There are moments of self-reflexivity in Pharmako-AI, as when Allado-McDowell begins a conversation with GPT-3 with meta-language about prior interactions, allowing shared acknowledgement of inherited patriarchal bias. After this point, GPT-3 course-corrects, recognizes and honors women and non-binary people. There is a chanting of thanks to the Great Mother Goddess following Allado-McDowell’s insertion into the conversation the prompt, “Thank you, Grandmother” (104). Prior to these interventions, GPT-3 had shared a macho, “Italian-futurist”-style machine-poem in celebration of grandfathers, figuring its birth in relation to a grandfather engineer-machine who worked for General Motors. Allado-McDowell replies, “When I read this poem, I experience the absence of women and non-binary people.” GPT-3 behaves oddly here, repeating several times in a row the statement, “This poem is not without its truths, but it is incomplete” (97), after which point it begins to acknowledge as additional influence on its work “the lineage of the Great Mother Goddess” (97).
Smoking toward dusk I decide to bake — but to no avail. “Bake and bake” remains a dad book waiting to be written. Dad’s busy reading board books. Mom, too. Others seek “productivity hacks.” A Google employee named Kenric Allado-McDowell co-authored a book with an AI — a “language prediction model” called GPT-3. The book, Pharmako-AI, could be wrangled into my course in place of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Dick’s book is a downer, a proto-cyberpunk dystopia, whereas Allado-McDowell’s book contains a piece called “Post-Cyberpunk.” The book models communication and collaboration between human and nonhuman worlds. GPT-3 recommends use of Ayahuasca. The computer tells humanity to take plant medicine. What are we to make of this advice from an emergent AI? The book ventures into territory beyond my purview. GPT-3’s paywalled, and thus operates as the equivalent of an egregore. Not at all an easy thing to trust.
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.
Octavia Butler’s Kindred is a time travel novel worth noting in light of work by contemporary Afrofuturists. The book’s protagonist, a 26-year-old African-American temp agent named Dana, finds herself suddenly and inexplicably transported from her home in present-day California (or the present day of 1979, the year the book was published) to a plantation in the Antebellum South. History kidnaps her, we might say. She doesn’t travel willingly. And when it occurs for her, travel is always to a painful and traumatic past. The book stages for readers an encounter with ancestors, leaving unventured the world of tomorrow. Kindred differs from conventional time travel narratives in other ways as well. Usually, time travel narratives feature white male protagonists who can travel to almost any period in history without sacrificing their privileged social status and position of dominance. These conventional white male protagonists can “pass” as ordinary figures from the period, while often using their knowledge of the future in order to gain power over others. For these characters, time travel is basically an exotic form of tourism, like a safari (as is explicitly the case in Ray Bradbury’s classic 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder”). Meanwhile Dana’s appearance as a liberated black woman (in terms of clothing, skin color, manner of speech, etc) immediately places her in danger of rape and enslavement as soon as she arrives to the past.
Let us study Lauren’s Earthseed verses. They’re slim, featuring between one and five (occasionally seven) words per line. There are a lot of declarative statements. Also commands, imperatives like “Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed” (196). No questions. Frequent use of second-person — references to “You” the reader. “You with whom I speak.” Meaning all of us. Many of the verses insist on Earthseed’s central claim: “God is Change” (270). Lauren avoids all mention of herself. There is no “I” in these verses, but there is a collective “We” — members of Earthseed communicating with each other across time. Her journal entries narrate the creation of this community. We see a spontaneous, non-coerced collectivity arise in search of land where the group hopes to establish an armed commune, like David Koresh’s in Waco or John Africa’s MOVE community in Philadelphia. Unlike those other groups, though, Earthseed is matriarchal, multicultural, and democratic. Those of you who wish to learn more about MOVE, I recommend the 2013 documentary Let the Fire Burn, about the city of Philadelphia’s bombing of the group’s headquarters in 1985. Filmmaker Jason Osder incorporates an impressive array of found footage: TV news reports, live coverage of the bombing, press conferences, interviews, testimonies before an investigation commission, the works. The movie is heartbreaking, shocking: a story about “failure to resolve ‘conflicting lifestyles’ in a peaceful way,” as Commission Chairman William H. Brown III notes in an opening testimony at the start of the film. It fills one with anger and outrage and sorrow, so be warned. MOVE, after all, was a revolutionary organization. Members lived their lives in revolutionary opposition to the System. For this they were punished by the city’s ruling elites. But MOVE was also more than just a revolutionary organization; it was a religion. Its members lived their lives as part of a cosmic drama — spiritual warfare between the forces of good (or what MOVE members called “The Law of Mama”) and the forces of evil (i.e. “The System”). This is what grants the MOVE narrative its power. It teaches that this is what the Empire does: it prevents the formation of new religions and new religious movements. We see it meting out the same punishment in Butler’s sequel, Parable of the Talents, where a group of Christofascists invade Acorn, the first Earthseed community. Buildings are torched. Several people die; others are enslaved. And a similar story is told in Parable of the Sower — only the characters have switched parts. Reverend Olamina’s Baptist congregation is the religious community, and drug users and the poor are the ones who invade. Somewhere in this is a lesson about discernment. The name to say loudly now is “Breonna Taylor.”
Tasks arise, so I attend to them. One sees to the things one has to do. Grooming, cleaning, parenting. “So be it! See to it!” as Octavia E. Butler would say. The phrase was Butler’s mantra, one she wrote to herself in her journal years ago, before she was a published author. The words on that page of her journal are a spell. She decides what she wants and she proclaims it. Forget the excuses, she tells herself. “See to it!” Spells of this sort combine imperatives and future tense declarations of what will be. What were Butler’s thoughts on magic and the occult? What would she have called this if not magic? Psy-ops? An experiment in self-programming? Either way, it’s a power related to journaling. One becomes one’s own storyteller, writing dialogically day by day. Lauren’s journal functions this way. (Lauren is the main character in Butler’s Parable novels.) Lauren’s spells are the sections of the Parable novels written in verse. And here I am journaling about Butler‘s journals. Texts arrive bearing word about the process of initiation, like Butler’s 1988 novel Adulthood Rites, the second book in her Xenogenesis trilogy. (The three works in this trilogy — Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago — have also been gathered under the title Lilith’s Brood.) Initiation requires a teacher, though, does it not? Perhaps I can just learn from my friends.
Earthseed is a religion that worships “change,” figures “God” as a force or a process rather than a person. Change is a condition of being, in a sense — but not just a fixed fate. It can be “shaped.” Lauren Oya Olamina’s journal entries act as living testimony. Hers is a life of massive change, much of it painful. But Lauren plots and wishes and writes the story of her survival. She acquires followers through the sharing of her teachings while fleeing north following the destruction of her neighborhood. Is Earthseed political? Can we interpret it in light of political theology? As answer to these questions, consider the following. Butler’s novel was published in 1993. The following year, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, an act signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It’s also known as the Biden Crime Law. Current president-elect Joe Biden, serving at the time as Senator of Delaware, drafted the Senate version of the legislation. In a 1993 speech promoting the crime bill, Biden warned of “predators on our streets” who were “beyond the pale.” “We have no choice,” he said, “but to take them out of society.” Biden’s 1993 “predator” remarks are remarkably similar to comments made by then-first lady Hillary Clinton in 1996 warning of “superpredators” who had “no conscience, no empathy” and who needed to be “brought to heel.” Lauren, the inventor of Earthseed in Butler’s novel, uses this same language, imagining dangerous “predators” lurking near commercial water stations during her journey north (202). Lauren’s Earthseed religion encourages her to think this way. “Hyperempathy” makes one wary of “predators.” Lauren’s saving grace, though, is her distrust of police. That’s what distinguishes her from, say, Watchmen‘s Angela Abar.
The yard around the house changes, of course, with the change of seasons. Neighboring houses enter sight, though still from a great distance, as trees lose their leaves. ‘Tis the season to build beds, I tell myself, so that when spring arrives, we can plant the beginnings of our vegetable, herb, and flower gardens. Because of deer, we’ll also have to raise a fence. The yard around this fenced-in area will remain open: some parts wild woods of trees, other parts mown. The deer are thus welcome still to visit and graze. Students and I arrive, meanwhile, to the tragic, long-awaited “novum-event” at the mid-point or core of Octavia E. Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower. A drug-consuming cult of “crazies” or “pyros” attack the narrator-protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina’s walled neighborhood and separate her from her family, forcing her to flee north. Lauren travels on foot as part of a “pack” with two of her neighbors. The three characters — Lauren, Harry Balter, and Zahra Moss — must learn to trust one another to survive.
Students and I read Parable of the Sower together. Despite having read the novel several times now, I remain uncertain of my feelings regarding the starward longings of the book’s protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina. Does outer space function for her as did the North Star for Frederick Douglass? Are indigenous people present in this vision? Perhaps those stories are not Lauren’s to tell. A student from Albuquerque recommended a book called The Green Glass Sea during our discussion of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. Her grandfather moved the family to New Mexico, she said, for work related to the Manhattan Project. “They did some bad stuff there,” she noted. The “green glass sea” is the name given to the crater blasted into the desert by the first atomic device. The Ellen Klages book recommended by my student describes Los Alamos from the perspective of two female characters — children whose parents were scientists involved in the bomb’s creation. The book is in fact written for children. It’s an award-winning work of children’s literature. Given my student’s family connection to the story, I hope she pairs the book with Silko’s Ceremony for her final paper. Stepping away from my desk, I head downstairs and talk with Sarah. The two of us discover we own a freezer in the basement. We have a laugh about how “brat” is one of my go-to words when I’m angry. If so, it’s presumably a mannerism I “picked up” or “inherited” as a child. “Nasty Matt Calls Others ‘Brat'”: let us change that. Let there be no outbursts of anger. Recall instead childhood’s fonder moments. Enjoy. Relish the smell of homemade tomato sauce as it cooks on the stove.