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.”

Severance

“If the texts that students and I have been studying this semester are best referred to as ‘portal fantasies,’” thinks the part of me that persists here in the future, “then that, too, is the term to use in discussing the new AppleTV+ television series Severance. Characters in the show pass quite literally through one or more doors between worlds, living two separate lives.”

The show’s title refers to an imagined corporate procedure of the near-future that severs personhood. Those who volunteer to undergo this procedure emerge from it transformed into split subjects, each with its own distinct stream of memory.

As unlikely as this dystopian premise may seem, we can’t fully distance ourselves from it as viewers, given our severed personhood here “IRL,” as the kids are fond of saying. “Others may not be quite as manifold as me,” admits the Narrator. “But each of us is Janus-faced. Each of us houses both a waking and a dreaming self, with each incapable of full memory of the other.”

And as the show advances, of course, we learn through a kind of detective work that the severance procedure isn’t in fact what it seems. The work-self (or “innie”) battles the home-self (or “outie”) — as do Superego and Id here at home.

A Course on Accelerationism

“I should teach a course on Accelerationism in the years ahead,” thinks the Narrator, mind already in the elsewhere of a desired future.

“Imagine the writers and texts I could assign,” he writes, handing the assignment over to his Unconscious. “Marx. Deleuze and Guattari. Mark Fisher on Acid Communism. Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. Sadie Plant. J.G. Ballard. Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie.”

“Manifestos have been central to the movement,” thinks the Narrator, “so we’ll read three: Donna Haraway’s ‘The Cyborg Manifesto,’ the Laboria Cuboniks collective’s The Xenofeminist Manifesto, and Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams’s ‘The Accelerationist Manifesto.’ We’ll also watch and discuss several films, including John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History (1996) and Christopher Roth’s Hyperstition (2016).”

“Ideally,” he adds, “as those two films suggest, it would be a course that places Accelerationism in dialogue with Afrofuturism.”

Westcott Nation

The phrase “Lady and the Tramp,” like the title of the Disney film, sung to the tune of “Bennie & the Jets”: such is how I begin my morning. I wake to a lovely quiet hour in the tent, sun rising in front of me. There’s a conversation among crows in those trees there — the ones beside which I slept. It’s good to be back in Syracuse, camped in my sister-in-law’s backyard, listening to crickets and birds, music discernible from the park across the street here in Westcott Nation, a sister nation of sorts to the nearby Onondaga Territory. The Westcott’s persistence gives me comfort. To know better where we are, let us listen to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer’s book has me wanting to enter into caring relation with the pecan trees in my yard — indeed, makes me want to honor all beings, including those crows parked in the branches above my tent. Geese, too — like those in the story of Skywoman. Kimmerer shares this tale: the great Potawatomi creation story. “Skywoman Falling” will pair well with texts I teach this fall, thinks the Traveler as he reads. We have been given this gift. Let us share it with others. Let us fit it in at semester’s end. Let it resonate with Silko’s Ceremony and Snyder’s Turtle Island and Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Kimmerer’s cosmology “places” all of the others. Skywoman transmits “original instructions,” tells us where we are, how we got here. It suggests as well what ought to be done. It sets us within cyclings of a vast cosmic gift economy: one that conceives and receives numberless generations of Skywoman’s daughters — for Skywoman is the Great Mother, bearing life despite the story of her fall.

Wednesday May 5, 2021

On our final day of class, in concluding discussion of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (a novel, as the title suggests, involving scanning and surveillance), I introduce Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and Michel Foucault’s theory of “panopticism,” applying the latter to the architecture of the digital classroom, the Zoom environment in which we’ve worked this past year due to pandemic. After ascent from Plato’s Cave in search of higher states of consciousness (Plato’s text being the one with which the course began), we lay bare the medium of our being-together as a class. I speak as one there in a cell with others. Here we are, I say: “Gallery View.” I call awareness to the Zen saying, “Before enlightenment, carry water, chop wood. After enlightenment, carry water, chop wood.” Through Dick’s title, I then trace us back to 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul stresses the importance of “charity” or love. Without it, he writes, one is but “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” In its final moment, then, the course ends thus: with a synthesis of Zen and a kind of gnostic-psychedelic reimagining of agape. One must accept the prison, or at least return to it willingly, despite knowing that one will likely be misunderstood and crucified — but only so as to impart through the medium of one’s being the words “Love one another”: a message of congeniality and goodwill.

Thursday April 29, 2021

The Ramsey Lewis Trio rouse me midafternoon with their “Blues for the Night Owl.” More to my liking, though, is Expansions, a 1975 LP by Lonnie Liston Smith & the Cosmic Echoes.

“Expand your mind…to understand…” sings Lonnie’s brother, flutist Donald Smith, on the album’s opener. This LP and another (Jerry Butler’s The Sagittarius Movement) arrive bearing reference to Sagittarius. “Lady Sagittarius.” Let us thank her, as Smith does, “for her Earthly Guidance.” Here I am, meanwhile, at semester’s end, students and I grappling with Philip K. Dick’s downer dystopia A Scanner Darkly. Chapter 15 is for me the book’s nadir, as the book’s third-person narrator recounts the thoughts of cop character Mike Westaway. Mike manipulates others, justifying these actions by claiming that the people he handles — characters like the book’s protagonist Bob Arctor — are already dead.

Saturday March 27, 2021

Some of my students are writing brilliant papers. Let us celebrate. Ice cream truck: jingle jingle, dream big. The world is always-already enchanted, slips the confines of the automatized western. One is not at the end of history but rather its beginning, says Going In, a Brooklyn-based sub-label dedicated to long-form musical compositions geared towards meditation, psychedelic ceremonies, yoga, [and] massage.” The part of me that wants to write wants to listen. Entering the moment means watching The Croods, or staring at stars, or seeking copies of Verdant Gnosis.

Friday February 5, 2021

Joanna Ruocco’s Dan is a book I read with students. Dan is a place and a state of mind, through which moves a perplexed, brilliant young woman, the book’s protagonist Melba Zuzzo. Melba travels via bicycle, accosted by men and townspeople, en route to and at her place of work, the town’s bakery. Her morning customers include Officer Greg, who suspects Melba of a crime, and Don Pond, a man who brings her back to his apartment on behalf of a conspiracy involving all of the town’s men. The apparent head of this conspiracy is the book’s villain, Dr. Buck. Melba suffered Buck’s hands. He touched her inappropriately and claimed to be her father when she visited his office about chronic congestion of her sinuses as a child. She remembers the event over the course of her day. Buck haunts her, in a sense. He gaslights Melba, using his status as expert and authority to call into question her ability to know. She lays quietly on a sheet of paper in his office by book’s end. Some of my students unfortunately begin the book siding unknowingly with Buck. The course is designed, though, to demonstrate harms done to women by male doctors. Patriarchal patterns of abuse appear, for instance, once Dan is read in light of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.

Tuesday January 26, 2021

The “altered state” presumes variance from a norm: or at the very least, contrast between varying states. Modulation among intensities of experience. Sleeping and waking states. Dream states, drug states, trance states. States of hyper-absorption: flow-states, runners highs, fever-induced deleria. All of our texts this semester assume some ordinary, everyday waking state, as well as an alternative to that state. And in fact, we’ve all experienced “altered states” of one kind or another. Moments of intense concentration, moments of absorption or immersion.

Thursday January 21, 2021

A new semester approaches. Altered states of consciousness and perception: let us consider religious raptures, drug-induced ecstasies, “peak experiences” and the like as phenomena central to human activity as evidenced by literatures of many cultures and historical periods. A narrative forms as we travel Bill & Ted-style among ancients, medievals, and moderns. We detect patterns; the texts of different places and periods constellate in a kind of cyberspace of meaning, speak to one another as allegories of a transhistorical process or project: the attempt to get free. Confronted with the disruptive power of gnosis, we’re left wondering: “Red pill or blue pill?”