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?”
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.
Who stormed the reality studio? What did Burroughs have in mind when he wrote that? How and why would one want to “retake the universe,” and from whom? The phrases appear in Burroughs’s 1964 novel Nova Express, a book stored in a box. We could go chasing / for this Thing, / or we can take note of our surroundings. Listen. Receive. Toyscapes, object-scapes, portals, desire-machines, time-machines. Witness them in the space of the now. To be a Marxist in late capitalism is to be a detective. And detective work’s a drag — unless you’re a beat detective: gonzo, amateur, freelance, “for the People.” The Academy needn’t be that Academy — the one starring Steve Guttenberg. In Burroughs, it’s a battle between Mob and Police for control of the Unconscious. Hassan i Sabbah’s in there, too.
Let us hop in our rabbit hole and explore Internets gone dark. The Wayback Machine is more time machine than rabbit hole. Somewhere in that past that it stores on its hard drives is a clean, green cyberfuture awaiting reactivation upon retrieval. Other sites elicit collaboratively posited Objects From the Future. Both are desire-machines and means of production: tools for building and changing worlds. Friends, I suggest we get to it. When I think “Object From the Future,” though, the one that arrives is The Book of the New Alchemists. Let us see where we are. The poem by “my” that begins the book is an eerie one, is it not? Do psychedelics aid in reorientation? Can plant allies help us map our relationship to the totality? The New Alchemists teach the old Hermetic formula: “What is below is above; what is inside is outside.” For them, this means “the Earth is an organic being, itself in turn reflecting the life of the cosmos” (vii). The book’s foreword is by ecopsychologist Betty Roszak.
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.
Are we genres of people, as Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter argues? Or do we contain multitudes, selves morphing and genre-shifting? Could capitalist realism reality-shift? It could become a romance: a “scientific romance” as per Wells, with a time machine. And it could do this with or without the horrors of weird fiction. It could be a detective comic. It could be a portal fantasy. It could be all of these. Even at times, under game-like conditions, a dungeon-crawl. Let us remake ourselves as magical realists. The story that contains is a story of love. It can get smutty, as Sarah says of Bridgerton. Persons in their many phases, including altered states of consciousness: some higher, some lower. Let us imagine time machines, war machines, starships. Revolution occurs, a revolution of consciousness. Heads awaken to higher states: romantic comedy, utopian fantasy. Genres combine, as do gods and archetypes in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Paradise is both the third book of the Divine Comedy and a novel by Toni Morrison. The latter begins with a call to sobriety.
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.
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.
Noisemakers announce the arrival of a new year. Let us breathe sighs of relief at 2020’s passing. The year ended with word of a final casualty: hiphop legend MF DOOM. Let this new year be a year of healing. Let portals open onto novel developments: new courses, new branches of study. What’s this talk about time travel, for instance, in the recent Avengers film, Avengers: Endgame? Dr. Strange makes an appearance — as he will again in due course, in the course I teach this spring. Marvel characters invaded the American national-popular imaginary in conjunction with popularization of psychedelics in the 1960s. Early psychonauts like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were, as Tom Wolfe notes, “Super Kids,” turned on by a mix of peyote and Captain Marvel. Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics might speak to this conjuncture. And for magic, let us read Alan Moore’s Promethea.