The time travel narrative dredges up pain from the past. A bizarre love triangle rhymes without repeating. “The story needn’t go there,” thinks the narrator. If the machine or device is the narrative itself, then (to honor Moor Mother’s terms) let it draw us toward free jazz rather than circuit city. Let the “trance-script as time machine” be a liberation technology. Let it be a spirit-force that helps us heal.
Work occupied only a few of us-two’s hours back in time immemorial, in our cultures of origin. Following our confinement in settlements, these hours increased. To call the prior arrangement “primitive” (as do Marx and Engels with their use of the phrase “primitive communism”) is to do it a disservice. First and last are in no sense as easy to discern as was once supposed. There are temporalities other than the ones proposed by the West. There are “the expansive temporalities of Afro Diasporan people,” for instance, about which Moor Mother speaks on her new track “Zami.” “No more master’s clock,” she pronounces, while beside me sits Kim Stanley Robinson’s weighty new tome, The Ministry for the Future.
Can a text become a time machine, a weaver of strange loops? Where does free jazz fit in the machine’s equation, as Moor Mother says it must? Is the text composed through spontaneous play with others? Have we been living “atemporally,” as Bruce Sterling suggested? The form of these trance-scripts is both-and. One can scroll vertically through a stack of days. Or one can proceed rhizomatically, inputting keywords into a search of the site’s invisible index. Search for Willis Harman, for instance, and read about SRI and LSD. Harman was a square — an electrical engineer who, after getting turned on, turned on others. He became a pivotal figure in the human potential movement. He also coauthored a book with Wired affiliate Howard Rheingold called Higher Creativity: Liberating the Unconscious for Breakthrough Insights. Beware this talk of “liberation,” though. Harman’s research may have been CIA-funded. Something occurred there. Our time-traveling psychedelic detective needs to investigate SRI. If one wants to make it weird, sprinkle into the plot a secret order of time-traveling Hashishins — followers of Hassan i Sabbah. Have the detective find among his case files Michel Jeury’s Chronolysis and Daniel F. Galouye’s Simulacron-3.
The following are multimodal, multigenre maps of consciousness.
Across these maps run time travelers, world runners
growing and evolving together into ever-larger
circles of trust, connected
Heed her words:
Moor Mother, at the end of Circuit City when she
shouts, “You can’t
time travel / Seek inner and outer
dimensions / Without free jazz!”
or on Youtube:
“If you wanna do something / find a way to create it.”
“Singing together / is how we heal.”
Fugitive study leads me to the Dogon tribe. Place matters to Afrofuturists: Chicago is the mothership, and Philadelphia is the devil’s playground. IFA originates among the Yoruba people. Yoruba divination practices make use of an ancient binary system of 256 odus. Charles and Ray Eames’s short film Powers of Ten opens with a couple picnicking in a park in Chicago. Chicago is where police killed Fred Hampton. Chicago is where police beat the future as the whole world watched. Philadelphia is where police bombed MOVE. With our portals and our time machines, let us re-member the past. Let us return these truths to the times to which they belong.
In place of “Afrofuturism,” a term coined by white cultural critic Mark Dery, science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor prefers “Africanfuturism” and “Africanjujuism,” terms she coined herself. She defines the latter as “a subcategory of fantasy that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative.” History is that which, ever-changing even as it rhymes, never neatly coincides with itself. Only in this way can the future be other than circuit city: rote repetition of that which came before.
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.