Empire in modern packaging, its “optics” communicate friendliness and equality, thin cover over rapaciousness. A society defined by market values as ours is requires for its aims and purposes a hardening of the heart; replaceability is normalized, for, as I’ve said, it must be. We imagine the super-rich building their post-apocalyptic bunkers as being the arch-expressions of this callousness, but we must think again. The bourgeois freedom we enjoy of our private, personally satisfying dreams, the freedom to consume, depends upon replaceability. Its shadow side is as big as melting Arctic glacier and flooding Yellowstone and burning California. That shadow is emerging now, plain to see in climate catastrophe and realistic predictions of mass extinctions, just as the shadow of modern Europe concretized in the gas chambers of the Holocaust.
Where can we look for a belief, cosmically affirmed, that condemns replaceability and the tolerance it confers for treating human beings and each animal, plant, river and mountain as discardable? In neoliberal reality we live by a notion of happiness that is based in our separateness, not in immutable interrelatedness. Logically, to even think of challenging the reality of replaceability demands that one has a fundamentally contrasting idea to “what is.” One must have the ancient dream of “the no place that doesn’t ever come about” that is utopia. Though it never comes about, it is universally and perennially existent in the soul’s imagination. However, choosing to exist in that necessary dream-reality, instead of neoliberalism’s pragmatic nightmare, is to make oneself automatically an “outsider” to empire, to place oneself at the margins.
Which is also to say, without utopia we cannot choose marginality. Alarmed as we may be by the pending collapses: social, economic, climatological, political we remain hampered by our bourgeois enculturation, our whiteness and our affluence from occupying a truly marginalized existence (and probably are horrified by it). For no one in her right mind wants marginality as we imagine it, that is, to be homeless, destitute, at the mercy of police violence, nakedly replaceable. We have learned to see marginality as at best something that happens to social activists, artists and minorities on their way to becoming accepted in the mainstream, not as a condition of freedom, meaning the freedom to inhabit the utopian dream instead of Empire’s.
Believe it or not, I’m not suggesting some kind of fundamentalist solution; that is either you stay rooted and never board a plane, attend small music venues only, never MSG, or you’re a sell-out. I’m not comfortable with either/or kind of thinking. And that is why I say, to be authentically marginal and hang in with the truth that exists in the freedom of marginality and not at the centers of power, we must do something remarkable: we must recognize the reality we assume is the only one is not. The ironclad assumption, in fact, is what has to change and we are the ones keeping it in place. We are the obstacle. The way to enter marginality is to inhabit the soul’s utopian dream, a place unreachable to empire, way off-screen, a zone of the imagination. Absent the utopian dream, we’re compelled to shed marginality ASAP, to turn it, as mainstream feminism did after the initial excitement and ferment of the 70’s and 80’s, into working for one’s place in empire.
In other words, to discover for oneself the truth of “your destiny is tied up with my destiny,” that fully contradicts replaceability, disbelief must be overcome. For until we’re believers, the two realities – neoliberalism that teaches the replaceability of every one, imparting fear, and the inclusive Utopian dream that imparts the vibe of joy – do not intersect. They are entirely separate. Kept by our fear in the former, as most of us are, we make our choices in the available spectrum. We take the job in order to “pay the bills,” some of us reluctantly, some with a good will to succeed. With a place in the economy we embody Upton Sinclair’s words: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something [– i.e, solidarity -] when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
To overcome disbelief is no simple matter; crisis is necessary. The crisis awaiting each of us is that of the irresolvable clash between the two realities. This is not crisis at a remove (i.e., “NYC will go under water,” extinction is coming,etc., but we do not know when!”) – but immediate, personal. Here’s where art-making comes in: The worth of creative work being not established by the market, marginality is its necessary condition. In taking it up one enters that “free zone” of the imagination and its mythic, soul-expanding crises. We must take Conrad’s assertion, that “the conviction of solidarity” is the work of the artist, to the next level. No longer can we be content that the artist has this conviction; we must know it as soul fact; that is, we must be the artist.
Perhaps few artists would go so far as to assert that this “crisis of creativity” is the crisis of immanence, or Divine Immanence. For what need have we for that fossil theology? But in using the term “immanence” for the crisis of the creative spirit, I make a bridge to religious tradition that connects positively to the only tradition we have in our white-people world that affirms the reality of the utopian dream of interdependence (brotherhood) and peace. Comfortable as we are in our negativity toward the bearded white man in the sky, smug certainty keeps our minds captive in neoliberal reality with no way out.
The crisis is not resolved except/unless the art-maker shifts allegiance from neoliberalism’s dream to the dream of her own soul, from programmed reality to improvisation, from individualism to solidarity, from belief in “reality” to belief in utopia which is neither more nor less real than “God!” The fancy theological term, immanence, refers to the God (dess) of inwardness and presence, an aspect of, but different from the God of transcendence and separateness. The shift is not to agreeing “all creation is sacred,” as we understand indigenous people believe and for which we admire them, but an inward conversion by which one knows personally what the indigenous person knows, and to which one’s allegiance obliges walk as well as talk.
In my own case, not until crisis brought me to a mental experience that contradicted the liberal thoughtworld I’d assumed was sole reality – did I begin to seriously critique liberal reality as inimical to my own identity. That is, the experience that contradicted my own replaceability came through a real, existent, “blessing,” an inclusive “other”it made sense (to me) to understand as “Divine Immanence.” For, if what I had found to be real by means of inner, “mystical” experience was what people historically meant by the word “God,” then the entity was not dismissible as I’d been taught! Certainly the reality of otherness I experienced was/is not replaceable, but had itself replaced what had been an emptiness, a core incoherence, in my identity.
The gratitude I felt – and feel – for the power to make coherence was boundless! The most meaningful action I could take was to protect that other reality, original to my soul, which meant several things. It meant I would, perforce, keep contact with the imaginative reality by means of my creative work, my writing that connects me to a politics of solidarity. It meant I would, in what ways I/we could, build improvisational projects of inclusivity such as our Cafe and our non-profit arts space in Utica, and other efforts to encourage and promote local culture, agriculture, and economy. And I would actively oppose the myth of replaceability by standing fast in my actual relationships, understanding them as relationships with othernesses, not under my control, obligating me to peace-making.
This last, “conservative,” task is the most challenging, where trust gets most shaken, a kind of ongoing crisis. For white liberal society has been colonized down to the individual soul. No two of us know how to have solidarity – not mere like-mindedness nor gender-identity sameness – from the bottom up. This is where immanence brought me – to living in the diversity of Utica, not an easy otherness, to the diversity of marriage and family, also not simple othernesses, planted in a tiny plot of bourgeois liberalism in a city still run by determined remnants of party machine politics, amidst many square miles of rural America where Trumpism flourishes.
We all live now under fairly unremitting stress. It is easy to slip back into the dominant reality of divisiveness and replaceability. The work of immanence as I understand it is to “recontextualize,” to return myself to the other story of peaceful reconciliation and “original happiness,” drawing continuously from the deep wells of its truth. And to keep at it under conditions of hopelessness, as native people unswervingly stay their course of land and water protection. Rooted living, inimical to neoliberalism, means localism cannot depend upon the zeitgeist of conditional relatedness but only upon Utopia.