Frankie’s down for a nice nap after a morning at the pool. Sarah saw to matters related to the air unit — so I remove my feet from my socks and think. The narrative we write is important, yes? For narrative is the stuff of which cosmologies are made. World-pictures. Cognitive maps. The shape of the world is determined at the quantum level, much like Schrödinger’s Cat, by the struggle to determine the shape of the world-picture. Unless, of course, struggle and determination are not part of that picture. By “shape of the world” I mean the mutable present’s arrangement toward the imaginal realms we call “past” and “future.” Origin and telos. The present’s mode of appearance alters according to the previous night’s dreams, and the previous night’s dreams are shaped by memory and desire. Those who wish to steer the world toward Utopia take these latter as the prima materia of the great work. Kim Stanley Robinson, meanwhile, steers us back to work of a more literal sort. The climate crisis demands reorganization of labor. Certain chapters of Robinson’s 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future are written in the style of “notes,” “minutes” kept by an international working group: the Ministry, the book’s actant or protagonist. Work thus finds its way back even in our hours of leisure, as this is what we read when we read by the pool. The book itself is work; its utopia begins with a disaster, a heat wave that kills several million people in India. From this disaster come a pair of nova: the Ministry itself, of course, but also a direct-action group called the Children of Kali. This latter group intrigues me, given its alignment with the famous Hindu goddess of time, creation, destruction, and power. After the disaster, it is she who speaks to us: “I am a god and I am not a god. Either way, you are my creatures. I keep you alive” (13). Kali is the persona Robinson dons to give voice to Nature. Kali, with her long terrible tongue. Kali, with her necklace of severed heads. Several of the book’s experts prognosticate “civilization kaput” before century’s end (55). It’s all rather bleak: countless species facing extinction in the years ahead. Against the backdrop of that abyss, the book conjures its hyperstitial alternative future of geoengineering and rewilding.
Yunkaporta describes his book Sand Talk as “an examination of global systems from an Indigenous perspective.” This is what we need, is it not? The Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson proposed that we call this thing we need a “cognitive map,” but Yunkaporta calls it “a template for living.” Reading the latter’s book, I’m reminded immediately of “songlines,” or “maps of story carrying knowledge along the lines of energy that manifest as Law in the mind and land as one, webbed throughout the traditional lands of the First Peoples.” Yunkaporta’s is a cosmology that allows for Elders and Ancestors, as well as “sentient totemic entities” and non-human kin. That cosmology clarifies, its form shimmers into being, when he writes, “Beings of higher intelligence are already here, always have been. They just haven’t used their intelligence to destroy anything yet. Maybe they will, if they tire of the incompetence of domesticated humans.” Most of us, he argues, have been displaced. History is a narrative of global diaspora, as most of us are “refugees” severed from the land-based cultures of origin of our Ancestors. Progress or healing occurs by revisiting “the brilliant thought paths of our Paleolithic Ancestors.” The ancients possessed cognitive functions that remain part of our evolutionary inheritance, but most of us remember no more than a fraction of these functions, our capacities stifled by our separation from the knowledge systems of Indigenous, land-based people. Through reading Yunkaporta’s book, one encounters “yarns.” Oral culture provides a lens through which to view the print-based knowledge systems of the Empire. Yunkaporta recognizes the challenges involved in such a project. “English,” he writes, “inevitably places settler worldviews at the centre of every concept, obscuring true understanding” (36). To communicate with the global system, Yunkaporta must write with “the inadequate English terms of his audience” (38) — but he makes the language work through “the meandering paths between the words, not the isolated words themselves” (37). “Dreaming” is an example of such a word: necessary, Yunkaporta notes, “unless you want to say, ‘supra-rational interdimensional ontology endogenous to custodial ritual complexes’ every five minutes” (38). Yunkaporta introduces “the dual first person…a common pronoun in Indigenous languages” (39) — and just like that, the Cave is behind us and we’re beginning to see the light. He translates it as “us-two.” Us-two’s fingers type those letters while with our mouths we say ngal.
A friend notes after the two of us watch Benedict Seymour’s film Dead the Ends (2017) that there’s a lot of amateur “social detective” work at play in recent time travel narratives. A kind of “cognitive mapping” occurs in these works — and perhaps a more successful mapping than can occur in other kinds of conspiracy narratives. The 70s conspiracy films that Fredric Jameson studied in The Geopolitical Aesthetic imagine no more than conspiracy’s revelation by story’s end. Detectives in these films are often hauled away by authorities as soon as they share their findings (sometimes literally, as with Charlton Heston shouting the famous final lines of Soylent Green), the prophets’ words met with silence, unheard by those he would save. The most hopeful film in the bunch is All the President’s Men, with Woodward and Bernstein forcing the resignation of Richard Nixon. But as the times they are a-changin’, so too are the ways artists respond to them. Artists like Benedict Seymour are reanimating detective films of an earlier era by giving the detectives in these films time machines.
Perhaps we should be True Detectives, then, and reopen The Case of the Cognitive Map. Let us assume as our suspect the aesthetic articulation of a “chronopolitics” rather than a geopolitics. At the center of this new art are amateur, unpredictable, fugitive acts of time travel. The time machine is in some sense the paralogy, the game-changer in this work, granting the social detective of the new 21st-century time-travel thriller a way to fight back against creeping fascism. The detective in Benedict Seymour’s Dead the Ends (2017) is a Marxist dialectician working on behalf of the CCC, an embattled communist organization of the future, on the far side of WWIII. He intervenes in the past so as to swerve the capitalist crisis of the 1970s toward a timestream other than the one that ends in what Marx called “the common ruin of the contending classes.” Seymour even alludes to Jameson in the film, with Jameson’s famous slogan “History is what hurts” re-spun as the onscreen pun, “Hysteresis is what hurts.” As we noted when we zoomed, though, the time-traveler undergoes a kind of narrative decentering by film’s end, 86’d by rioting communities of color.
The next “move” after Seymour’s, I suppose, would be chronopolitical art that starts with that decentering, with people of color wielding time machines of their own.
This puts me in mind of Black Quantum Futurism, a collective launched by Rasheedah Phillips and Moor Mother. Both artists are also affiliated with a larger Philadelphia-based community organization, The Afrofuturist Affair. This latter group, which “uses Afrofuturism and Sci-Fi as vehicles for expression, creativity, education, agency, and liberation in communities of color,” has published several PDF zines related to time travel, including Do-It-Yourself Time Travel and Synchronicity, Superposition, and Sun Ra.
As I wander again through the woods, the ground now covered in an inch or more of snow, I reflect upon the brief history of gardens recounted by Federico Campagna in his book Technic and Magic. The root of “paradise” arrives into Greek and Roman thought by way of ancient Persian gardens. “A Persian garden,” writes Campagna, “was a Paradeisos, to follow Xenophon’s first Greek transliteration of the original Persian term Pairidaeza” (175). For ancients, gardens functioned as living pictures of the cosmos. “This same structure surfaced again in Italy at the time of the Renaissance,” he adds, “when gardens were designed as miniature cosmoi (plural of cosmos, the universe)” (176). Let this history be a guide for our garden-making in the year ahead.
I sort through boxes of books, selecting several a day to add to shelves of bookcases around the house. Each room with its books operates thus around me as ever-expanding memory palace and cognitive map. The angel of the library arrives, or as Erik Davis says in an interview for a recent episode of Michael Taft’s Deconstructing Yourself podcast, “The archive wakes up and starts to show you patterns.” I’ve experienced and continue to experience “visits” from these “intelligences from the other side.” These are for the most part joyful occasions — growth games. One feels sized-up like Mario under the influence of flower power. Imbued with a kind of grace.
What happens when Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is read alongside Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony? Both texts mingle mythoi and logoi. They tell tales and give accounts. Healers figure centrally in each novel. In Ceremony, we encounter medicine men like Betonie; in Mumbo Jumbo, we encounter PaPa LaBas, the novel’s “HooDoo psychiatrist” protagonist. Both characters rebel against Western teachings. Their cognitive maps are anti-colonial assemblages containing ancient wisdoms retained by their people — tools used to survive and resist in the age of Empire. Armed with these maps, protagonists interpret America as the work of evil magicians operating in secret across hundreds or even thousands of years. Healing requires use of sacred practice: a counter-magic of indigenous rites and ceremonies, story and dance.
Indigenous people possess a knowledge of the land that settler people lack. Land is part of their being — their idea-systems, their stories, their practices. Much has been taken from them, but they survive, they persist. The way they do so, individually and collectively, is through creation and performance of ceremony. Hoops, star maps, sand paintings: these are architectures used to shelter acts of healing. In Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, we encounter the hogan and the kiva (238). A “kiva” is a room used by Puebloans for rites and political meetings. The room is circular and underground. In Ceremony, a tribal council of old men use a kiva to counteract the influence of the world of the “destroyers” — evil magicians who try to bring on the end of the world through what Silko calls “the witchery.” Capitalism, colonialism, primitive accumulation — all are tools devised by the destroyers. History is understood as the handiwork of an occult, esoteric conspiracy of grand, cosmic, spiritual proportion. All of that may be no more than a “poor person’s cognitive map,” as the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson once said — but it’s one that works, one that allows Tayo and his people to survive. Silko’s ambitions are grand. She weaves into her narrative an awareness of its proximity to Los Alamos and Trinity. When reading, one finds oneself wondering about the meaning of the Manhattan Project as an event in Native American history and cosmology. Native Americans have seen their lands mined, bombed, cut down with US weaponry for centuries. The US tested weapons on native land in the deserts of New Mexico; they then used those weapons against Japanese civilians in 1945. Silko’s protagonist Tayo finds himself caught in that narrative; he and his brother fought the Japanese during their service in the US army during WWII. Tayo returns from the war sick about the loss of his brother Rocky — but sick as well with shame about having left the reservation to serve in the white man’s army.
How might we characterize Frederick Douglass’s views regarding religion? Douglass tries to forestall misunderstanding about his views in the appendix to his autobiography. He doesn’t want his readers to suppose him “an opponent of all religion” (107). “What I have said respecting and against religion,” he writes, “I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. […]. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (107). Why is religion the terrain of appeal here at book’s end? Religion has been a tool of indoctrination, a violently imposed ideology, a “crown of thorns”-style cognitive map and/or map of the cosmos imposed upon slaves. Douglass shows that the crown can be seized and repurposed. The slave arrives into Logos, reclaims “Scripture,” and sits in judgment upon the master. Douglass’s religious views also manifest in his several attestations about “divine providence,” and his claims regarding the latter’s influence over key events in the course of his narrative.
Literature can be used to educate the whole person. Readings prompt studies of the psyche—studies of authors and characters as well as studies of ourselves. But these studies of selfhood and personhood can lead us—so long as we’re attentive enough, so long as we read carefully enough—from microcosm to macrocosm, from worldview to world. Consciousness of the cosmos and our place in it. They help us build cognitive maps, as Fredric Jameson would say. Intimations of who we are, what we are, when we are, where we are, how we are. Injustices are registered, confronted, acknowledged; we contemplate demands rightly made upon us by the aggrieved across history. Those amid us who are crying, let us comfort them. The maps may have differences, they may emerge for each participant individually, revelation and awakening scaled to each person; yet this awareness is of our commonality, revealed through our interactions as fellow Beings in dialogue over shared texts. As the Western Buddhist Beats who inhabit Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums would say, we recognize operating throughout history a “Brahman”—a common consciousness or common ground of Being manifesting among the particulars of identity and historical circumstance. Taken in aggregate, these manifestations tell a story, however paratactically—a narrative history of which each of us is a part. This recognition of our relationship to history can’t be put into words, exactly, other than by declaring as Charles Olson does in his poem “The Kingfishers,” “This very thing you are” (171).
Baby strokes my Adam’s apple as I burp her over my shoulder. I wrap her in my arms and prepare to step outdoors. These are our doings, our joys. We go for a walk. We see the world. Exploration of outer space. How does one respond to one’s country having landed on the moon? What modifications occur to our myths and our cognitive maps? Anne Kent Rush ventured a guess with her 1976 book Moon, Moon, wherein she quotes the old Chinese maxim, “Love everything in the universe, because the Sun and Moon and Earth are but one body.” Let us strive for a state of pure and fearless openness to all things.