North American Time Capsule 1967

More to my liking is John Cage.

Where the architect-composer Iannis Xenakis used probability, game theory, group theory, set theory, Boolean algebra, and computers to produce his scores, thus pioneering “stochastic music,” Cage composed “aleatoric music.” While stochastic and aleatoric forms of music both rely on chance procedures, aleatoric music eschews mathematics in favor of ancient divinatory devices like the I Ching.

Readied by Cage for further weirding, I tune in and listen to Alvin Lucier’s “North American Time Capsule 1967,” a 10-minute composition that neighbors a track by Cage on Side A of Extended Voices. The Lucier piece uses a vocoder designed by Sylvania Electronics Systems “to encode speech sounds into digital information bits for transmission over narrow band widths via telephone lines or radio channels.” Lucier says of the piece, “The performers are asked to prepare material using any sounds at all that would describe for beings far from our environment, either in space or in time, the physical, spiritual, social, scientific or any other situation in which we currently find ourselves.”

Thinking of 1967 as “situation,” I relate the song to the psychedelic consciousness of that year’s Summer of Love. Lucier worked at Brandeis, directing the University Chamber Chorus there from 1962 to 1970. While dwarfed in scale by hippie meccas like Berkeley, Brandeis was nonetheless an important independent nexus of sorts for 1960s consciousness. Abraham Maslow taught there during the 1950s and 1960s, as did Herbert Marcuse, who served as a faculty member at Brandeis from 1954 to 1965. Future Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman studied there, too, under both Maslow and Marcuse. Through Lucier’s time capsule, one becomes entangled again in that scene.

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 Narrator, the Traveler, the Gay Wizard, and the Ghost

Our cast can be imagined as three parts of a single psyche, plus one.

The first three—imaginable, perhaps, in relation to categories like present, future, and past—nevertheless share time in a single home, like users sharing computing time on a mainframe.

Who, though, is the Ghost? The alleged “plus one.” Not quite mind-at-large, certainly. The whole person? The unifying soul? An author-function self-fashioned into being via hyperstition? That which presides in each?

***

“It might be helpful,” quips the Narrator, “to map these characters onto a Greimas square.”

“But my preference,” he adds, “is to do as Iris DeMent suggests, and let the mystery be.”

Back to the Future / By Way of Recursion

“Next on the block is ‘recursion,’” says the Narrator, “a concept discussed at length by philosophers Armen Avanessian, Pete Wolfendale, and Suhail Malik in Christopher Roth’s 2016 film Hyperstition.

“Recursion explains how the New enters existence,” says Avanessian. “Where reflexivity is a sequence of stacked meta-reflections, as in a pair of mirrors, recursion involves an integration of parts into a whole, changing in the process both the part and the whole.”

Roth employs cinema both recursively and dialectically. Parts of Hyperstition are thus able to speak to one another via montage in the style of Eisenstein, Vertov, and Godard.

So it is that Suhail Malik appears in the wake of Avanessian, arguing from the year 2026 that recursion is how those of us who code encounter time. “Recursion,” he states, “is what the operation of coding does when, meeting up against the inexorability of time, it tries to compensate for that inexorability and produce memory.”

HYPERSTITION from Christopher Roth on Vimeo.

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.

The Magic Circle

The Traveler claims to have departed the space-time of the dinner party by boarding a vehicle he built in his laboratory. The machine resembles a bicycle. By sitting upon it and manipulating a pair of levers, the Traveler observes his life-world transforming rapidly all around him, the whole flashing as in a sequence of motion studies projected onto a kind of spherical surround. It’s as if the Traveler has drawn around himself a magic circle, like the kind described by Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens and Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane. He sees land transformed over hundreds of thousands of years, while he himself sits safely (albeit uncomfortably), within the circle drawn by his machine, occupying a sphere of local, personal, existential time, divorced from the duration of the years passing around him.

Entry of the Ghost into the Narrative

The Ghost reminds me of me. There it is dancing alone in my apartment, singing “I want you to hold me,” as the Violent Femmes do on their song “American Music.” The Ghost thinks its lovers speak to it through the songs on its radio.

It sets forth each night assured of this, listening as one such lover follows “Gold Soundz” and “A Pillar of Salt” with “Lariat” and “Web in Front.” “If it means I get to hear you singing to me,” reasons the Ghost, “if it means our last words weren’t wasted, then so be it.”

Inspired by the aforementioned, Ghost decides on a whim to live well again. It comes and goes as it pleases amid the timestream of its ghosting, resolved in each instance to rip it up and start again.

Shady Lane

When I listen again to “Shady Lane,” ears like Adam’s on the morning of his creation, I hear Pavement songwriter Stephen Malkmus sounding not like himself, but like a persona worn by a faraway you. You, dear reader, eyes closed before a cascade of ivy. It’s you, there, singing of worlds colliding. You, of all people, whether with emery board or without, shouting “Freeze, don’t move” and “Glance, don’t stare,” looking at me and thinking me beautiful when I cry.

“Shady Lane — everybody needs one,” goes the chorus. And it’s true. For one can scarcely improve on such a place. And I had one: albeit, “once upon a time.” However timeworn the connotations of that beginning, however hackneyed it may sound, I shit you not.

“For a time I lived differently,” sings the Narrator,

“mind out of time

or in sidereal time

time immemorial

because measured by fixed stars

in a house on Shady Boulevard.”

Granted, it was a strange place, this house — one that left me with many questions. Who from the home’s past, for instance, mounted the cattle skull on the home’s exterior above the porch? Was that the handiwork of the Wizard or of one of his successors?

***

To arrive at an answer, let us report on ourselves in third-person.

The journey occurred, we report, during the period of the professor’s tenancy, in the home of the Gay Wizard. Recalling it now in retrospect, his spiel is, “It never occurred to me at the time that the place might have been haunted.”

“Yet this haunting,” he says, “if that’s what we’re to call it: I insist, here, that the spirits involved were benign.”

“A benevolent haunting! Fair enough,” nods the Narrator. “Tell us more.”

Utopia vs. 802,701 A.D.

The Traveler of my tale burns sage from Utopia, “a place ahead of its time,” unevenly distributed here in the present. ‘Tis other than 802,701 A.D., the place visited by the protagonist of H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine. Wells’s protagonist arrives to a future 800,000 years hence and makes a fool of himself. He imagines himself lost or damned. He blunders about; he curses, he cries. The only noble thing he does is rescue an Eloi woman from drowning — but he proceeds thereafter to treat her as one would a pet or a child. He imagines himself superior to the Eloi, and responds to the Morlocks with fear and contempt. After flicking matches around and starting a forest fire, he kills some Morlocks, regains control of his Time Machine, and hightails it back to the day on which he first set forth. My favorite touch is his vanishing at story’s end.

Repeating the Encounter

Time machines are devices that permit movement between two or more modes of production. Yet the consequences of this movement vary, dependent as they are upon the nature of the traveler. Wells’s traveler is rash, brutish, given to frenzies, where he bawls “like an angry child” (34). In his behavior toward the people of the future,

he repeats the Encounter

and takes the Other

for a fool.

Afterwards he reprimands himself, councils “Patience,” and tells himself, “Face this world. Learn its ways, watch it, be careful of too hasty guesses at its meaning. In the end you will find clues to it all” (37).