Time-Travel Literature and the Joy of the Eternal Now

Time travel turns up in the day’s bouquet of signage. Tiana Clark tells of “books by Black authors / about joy and pleasure and time travel.” Not just books that tell of pain, like the pain of “temporal displacement.” Rasheedah Phillips’s essay “Black Timescapes, Time Travel + Temporal Displacement” is one I hope to share with students in my course “Rabbit Holes, Time Machines, and Doors in the Wall.” We could also watch Phillips’s short film Recurrence Plot: The Family Circle. “Time feels layered in Afrodiasporan traditions,” writes Phillips. “The past is always layered over the present moment — our ancestors reside with and within us, even if on a different temporal plane / scale.”

The Structure of the Device

It’s an odd thing, this device, is it not? With its levers, it’s like a clock or a timepiece. Spun or turned, the levers grant the Traveler safe passage through forthcoming years as counted by Western calendars. The future is reified, captured in a count by an imaginal technology that converts time into a measurable dimension.

Wells’s Traveler assumes in the very structure of his time machine an imperial temporality: the Western linear temporal orientation, with its obedience to “the Master’s Clock.”

But for more recent Travelers, especially people of color, travel is undertaken not so much in obedience to the clock as in exodus from its dictates. Travelers consult stars and return to sidereal time. Or they create music. They keep time with drums rather than clocks. As Moor Mother notes, “Music created by Black people has been used throughout time and across space as an agent of time and memory” (Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice, p. 9). She and the other members of the Black Quantum Futurism Collective take this longstanding practice a step further, their self-professed goal being “to collapse space-time into a desired future.” Tracks of theirs are self-creating, self-causing sound-events from the future made to happen in the minds and bodies of those who listen.

Tuesday April 27, 2021

Friends and I plan an in-person gathering: three of us, outdoors at a brewery, discussing chapters from Mark Fisher’s final book Postcapitalist Desire. The book ends disappointingly given Mark’s untimely end, leaving it to all of us, the book’s readers, to complete the course ourselves, as did Mark’s students. Or we could accelerate the narrative onward, well beyond what was previously conceived, by reading “Experimental Time Order” from Rasheedah Phillips’s book Recurrence Plot (and other time travel tales). Through Phillips, we encounter ideas from Robert Anton Wilson’s book Prometheus Rising. Desired futures create their own pasts.

Sunday April 11, 2021

Friends gather for a gala get-together on my front porch, all of us vaccinated and thus able now to be with one another after our year apart. Spring is lovely here this year, trees budding, the yard awash in constellations of blue, white, and purple: wildflowers and patches of clover. We celebrate the publication of a friend’s novel, an historical romance just out this past week from Berkley, everyone wanting to read it, cheered too by the arrival of her parents, new in from up north. When last we saw each other, F. was new in as well: a newborn, a wee lass just home from the hospital. Amazing how much she’s grown these past fifteen months. Our friend’s dad is an artist, as is another of the party’s attendees. Both draw beautiful illustrations in colored chalk on our cement walkway. I admire these on my evening wanderings about the yard come dark. ‘Tis a starry night, across which flies a ship, discernible here below only as Morse code flicker: modest dots of red and white light. I resolve to read Black Quantum Futurist Rasheedah Phillips’s book Recurrence Plot (and other time travel tales), at the heart of which is a character named after the scarab-faced Egyptian god Khepri. This character is, like me, a frequent thrift-shopper. Let us, like Khepri, donate something each time we thrift.

Friday January 8, 2021

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.