PRINT Summer 2018


Enlightened, 2011–13, production still from a TV show on HBO. Season 2, episode 8, “Agent of Change.” Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern).

THE ENLIGHTENMENT was over when bohemians and yuppies both started calling themselves enlightened. No tragedy there: Born two centuries earlier, it had had a good life. The New Age wasn’t as inauspicious as it sounded, either. Enlightened is in fact, happily, the title of a very original series on HBO about a spiritualized woman named Amy, played with thrilling sensitivity by Laura Dern, who yearns to speak with her “true voice . . . without bitterness or fear.” That Amy has never heard of parrhesia is not her problem. That Amy’s “true voice” can only be heard in her head, i.e., in her calmly delusional voice-overs, is our problem with her. These solipsistic utterances are too encompassing to be either self-serving or relatable, so vague or huge that they cheapen the rationale of capitalized Enlightenment: “If [my ex-husband] can change,” she says dreamily, “anything is possible.”

Amy works for a corporation, a smoothly embodied caste system, called Abaddonn. She used to work on a high floor, but one fine afternoon she decided to tell her boss—a man who was fucking her in two different, related ways—how she really felt. A month of holistic rehabilitation in Hawaii has, in her opinion, transformed her; at work, however, she has fallen like a snake on a ladder, landing in a pool of losers processing data in a basement. From here, the moral problematics required to make it, especially to the top, are suddenly clear. Amy seeks to spark “change from within,” to make the company more human(e) and mindful of earth. She finds that self-help practices don’t scale. Incapable of “being realistic,” she keeps reaching out to the “real world”—honking in solidarity, for instance, as she drives past a hotel workers’ strike—and hoping to hear back. At her most desperate, she joins Twitter.

Created by Mike White, who plays a fellow loser and spiritless foil to Dern’s Amy, the series was more acclaimed than viewed and had only two seasons, airing the year before and the year after Obama was elected to a second term. Obama was the Enlightenment’s last and best hope, a man who liked thinking in his free time, who believed—tragically—in being reasonable. Since “liberal consensus” was no longer seen to be an oxymoron, this reasonableness came to denote more the ability to be reasoned with, to be moderate and necessarily compromising, than the power to use one’s own reason. Kant said we should argue, but obey. He seemed sure that the government, impressed by our faculties for thought, and thus for independence, would rule us kindly. How significant word order is: If he’d said obey, but argue, we might be anarchists now.

We risk losing significant personal freedom when we “share” our thoughts, say how we really feel.

Amy disobeys. She leaks, to a journalist at the Los Angeles Times, information about Abaddonn’s illegal endeavors, sanctioned by its malefic founder. (It becomes notable that the company’s name is spelled with an extra n to avoid being sued for copyright infringement by the Angel of Death in the Book of Revelations. It also sounds like a bad dawn.) The ultra-corporate workplace has such statist attributes that it is Amy, however, who will be seen—within the show’s frame, and by her fellow employees—as a thief, taken away by the guards. She is an honorable thief, or at least impulsive enough that her desire to do good triumphs, in zigzag fashion, over her desire to do well. “Find me an enlightened criminal and I will show you a potential revolutionary,” as Fanny Howe once wrote.

At this point, the show’s premature cancelation was a boon: There could be no “inevitable” counterrevolution, only the pyrrhic victory casting its light. Amy is called before the board of Abaddonn to confess, which she does with a new, uncharacteristic shrug, evincing a radical’s indolence in the face of procedure. The founder, enraged, wants to know who she thinks she is. Dangerous question, this being a woman who for months has taken every opportunity to share. But today . . . “I’m just a woman who’s over it,” she says flatly. “I’m tired of watching the world fall apart because of guys like you.”

The founder is a truistically high-class villain, and, tellingly, he is also, at the end, representative of the Enlightenment’s bastards. “You feel,” he accuses. “You don’t think.”

Kanye West on TMZ Live, May 1, 2018.

WOKE, a seeming synonym for enlightened, is also an answer to the Enlightenment. It appears first in print within the headline of novelist William Melvin Kelley’s 1962 New York Times article on African American slang, “If You’re Woke, You Dig It.” It does not appear in the article’s text and so goes undefined, or else: The elision goes to its meaning. Kelley writes of “Negroes [who] guard the idiom so fervently they . . . invent a new term as soon as they hear the existing one coming from a white’s lips.” Either an accident in the editing process or the writer’s sly choice allows a sense that “woke” was irreplaceable, or unlearnable in the first place: If you weren’t woke, you couldn’t be.

“I stay woke,” sang Erykah Badu on “Master Teacher,” released a thousand years ago, in 2008. The word, upon being revealed to a larger public, had the shock of the . . . news. It was short—four letters, the k quickly cutting off the o’s tendency to go on, leaving the truncated whoa of a near accident—and extremely to the point. “Enlightened” sounds like a whole process, “woke” like a startling. Maybe the white bourgeois, hearing that it’s cool to be “woke,” is relieved to know that until now he was innocently asleep, and that is why slick millennial media pounced on the word, coopting it into such nonsense that it’s now hard to say without scare quotes or sarcasm, sort of the way a wise guy says: “Enlighten me.” Yet originally the line, according to the song’s writer, Georgia Anne Muldrow, was: “I’d stay woke.” The subjunctive changes things. “I never saw myself as woke,” Muldrow told a culture editor at the website Okayplayer earlier this year. “I saw myself as aspiring for woke, to try and stay woke.” Muldrow understood wokeness to be “definitely a black experience,” a twisted prize that left the eligible too tired to claim it. Her operative words were try and stay.

“Free-thinking” is the new “woke,” which is funny because it’s also the old “woke.” At the time of this writing, the genius Kanye West had just stormed Twitter with a mix of striking pronouncements about opiates, conservative YouTube, and (most disconcertingly to friends and family) a brotherly love for Trump that makes sense when you discover—a relief here to think of something as fixed as the stars—that they are both Geminis. To explain himself, West appeared at the offices of TMZ, Harvey Levin’s dot-com tabloid empire, where he said among other things that slavery in the United States “sounds like [it was] a choice” on the part of the slaves, then asked the surrounding staff whether they felt that he was “being and thinking free.” A staffer named Van stood up and said that it did not sound like Kanye was thinking anything, and that what he was enacting was, in truth, “the absence of thought.” He cited “the fact that you [Kanye] have morphed into something, to me, that is not real,” as well as the fact that “there are real-life, real-world consequences behind everything you just said.”

I watched the video twice, surprised to see reality making a comeback in the twenty-first century. It seemed to me that while the staffer, given his employer’s nature, could only get promoted for going viral, his moment was almost anarchically sensible. There was something so cool about describing Kanye’s words as “the absence of thought,” and so correct, too. Having one thought is not thinking. Here, as Foucault said in a late-life lecture on parrhesia as enlightened and free(ing) speech, explaining the word’s intent in the time of Athenian democracy, then in the time of Roman empire, “we pass from a meaning . . . [which] refers to the master’s obligation to tell the disciple what is true, to a meaning which refers to the disciple’s obligation to tell the master the truth of himself.”

Foucault, in this prima facie ambiguous line, uses “himself” to refer to the master. He does not mean that the disciple all of a sudden gets into a confessional mood, though it is easier and not wrong, given our times, to read it that way. We risk losing significant personal freedom when we “share” our thoughts, say how we really feel. Every day on social media, mind-bending algorithms are fed by this kind of mental-patient voluntarism. Only self-awareness, ironically, prevents them from mastering us. Self-awareness is a thin line to hold. A greater awareness belongs to the disciple, since he is thinking not only for himself, but also with all the master’s subjects in mind, even as he speaks alone.

The question now that no one in charge knows how to listen is whether we might be freer when we think in silence. I still don’t even know which is harder, thinking or speaking. We are supposed to do one before the other. Yet it’s likeliest that speaking—even language—preceded thinking, that what we call “thought” developed from the point at which some more-evolved human became the first person to regret having spoken. I was going to say that free speech is overrated and that the privacy of the heart is underrated, but maybe that is an opinion I should keep to myself.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer living in California.