Butler’s version of Afrofuturism is far more pessimistic than the versions crafted by immediate precursors like Sun Ra and Samuel R. Delany. Christianity appears prominently in her work as both early influence and adversary. Think, for instance, of her use of gospel parables as structuring principles. Her narratives are “true” to the parables — grant the parables a kind of truth — even as they formulate Earthseed, a new religious movement discovered by Butler’s heroine and put into practice as Baptism’s replacement and successor.
The story that writes itself and needs to be written is the story of black life — multiple, joined with others, protesting, demonstrating, rioting against systemic racism and Trumpism and white supremacy and police murder in cities across America. “We have our masks and we’re ready,” says the voice of the collective subject. Reception of the Event is always mistranslated by journalists — yet awareness is growing, consciousness is changing. We’re learning our way toward insurrection and rebellion against injustice. My hopes are, as always, with the struggle. Mike Davis and Jon Wiener walk me through the Watts Uprising of August 1965. As Horace Tapscott exclaimed, “The Giant Is Awakening.”
Tapscott’s Underground Musicians Association (UGMA) formed at the heart of the Watts Renaissance. They were a jazz commune like Sun Ra’s Arkestra — but unlike the autocratic structure of the latter, Tapscott’s group was, as Davis and Wiener say, “an anarchist participatory democracy” (Set the Night on Fire, p. 245). The feeling today is much the same: giants awakening, people assembling. What has needed to happen is happening.
Fall foliage fills the day with color. Rich reds and yellows appear all around me as I drive around town collecting tools and parts, a would-be repairman. Maria Montessori’s been on my mind lately. I’ve been reading a handbook she wrote for American parents and teachers, originally published in 1914. Her approach to teaching, the famous Montessori Method, involved introduction of didactic material into children’s playhouses. Good to a point, I suppose — but I’d rather be playing multi-dimensional chess. Fredric Jameson likens our present reality to the latter in his new book Allegory and Ideology. The game is one where “a number of distinct chessboards coexist simultaneously with distinct configurations of forces on each, so that a move on any one of these boards has distinct but unforeseeable consequences for the configurations and the relative power-relations on the others” (191). Similar games appear in Sun Ra’s Space is the Place and Brian C. Short’s novel New People of the Flat Earth. “We live in just such a world,” Jameson writes, “just such a totality” (191).
“Space is the Place” plays at a low volume, at the back (as opposed to front and center) of my thoughts, though in fact it’s one of the most bracing performances I’ve ever heard, while I reflect on my mixed feelings toward my discipline’s fondness for jargon.
Don’t get me wrong: I like it when my colleagues gather and talk texts. But I prefer birds whistling from treetops. Along with assists from the other elements of human and nonhuman nature, the evening orchestra performs its polyphonic improvisation — with me there to observe and to listen in surround sound in the hollow of a glade. Through these acts we teach each other. As we pull together, we expand each other’s capacity to sympathize and finally to love. I am describing an effort to bring about a fundamental change in “reality” itself, which is to say, in ideology.
I steal away from work midafternoon and watch Space is the Place — the original 64-minute version. I think of it as an act of study — perhaps even what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call “fugitive planning.” Ra imagines a colony in outer space free of the white people of planet Earth. “Equation-wise, think of time as officially ended,” he explains early in the film. Once time is ended, he says, we “teleport the planet here through music.” Sun Ra’s jazz is the sign-system equivalent of a riot — and when the Overseer comes ’round to make him pay, Ra holds up a card, casts a spell, relocates the confrontation elsewhere, into the Space Age, technic surrounded by void. Through his music, Ra creates “a multiplicity of other destinies.”
Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place” leads me into the mirror-world. I drop down into a seat and scry. One of the oldest known forms of divination. Our social media empires have attempted to capture the worlds on the other sides of our scrying mirrors. This is what shows like Black Mirror have tried to teach us. Students and I have returned to head culture’s first encounters with electronic black mirrors in the budding early days of videogames and personal computers as reflected in “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” a report Stewart Brand wrote for Rolling Stone magazine in December 1972. The piece begins with the conviction that the world is windblown and that change, technological modernity — in a word, “computers” — all of these have been foisted on “the people,” regardless of whether or not “the people” are prepared for it. Within less than half a century following the piece’s publication, most of us would be clutching these objects like gods. Brand’s advice was, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” This is the meaning of his Whole Earth Catalog. The medium in that case was indeed the message. The Catalog is significant primarily in terms of its form. A functional blueprint for Revolution is one that provides “Access to Tools.” But why was Brand so nonchalant, I wonder, as all of this began to unfold? Why was he so nonchalant about the effects on neighborhoods IRL as heads began to spend their night-time moments “out of their bodies, computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens” (39)?
I lie awake in the middle of the night worried about initiatory paths and forces representing competing alignments. Can I trust new acquaintances, or do they wish to use me for some ulterior end? Perhaps I should read about Buddhist socialism. The current Dalai Lama, for instance, thinks of himself as “half-Marxist, half-Buddhist,” and the heterodox economist E.F. Schumacher used to advocate an approach he called “Buddhist economics.” That’s all fine and good, but waters darken once we venture into “technodelics” and emerging efforts to devise tools to alter consciousness. How do we avoid the dangers of instrumentalization under such circumstances? In lieu of an answer, I decide to pair some texts in the hope that they might speak to one another. Take Sun Ra’s “cheery poem inaugurating the new age,” combine it with the version of Amiri Baraka’s play A Black Mass that he recorded with Ra and the Myth-Science Orchestra in 1968, and add Duke Ellington’s essay “The Race for Space” and Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon.”
Anthony Reed contributes to an understanding of hippie modernism in his essay “After the End of the World: Sun Ra and the Grammar of Utopia.” He causes us to ask ourselves: By what means did hippie modernists intervene in reproduction of the hierarchies and contradictions of the dominant society, the oppressor, the Empire as it manifested in their moment? Intervention of some sort is necessary if there is to be positive social change, for it is by way of its hierarchies and contradictions that the Empire produces the shocked consciousness, the defensive ego formation that buries consciousness within labyrinths of ideology, so as to postpone recognition of the War in Heaven, the fundamental class conflict. Through deliberate pursuit of consciousness-raising, however, hippie modernists relaxed habitual thought and behavior mechanisms, and thus gained sight of and came to embody in certain of their lived actions, aspects of the world-to-come. But is this world-to-come merely a mythic future, an alternative to a more “authentic” world-picture, where all are enslaved to a tragic destiny? Or is the future always-already mythic, a metaphor used to enable choice of hopeful ways of being? “Outer space” was Sun Ra’s metaphor for this hopeful future elsewhere, though he fused it with recovery of a glorious Egyptian past, thus allowing release of it from any point of access within the established harmonic framework, no matter one’s time or place. I see the future not just in Sun Ra’s work, but in all who attempted to leave the game. See, for instance, the Dutch Provos and their “white bicycles” program. In the early 1960s, the Provos teamed up with a Dutch designer named Luud Schimmelpennink to create a system of sustainable transportation. They covered several hundred bicycles in all-white paint and distributed them around Amsterdam. The system is similar to today’s Bird scooters, but without any fee. “My White Bicycle” was also a song by UK psychedelic band Tomorrow.
Members of the band claim the song was inspired by the program in the Netherlands. Nazareth released a successful cover of the song in 1975. John Lennon and Yoko Ono can be seen posing with a Provo white bicycle during their Bed-In for Peace in Amsterdam in March 1969.
I’m galloping along, clearing error code 4s, reminiscing about the past, contemplating workload, when out of nowhere bursts the opening notes to Lloyd Clifton Miller’s “Gol-e Gandom,” followed by a sequence of environmental sound: dog, blender, bird, down the block a team working at a downed tree with a chainsaw. “Jump to, take action!” And I’m up and about, anticipating future events. A muting occurs. Unscripted passage of time. In a moment of calm, I lose myself in flight between subjectively distinct galaxies. I advance in brief increments through Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, savoring each moment. The psychological establishment, like any establishment, corrupted by the Judeo-Christian Capitalist West’s False-Enlightenment Prometheanism, collapses into the state evoked by Sun Ra & His Arkestra’s “Lanquidity.”
Relax, drift free of the value-form, I tell myself. The reverb on my voice leads me into a trance. My face struggles to match my mood.
An illustrated snake crawls across a two-dimensional background and forms a magic circle. A title sequence: a dolphin’s head punctures the surface of an ocean oranged by a setting sun. Guitars and drums kick in. Fireworks light a night sky. “No more clouds, no more rain,” sing Lal & Mike Waterson, as if to invoke a triumphant god on their pagan masterpiece, “Bright Phoebus.”
Let us interpret these deities, at least for the time being, as guiding passions that produce distinctive outcomes and inner states. Let us associate one such state with medicine and healing: to this, we sing our paean. Doors open onto an endless regression of doors.
Sun Ra appears, says “Time is officially ended. We work on the other side of time.” A plant sprout seeks sunlight against a blur of browns and grays. I run my hands through my hair and sense around me to gauge my whereabouts. A desert island — or rather, a detailed simulation of one. Wind chimes, palm trees: a beachside cottage. Purple clouds above a tree line steeped in shadow. Archetypes guard the gates between levels and worlds.