Orit Gat is the Managing Editor of WdW Review. Her writing appears regularly on Rhizome, where she is also the Features Editor, and has been published in a variety of magazines, including frieze, ArtReview, The White Review, Art-Agenda, and The Art Newspaper.
When Google announced the formation of a new umbrella company called Alphabet, a friend of mine said, “Alphabet Corporation. Amazing. Apparently we already live in a cyberpunk dystopia.” It’s funny because it’s true. We are so sensitive to futurist tendencies and terminologies because our culture has always been future-obsessed, from the pilgrimage to visit the Oracle of Delphi to futures trading, H.G. Wells to William Gibson. There’s the Internet archive and its “wayback machine,” a typeface called Avenir (designed 1988) and one entitled Futura (from 1927). The future is always present, which explains why the word back in Back to the Future is key: futurism is a phenomenon that we as a society tune in and out of periodically.
You can learn a lot about a culture—its past and present—from the way it imagines the future. We have been conditioned to see the future as the making of technology because the scientific race of the past few decades has made futurism ever more palpable. Remember Marty McFly’s self-lacing shoes? Nike is producing them. So many projections of technological advancements in the future assumed an object-specific tech field complete with hoverboards, moving walkways, and unexpected lab-made materials. But it is the advancement of data and information systems that has clearly been the most substantial. Compare Google as a web services company and the Google driverless car, which the company hopes to make available to the public in 2020. As amazing as a self-driving vehicle may be, we are not there yet. Information systems are a little less ripe for a wild sense of imagining the future, though in a way their physicality has given a face to systems of distribution, control, and privilege (consider the photos of the NSA facility in Utah that circulated following Edward Snowden’s leaks or the maps of submarine cables).
Technology is our zeitgeist and it dominates many contemporary images of the future. But so do architecture (think Gulf Futurism), environmental concerns (which provided the perfect background for many dystopian narratives), or military-political advancements and threats (when a disastrous future dystopia is not the result of global warming, it is often the aftermath of a world war). And art? Marinetti’s comment in the first Futurist Manifesto that “Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed” can now be replaced by a fascination with circulation. Speed exchanged by spread. What we can—and should—learn from art’s fascination with the future is an examination of the way it is represented. Such an analysis is often a study in bleakness, but also in the weird hopefulness and optimism that the human race cannot seem to shake about itself.
“You mean to say that that machine has travelled into the future?” said Filby.
“Into the future or the past—I don’t, for certain, know which.”
—H.G. Wells, The Time Machine
21 October 2015 was the day Marty McFly, Doc, and Jennifer Parker traveled to the future. Which begs the question: Are we already living in the future? And is it everything we had hoped it would be? This section of Sediments will examine some histories of the future but also ask whether or not there is a need for more futurist thinking, and if there is room for less tech-oriented imaginations of what is still to come.
We are, as Mark Fisher observes, experiencing a “Slow cancellation of the future,” the dismantlement of the world as we once imagined it. 1Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life (New York: Zone Books, 2013). Read an excerpt on The Quietus here. Life is now experienced at wildly different speeds, with the future happening in different places and at different times, as futurist Stewart Brand has argued. I am trying hard not to cite William Gibson’s much-used line that “the future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet,” since, as a friend once told me over dinner, the more times a quote is used in a talk or article, the less relevant or interesting it becomes. But perhaps our sense that it has worn out is just an acknowledgement that we have cemented his realization, and now we have to do something with it.
This is where art comes in. It allows us the luxury of being slow in the face of extreme, unbridled fastness. As I will explain later, it also allows us the power to press pause, and to have time away from this acceleration, providing richness to alternate visions of the future.
Tobias Revell’s short films, such as his three-part The Monopoly of Legitimate Use (2014), ask whose future we are aiming at, casting us into a near future to test our current anxieties around citizenship, connectivity, and labor. In the first part of Monopoly, titled “Blackspot,” a woman is forced to find an unmonitored network to read a personal, emotional e-mail, in a speculative society where all communications are subject to governmental scrutiny. Although the e-mail checked away from the prying eyes of the authorities and other people is only to confirm her pregnancy, the film shows the potential lengths that we will go to for privacy as industry and governmental bodies push for ubiquitous surveillance.
*Visual ReferenceTobias Revell, still from Blackspot (2014) *Visual ReferenceTobias Revell, still from Blackspot (2014) *Visual ReferenceTobias Revell, still from Blackspot (2014)
As a practice, the business of anticipating the future has developed an understanding of time that is varied and multifaceted, with horizons spanning seasons to centuries. In many ways, futures is the act of acknowledging uncertainty as it increases over time. Perhaps it is the act of acknowledging that the depth of what we are uncertain about becomes less understood as our horizons race away from us. If we are struggling to grasp what this potential, uncertain world, could be, the application, or weaponization, of slowness becomes an important act of sabotage and of radicalism.
I am in favor of the slow, of understanding the minutiae, the broken or the to-be-broken, and pulling apart the things that give them speed or force it upon them. Utopian visions of technology that will supposedly save us originate in a misunderstanding of speed, growth, or progress, not unlike running before we learn how to walk. When we look toward a home that is smart, and design it to help other parts of our life become more efficient, we forget about the myriad possibilities for frictions to occur. When we thought ahead to a connected fridge, we never imagined we could be locked out of it, both literally and technologically. The connected items we let into our houses are black boxes, where we see the data go in, and come out, but not the processes that lead to the result. This produces an opaque, closed system that we have no control over. As Jacob Hoffman-Andrews said, “There is not Internet of Things, only other people’s computers in your house.” In this future, our deviances, in all their human glory, are not accommodated, our capacity for unanticipated pleasure halted: a midnight snack denied by your smart fridge because you have already had your count of calories for the day. Now is not the correct time to be enjoy this, maybe tomorrow. The data collected silently slipping out of the door, into the hands of the who-knows-what. Our houses may cease to belong to us anymore, held ransom by falsely benevolent poltergeists.
Startup culture rushes toward the rapid, the quick-time-to-market, the “Don’t worry about the consequences, we’ll sort them out later.” There is never any time to sit long enough with the potential problems caused by technological solutions. The process of slowness as a necessary tool to analyze the future has been integrated into the work of cultural laboratory FoAM, based in Brussels and headed by Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney. Their work centers on experiential futures and their live-in concept of the ‘prehearsal’ model. A prehearsal is to try out an undefined near future by using play, resilience, and invention as means to tackle uncertainty. This way of literally experiencing a future, in real time, allows for you to see the possibilities for failure, and where new positives can be drawn. It is not that every problem will be surrendered in this process, but the practice of allowing yourself the space to know that they will arrive is invaluable. It is performance, but not as we know it.
In their latest essay on their practice, “Thriving in Uncertainty,” FoAM talk about the need for a “fallow period,” a regular, slow portion of time simultaneously passive and active, lying outside of normal modes of operation. This necessary interruption, drawn from agricultural practice, allows for cycles of “fertility, growth, and renewal.” It is a time where something other is done, but largely to explore away from the pressures of having to get it ‘right’: “Imagine explicitly creating space for open exploration without having a specific goal.” Seeing this as an experimental “working rhythm,” FoAM uses this fallow approach in their microtransiencies, a process meant for those undergoing a huge transition in their lives, be it illness, career change, or immigration. The studio asks participants to pause and actively engage with this transition, acknowledging their journey to the present, taking steps to prepare, learn, and heal ahead of potential uncertainties. This kind of thinking could be vitally useful when taking into consideration the rate at which innovation moves, particularly its inability to reflect (beyond reports, beyond huddles), slow down, and take stock of what is being damaged in the process, what ground is becoming infertile.
So where is art testing the future? As our technological systems leap toward a state of all-knowing, the algorithm has become a pervasive element in our daily lives, from the items we are recommended each time we log in to Amazon, to the functioning of our financial markets. The ubiquitous use and operations of algorithms is fast, overwhelming, and largely invisible to us until we see it break.
Erica Scourti’s algorithmic performances and video works enter into direct dialogue with the systems haunting our personal spheres, becoming a second, or even third voice. Think You Know Me (2015) is a live performance in which Scourti used iOS’s predictive text suggestions to create an auto-generated spoken-word performance, with the results unedited and the choice between the three words selected, instinctively, by the artist. Listening, the viewer would catch something, strings of words that work hard to form the bare bones of a sentence, but it is mostly ungrammatical nonsense. The words presented, however, although largely abstract, are deeply personal and unique, with Scourti’s months of communication dictating the words eventually favored by the predictive algorithm. So although led entirely by algorithmic choices, with a dataset that is far from the illusion of ‘neutrality’ or objectivity that these systems feign to provide, there is a shadow of a person there. As our future is buttressed by these all-encompassing systems, Scourti’s serendipitous explorations reveal innovation’s vast strides toward a machine-readable world, and where it fragments. Showing, rather than telling; a red flag.
*Visual ReferenceErica Scourti, screenshot from live performance Think You Know Me at La Panacee, Montpellier (2015) *Visual ReferenceErica Scourti, screenshot from live performance Think You Know Me at La Panacee, Montpellier (2015) *Visual ReferenceErica Scourti, screenshot from live performance Think You Know Me at La Panacee, Montpellier (2015)
In the same vein, Matthew Plummer-Fernandez’s Novice Art Blogger (2014) uses machine-learning algorithms to review the art that is fed into it as a value. At times comic, and childishly naïve in its interrogation of art history, it pulls a wiry strand from a utopian vision of a future where intellectual labor, or creative translation, is handed over to automation. Although, like Scourti’s work, Novice Art Blogger is not explicitly about the future, in that it does not speculate on any particular potential vision, it draws our attention to the world as it could be. It slows us down enough to see beyond the humor we get from its analysis (because the bot is not trying to be funny, it would not know that it is being so), allowing us to renew our assumptions of these technologies, both now and in the future. In this way, both Plummer-Fernandez’s and Scourti’s work demonstrate a form of fallow period, a pause to let the ground that has been farmed by these systems (us, perhaps) become fertile again after it has been trampled on. Creative detours, as FoAM encourages, enable us to come back with fresh eyes to look at the worlds we are faced with. They break this process not to slow it down, but to show us where these systems are shaping us, our behaviors, and our culture, allowing us a chance at agency within an apparatus that is utterly confounding and opaque.
*Visual ReferenceMatthew Plummer-Fernandez, from Novice Art Blogger (2014 - ongoing)*Visual ReferenceMatthew Plummer-Fernandez, from Novice Art Blogger (2014 - ongoing) *Visual ReferenceMatthew Plummer-Fernandez, from Novice Art Blogger (2014 - ongoing)
So why do futures and foresight need art, aside from the important quantitative and qualitative analysis, aside from the trend reports and near-future scenarios? Because art is a necessary mode of survival.
The band 65daysofstatic, in their response to the British government’s use of cultural whitewashing during austerity, aptly said, “the world is ending. We’re gonna need some imaginative minds to be able to think our way out of extinction.” Building futures as we go, with the fire-blindly approach that Silicon Valley has adopted as default, damages more than it helps in its bland, one-size-fits-all jump to progress.
New mythologies are being written and summoned into reality through the dense, unforgiving tide of innovation, within Microsoft’s Product Visions videos, endless Kickstarter campaigns, and utopian advertising, telling us the future we should have, could have, if we let the flood of innovation happen uninterrupted and uncontested. As mentioned earlier, these ghosts, better known as undisclosed and potentially destructive actors borne from systems that we do not truly understand, can occur and suddenly make life enormously difficult for those that its creators often did not know would exist. From the smart fridge which denies you access against your will, to the decontextualized processing of our culture and communications by algorithms, acknowledging where these breakages place us in this wider system often requires slowing down enough to see them. So, as in physics, friction needs to be forced.
Now is the time to find new methods of delivering resistance into these innovation narratives, learning from those already using the unbundled mess of the future as material. Fictions are being willed into being, with idealized user-testing cases justifying the technologies that we ultimately come up against without hesitating to suppose what horror stories they could tell. These dumb and vastly simplified straw dummies, free from the messiness of life beyond Silicon Valley’s castle walls, become real once the will (or the capital) becomes strong enough, creating new, and evermore terrifying cautionary tales. As these imagined near-future fictions progress, counter-narratives and necessary frictions are needed to knock them off course. Threads need to come undone.
Stefan Keidel is German software engineer, developer, and researcher currently based out of New York. He is fluent in various scripting and programming languages and interested in research on digital rights, statistics, data science, and security. In his day job he makes cataloguing software for museums, archives, and libraries.
Julia Weist lives and works in New York. Recent exhibitions include Know Yourself (The Luminary, St. Louis), Art in the Age of…Planetary Computation (Witte de With), and a solo exhibition, Parbunkells, at 83 Pitt Street (New York). In 2016 Weist was awarded the Net Based Audience Prize by Haus Der Elektronischen Künste, Basel, Switzerland
We decided to create a mathematical model that would allow us to analyze the popularity of imagined futures, a tool that could use narrative to predict how strongly an audience might want to ‘live’ various articulated realities. We wanted to write a movie synopsis for a hypothetical film about the future of the internet, based on our own trend forecasting, and determine if it would be a success at the box office. Could such a project use our relationship to film to measure widely held anxieties and aspirations about technology?
Algorithmic analysis of preproduction cinema is not a new concept: Hollywood has embraced various predictive frameworks to mitigate the huge risk of big-budget pictures. There are algorithms that process screenplays and assess advertising strategies, word-of-mouth outcomes, and audience ratings. There are models that can be used for casting and to evaluate the return on investment for celebrity salaries, and human-centered frameworks that use mathematical market testing.
What there is less of, perhaps because it is a less exact science, is concept prediction. Evaluating a film based solely on its tombstone metadata—plot overview, tagline, keywords, genre—builds in too many assumptions to be truly useful for investment analysis. As a framework it excludes many powerful factors, including but not limited to: budget, built-in audience, franchising, marketing reach, visual quality, and spectacle. There is still value, though, in thinking of the blockbuster status a metaphor for broad interest and appeal. If you strip away any notion of quality, scale, and existing audience, what box-office hits have in common is a high-interest concept. Even films adapted from books and comics follow this logic. In fact, with these films popularity begins with concept. For these reasons, and because of our interest in evaluating possible internet futures, we put our focus on plot when we built our model.
The toolset was raw metadata, provided by IMDB, but the first step, before we built a database, adjusted for inflation, and corrected for outliers, was to write a plot. Our vision for the future of the internet was dark, but campy. The synopsis was:
The framework we built is filled with assumptions. The biggest is also the most basic: we presume that there is a relationship between ticket sales and the characteristics of a film. Our theory was that individual components, taken alone and together, make an impact on the earning potential of a movie. Certain aspects of this premise are most certainly true. Genre is a strong indicator of total take. Adventure and animation absolutely dominate ($127,772,892 and $125,248,753 mean box-office takes, respectively), and fantasy and sci-fi are not far behind. Good news for our film. Comparatively, romance ($32,953,850) and comedy ($38,440,514) are not all that powerful as blockbuster genres. Keywords tell a similar story. If you are given a choice between bare breasts and a hologram… choose the hologram:
mean box office
Technology is a powerful keyword: “high-tech” is number four overall by mean.
So how did we evaluate our future for the future of the Internet? We built a support vector machine that was engineered and subsequently trained to predict the likelihood of the key term “box-office hit.” For the uninitiated among us, this is a math machine, not a real one.
Each word in the film concept synopsis was assigned a weight, one that either positively or negatively impacted the outcome for success. These weights are based on past performance of plots that contain the corresponding word. Here is a simplified version of how we got there: if xn is the list of words in the N-th plot summary and yn is the known outcome from the IMDB data (1 or 0, success or not), we are looking to minimize training error plus complexity term 2See: Jason Weston, “Support Vector Machine (and Statistical Learning Theory)” (PDF tutorial, NEC Labs America, Princeton), http://www.cs.columbia.edu/~kathy/cs4701/documents/jason_svm_tutorial.pdf:
When the problem is solved, W is a list of weights for all words used in past plot summaries. We can then use it to predict if our summary would be a box-office hit or not. The model also used tf-idf, or term frequency-inverse document frequency, which prevented the disproportionate weighting of commonly used words like “the” or “and.” The model was adapted from a SMS spam detection framework.
Despite the imprecise nature of our narrative-financial construct in general, the model we built has a 94 percent precision rate for non-blockbusters and a 90 percent precision rate for blockbusters, a metric we were able to determine through repeated training and cross validation within the IMDB data set. Overall, our classifier determined that our plot was very much not a blockbuster. To get a sense of how close we were, we also had the support vector machine train a posterior probability model, a function which, for a given piece of new data and each possible outcome (“box-office hit” or not, 1 or 0) gave us a percentage that approximates the chance the data being in the corresponding class. Our plot only had a 20 percent chance of being a hit.
So which words in the internet future synopsis were helping and which were hurting the likelihood for success? Our most successful terms had to do with power, enforcement, and business: leading (+0.82), leader (+0.71), global (+0.50), billion (+0.37), justice (+0.32), corporation (+0.30), and compliant (+0.21). Among the least successful were terms related to the mundane aspects of technology use—“low-tech” words associated with daily tasks and behaviors: search (-0.77), user (-0.40), web (-0.34), profile (-0.28). This is in sharp contrast to the proven success of the “high-tech” keyword in general. Advertising was also a losing concept, with negative to neutral impact across the associated words.
In addition to the matrix for our specific synopsis, we generated an overall analysis that revealed the highest and lowest weighted words from across all plots in the dataset. Using the positive and negative trends visible in the matrix, we optimized the concept by modeling new ideas around high-impact words. Overall we sought to associate technology more with complexity and mystery, and less with knowable and scalable features. We also increased the imbalance in power, as that was the most successful aspect of our first concept.
In 2020, XYZ Corporation is the global leader in internet communication and Lucy McGovern is the powerful figurehead behind the company’s board. As leader of the California mega-company, McGovern has pursued exceedingly radical approaches and has enjoyed gigantic profit margins. When XYZ secretly summons leaders of industry, politics, and entertainment to San Francisco, buzz builds quietly that the corporation is developing a technology illuminati. To those in attendance McGovern reveals “Person of the Day,” a trial project in which one daily internet user was subjected to subtle infrastructure manipulations in XYZ products, designed to instill and foster unconscious bias. Over the course of a year, XYZ was able to alter the buying, voting, and viewing habits of each POD, toward a manufactured—and legally compliant—outcome. The members of the assembled partnership clamber to bid millions for access to the new tools, but others, the Resistance, see a dark cost to humanity. As they struggle to assemble and leak information, they find themselves faced with a life-or-death struggle for survival at the hands of those who want to keep “Person of the Day” a well-kept secret.
The optimized plot was markedly more successful. Whereas the first synopsis received a 20 percent probability from the model, the second came in at 93 percent. In our optimized plot we sought to exaggerate mystery and power, but the new synopsis also felt more categorically futuristic (perhaps because we deliberately reduced references to pedantic features of the known web). In mathematical terms, this was just a hunch, but it was technically possible to measure contemporaneity, so we built a small offshoot from our model.
We indexed the earliest film for which each synopsis word was used within the IMDB dataset. Then, we averaged these first occurrences (by the film’s production year), to determine which plot contained newer words, at least in terms of IMDB usage. Our theory turned out to be sound: the text of the second plot was on average about four years younger than the first.
Not only had we made our future more successful but, as it turned out, we had also made it more futuristic.
Evan Calder Williams is a writer, theorist, and artist. His next book, Shard Cinema, is forthcoming from Repeater Books, and he is a founding member of Thirteen Black Cats, a research and production collective for moving images. He teaches theory and history at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.
While theorists theorise, the volcano remains active, smoke and ashes refuse to disappear.
—Reece Auguiste 3Reece Auguiste, “Handsworth Songs: Some Background Notes,” in The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective, 1982–1998, eds. Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 157.
In 1833, French caricaturist Auguste Desperret drew revolution as a mountain blowing its vaguely Etna top, with the word “LIBERTÉ” hanging vertically in the explosion like a hotel sign on fire. That abstract notion aside, though, the context is specific: not generic revolt but a freeze-frame capture of, according to its caption, the “third eruption of the volcano of 1789, to take place before the end of the world, which will shake all thrones, and overturn a horde of monarchies.” 4The image and its details can be found here: “Saturday Volcano Art: Auguste Desperret, ‘Troisième éruption du volcan de 1789’ (1833),” The Volcanism Blog, 5 September 2009, https://volcanism.wordpress.com/2009/09/05/saturday-volcano-art-auguste-desperret-troisieme-eruption-du-volcan-de-1789-1833/ (accessed 19 July 2016). But even without that explanatory note, the image gives clues to parse at least two of its three moments of insurgence, as the ruined chateau is labeled 1789 (the first year of the French Revolution) and the mid-air rocks 1830 (the year of the July Revolution), turning its single depicted moment of geological surge into a chance to track backward through a set of past upheavals still littering the ground and filling the sky. But as with most hyper-allegorical images—the kind so nervous about misinterpretation that they make sure to label every part—any attempt to look closer and make sense of just what stands in for what tips the image into weirder territory. For instance, in terms of the source of the revolt, there is both an image of seething social dissent (the volcano itself as an icon of bottled-up antagonism) and actual humans standing on its slopes, waving little flags, and being generically revolutionary. The soaring/burning liberty at stake is, we assume, human, but the drawing at least gives hints that the forces impelling it may not quite be. When that third revolution comes, it is hard to say just who will be surfing the red wave, let alone what kind of control, if any, those cheering it on will have over the process. 5For Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, writing his bright shards of thought during the years up to and including the French Revolution (gathered posthumously as the Waste Books), the volcano comes to explicitly mark both the limits of human capacity to organize the world and the dangers of a possible disconnect between the ability to do so and an understanding of how to control it: “We cannot establish volcanoes; we lack the power, and if we had the power, we would still lack the understanding to put it in obedient operation.” From Lichtenberg’s Waste Books, quoted in: Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), 425–26.
It is this specific sense of not only a long-awaited eruption but also its uncontrollable, inhuman force that comes to especially shape the volcano as a recurrent figure of insurgence in the past two centuries, whether in framings of decolonization 6As in Samira Kawash’s reading of Fanon: “the absolute violence of decolonization is outside agency or representation; rather, it interrupts and erupts into history and wrests history open to the possibility of a justice radically foreclosed by the colonial order of reality.” Samira Kawash, “Terrorists and Vampires: Fanon’s Spectral Violence of Decolonization,” in Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives, ed. Anthony C. Alessandrini (New York: Routledge, 1996), 238. or right-wing and fascist conceptions. 7Take Nazi-to-be Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz’s description of the consequences of World War I: “[t]he war had blown the lid off the volcano of the old, encrusted values. All the peoples of the earth had been thrown into the crucible of a great conflagration.” Quoted in: Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, Volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987)..Theweleit’s undervalued two-volume study is extremely incisive about the figural hydraulics and thermodynamics of a political imaginary, especially that linked to classical fascism. On the image of eruption, setting, and boiling, he writes, “[it] is the war, the different states of the republic, but above all the civil war, the revolution, that is manifested in the image of a gigantic process of boiling and liquefaction. The times are hanging over the fire (as a pot, a kettle, a massive kettle, a witch’s cauldron, a greasy cauldron, the boilers of the metropolis, the crucible of a great conflagration). With the heat of a thousand blast furnaces, that fire is causing the old order, the old people, the entire world, to bubble, boil, foam, and melt” (Male Fantasies, Volume 1, 238). On a related note, Sigmund Freud called the id “a cauldron full of seething excitations.” It still circulates today: in the film Pompeii (2011), for instance, the all-CGI consumption of the titular city serves as a breathtakingly literal way to mark the breakdown of social order (and hence provide occasion to pet ripped abs across class lines), while last fall, Ted Cruz vowed that he would be propelled into office by nothing less than the “volcanic rage” of conservative voters. (Obviously, some volcanoes do not blow the way their handlers hope.) But this recurrent sense of untethered dynamic force misses out on a perhaps more compelling element of the volcano trope: its contradictory sense of time, accumulation, and futurity, the last especially present in Desperret’s drawing. Because in its depicted time span, that third eruption—the one happening front and center—lacks a date. Not only is it yet to come at the time of drawing, it is not even specifically predicted, simply arriving “before the end of the world” yet seemingly contributing to that same end, “shaking all thrones” and tearing society apart. In this way, it takes those two historically specific past occasions and links them to the future revolt not through a shared cause but through a messianic sequence whose only explanation is the very same explosion that cannot help but draw our eyes and that, when questioned, simply repeats “LIBERTé” ad infinitum like an NRA chatbot.
It is exactly this kind of focus on the more spectacular moments of revolt that C.L.R. James argues against at the start and heart of one of the most important revolutionary histories we have, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. There, the volcano makes yet another appearance:
In a revolution, when the ceaseless slow accumulation of centuries bursts into volcanic eruption, the meteoric flares and flights above are a meaningless chaos and lend themselves to infinite caprice and romanticism unless the observer sees them always as projections of the sub-soil from which they came. The writer has sought not only to analyse, but to demonstrate in their movement, the economic forces of the age; their moulding of society and politics, of men in the mass and individual men; the powerful reaction of these on their environment at one of those rare moments when society is at boiling point and therefore fluid. 8C.L.R. James, preface to the first edition of The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), x–xi.
James’s warning, to not mistake a screaming across the sky for the deep forces that punted it up there, remains necessary today, especially in how it urges us to scratch hard at the surface of triumphal images that too easily let explosive moments themselves stand in for any sense of how they came to happen. Yet there is another point lurking here. Namely, that the work of writing history lies both in marking what happens below and in reading across that passage from cause to phenomena to see what and who else is excluded from registering in the tableau—and not because it is hidden deep in that subsoil. A single example: as broad as the scope of James’s history is, we can still note that in its range from “men in the mass” to “individual men,” it is still men, a gendering that cannot be passed off as just a bad lexical choice. No, it designates the scope of the history to be written and its conception of how a revolt unfolds. And it is telling that what James pointedly “demonstrate[s] in their movement” are “economic forces,” because he shares that basic architectural schema of necessary foundation and optional addition at work in the model of base and superstructure that long held sway for Marxist historians. Because if one question is how to explain that moment of eruption through its invisible “ceaseless slow accumulation,” it is joined by a second one that would require letting our gaze hang amid the seeming banalities of the scene interrupted by the boom: What are the ways that the remembered and seen, rather than the deep and structural, can be naturalized to the point that they are no longer visible as factors? 9This is a problem that bears on what often gets called “the militant image” and its too-infrequently questioned parameters. See my visual essay: “Seven Gestures of Revolt,” Europe, future past website (2016), http://europafuturoanterior.com/en/interventions/ (accessed 19 July 2016). In other words, what happened to what soared up before? That whole past sight of the future breaking free—where on earth did it come back down to?
These questions mark one of the fundamental doubts I have about future orientation and, more specifically, the way that a futural politics of the event—i.e., the marked encounter that would signify now, now we have made the step—too often excludes necessary attention toward at least two other directions. First, toward asking who and what constitutes the units of history that would signify and demarcate a future, as opposed to a continued present. And second, toward a full grasp of the hidden structures and networks of force that work on us as “individuals” and “in the mass,” that both let us go on and curse us to do so, though never all in the same way. Furio Jesi remarks that:
What really matters about the past is what we cannot remember. The rest, what memory conserves or retrieves, is mere sediment. A part of time has really become part, like a digested nutrient, of the living organism; it continues to be past, but it is only the true living past and it lives in the brain and the blood, ignored by memory. 10Furio Jesi, Spartakus: The Symbology of Revolt, trans. Alberto Toscano (London and New York: Seagull Books, 2014).
To say that what cannot be remembered is what “really matters about the past” is also to say that it constitutes the restrictions and expanded infrastructure of the present, that it recedes from visibility not by vanishing or becoming an image, but instead by forming part of the essential conditions of what is. It marks both the naturalization of the past—the eventless process where sediment is compacted into ground—and its continual renewal in the present, like the ongoing reactivation through live work of past labor crystallized in productive materials. In this double move, what cannot be remembered annuls the variability of the future, reducing it to a slow drift of that “living past” that moves unnoticed among the brighter flares of imagination, whether insurrections or architectures.
In this sense, I have come to think that the question of the future should itself be reversed. Rather than taking our bearings for critique, in all its forms, from what could be, perhaps a more incisive angle comes from starting with another question: What cannot be? What blocks the future? What prevents it from being any more or less than that ceaseless iteration of the already lived, the cancelled horizon never promised to start? To “imagine the future,” as we are often enjoined to do from all fronts, would in this sense start exactly with the limits of that imagination, neither to castigate for being unable to adequately imagine “another world” nor to envision the proverbial Promethean leap beyond. It would start there, in the impasses of thinking, to detect in them the real forces and strictures to which they correspond. Because too often, future thinking oscillates between rigid poles of destruction or construction that have come to form the terrain of a largely inane opposition. The former is typically dismissive of what lacks the visible verve of what we think looks assuredly ruptural, tending to demand that things look militant, in accord with what has slowly condensed into that given image of militancy and all the blind spots that entails. The latter conversely insists that what does not dream rationally of global planning is either misguided “folk political” localism, as if one could not have an extremely clear understanding of the way that global flows necessarily route through the very particular, very local, and often eminently fragile, or that any focus on the negation of inherited structures is a romanticist dead-end that cannot think beyond its moments of jubilant chaos.
But the fact remains that the predominant social forms that work both on and through us are not just the ones that any substantively different future must undo. They are themselves also forms of structuring a mode of futurity such that it remains endlessly entangled with, and in thrall to, a past that vanishes into present functionality and disorder alike. Consider the daily renewed legacy of racism, which in the United States so constitutes the base parameters of American society that for those who are not constantly reminded of its surveillance, imposed shame, and lethality, it can be envisioned as simply part of the country’s checkered past, a “mere sediment,” however tragic. Or the absolute centrality of debt to the contemporary world system, which is, for Maurizio Lazzarato, the “principal explanation for the strange sensation of living in a society without time, without possibility, without foreseeable rupture.” 11Maurizzio Lazzarato, Making of Indebted Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 47 Or the binding of the very notion of a future promise to model of heteronormative reproduction and the enormous biotechnical circuits supporting it. Or the dual structure of the refugee camp and the prison, two forms of locating those who societies refuse to secure a place in a future it would deem adequately productive. Or the normalized fact of permanent pollution, which marks the quite literal inexorability of past waste within trend lines of coming years. Or the structure of ongoing colonial enterprises, which still follow the model of temporality Ranajit Guha detected, wherein the brute fact of conquest is subtended by a project of narrativization, the “ruse of a colonialist writing” installing “the datability of a relatively minor conflict to foretell the conquest of an entire subcontinent.” 12Ranajit Guha, “A Conquest Foretold,” Social Text 54 (Spring, 1998): 89.
All of which is to say: to envision the future in a way that is not ultimately complicit with the conditions that constitute the present, and make it so necessary to severely alter, may involve far less of the future than we have tended to think, no matter the quantity of hoverboards. I do not consider this a miserabilism or failure to dream big. It is a recognition that nothing clearly marks a passage into the future without undoing the forms that bind lives, materials, and systems, in variably punitive ways, to a mode of time designed around the continuity of the present. In this way, by future, we may well mean just that sensation of coming unstuck in and from the present.
Writing the final work of his life, Viktor Shklovsky—arguably the most committed thinker about defamiliarization as a cultural technique—returned to his favorite theme one last time: “Ostranenie is the sensation of surprise felt toward the world, a perception of the world with a strained sensitivity. The term can be established only by including the notion of ‘the world’ in its meaning. This term simultaneously assumes the existence of a so-called content, supposing that content as the delayed, close examination of the world.” 13Viktor Shklovsky, Bowstring: On the Similarity of the Similar, trans. Shushan Avagayan (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011), 283.
Returning to our volcano, if it was ever ours to start with, I think we can see in it not only a picture of excessive, vague focus on the visibly insurgent—a cautionary tale of how not to look, according to James—but also this sense of surprise that Shklovsky notes, that quiet shock of the present having turned before, with, or against us. It is that felt distance, this sense of being both in the scene and not, of surging with yet standing on the volcano, that requires a strange split where the meaning of a world has to be held alongside a notion of the world, both the substance and the picture. 14A longer argument than can be made here, but I think it important to note how this idea of defamiliarization might appear far from Shklovsky’s readings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and might open up very different historical legacies. For instance, in situating the particular method of her research into American slavery and its endlessly renewed aftermath, Saidiya V. Hartman notes her refusal to focus on instances of the most visible violence and subjection that normally constitute the bulk of even critical accounts of slavery: “[b]y defamiliarizing the familiar, I hope to illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle.” If the process of articulating a future means to confront and negate not just the aftermath of those modes of social control and humiliation that Hartman attends to but also their perpetual renewal, then both this process of defamiliarization and the attention to what seems mundane and quotidian—to what does not register as event, as political—seems as crucial today as it ever was. Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1997), 4. In that way, perhaps what is ultimately better meant by the future is a distinct mode of visibility, one that concerns our relation to the long given and the continually naturalized. The future does not mark the discrete moment of change itself, that sharp breath’s pull of sudden transformation or novelty, but that point of disjuncture where the present begins to appear as past—and where lines can be drawn to imagine what it would take to make such a moment stick, to undo the structures that keep the present alive and unwell.
This is the other timescale of the volcano, which, after all, never just signifies the event of eruption. It also marks the process by which the ground is transformed, where we come to stand and walk and picnic and fight on rock that once dropped from the sky. Because every attempt at engineering the future, whether riotous or rational, contributes to the sedimentation of the present, laying the lines of our maps and forming the crust to get broken and accumulated anew, over and over again. That is neither a reason for or against such attempts. But it is the condition of how they both derive from and remake the terms of daily experience. On such a terrain, the future is felt as time’s sick sway, the sky both is and is not full of ground, and we swerve in place, ready to rumble.
Patrick Langley is a writer and critic who lives in London.
The final track on the CD version of Harnessed The Storm, the penultimate album by the techno and electro group Drexciya, is called “Birth of new life.” It is a poignant title: in September 2002, eight months after the album was released, James Marcel Stinson—one half of the group, alongside his collaborator Gerald Donald, and regarded by Drexciya aficionados as its driving force—died of a heart condition in Newnan, Georgia. Stinson was aware that his time was limited. He headed south from his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, to the more temperate climate of Newnan in a bid to improve his health, and instructed his various record labels to continue to release his final albums (or “storms,” as he referred to them) after he died. Many of Drexciya’s tracks, especially those that date from their earliest releases, are relentless dance-floor workouts built around rapid Roland 808 drum machine patterns and metallic-sounding bass lines. “Birth of new life,” by contrast, sits at the sweeter end of the group’s sonic spectrum, with its meandering melody, pulsing kick drum, and woozy compositional structure. Significantly, however, the song is in a minor key, padded out with funereal organ chords that undercut the optimism of its title.
In late 2002, Underground Resistance, the Detroit-based group and record label with which Drexciya were closely affiliated, and who released several of their EPs, issued a gnomic press release in which they mourned Stinson’s passing: “Negative evolution cycle completed. Now in sonic infinitum mode.” The idea of a rebirth or renewal occasioned by death is more than just an affirmation of posterity; it is integral to understanding the mythology that Drexciya explored across the three albums, thirteen EPs, and one compilation they released in the decade prior to the completion of Stinson’s “negative evolution cycle.” (A number of releases have emerged since 2002, most notably the Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller compilations on Clone Records.) Regeneration, evolution, and spiritual migration furnished the group with their most potent metaphors, tying together the disparate elements of the intricate science-fictional world they created, and connecting it to the struggle for black emancipation in America.
*Visual ReferenceLogo of Drexciya, taken from the Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller Series
At the heart of Drexciya’s mythology was a futuristic city on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, a body of water that geographically separates, yet historically connects, Africa and America. Here, the Drexciyans—a highly sophisticated and militarized race descended from drowned African slaves—develop “magnetron” technology, build structures from “hydro cubes,” use “cruisers” to sweep down “aquabahns,” and, in their final album, establish a new colony beyond the stars. Populated by sea snakes, mutant gillmen, and the mysterious Dr Blowfin, Drexciya’s discography provides the kind of immersive experience found in literature, box-set television, prog-rock concept albums, and the like, though less frequently in electronic dance music, which typically eschews lyrical complexity in favor of hypnotic, propulsive, dance floor-oriented beats.
As the artist and music critic Kodwo Eshun has argued, however, Drexciya’s output is propositional: each of their tracks, logos, album covers, track titles, and vinyl stickers “functions as a component in an electronic mythology the listener assembles.” 15Eshun is here describing the group’s evocative song titles, which refer to the architecture (“Bubble Metropolis,” “Draining of the Tanks”), topography (“Red Hills of Lardossa,” “Andreaen Sand Dunes”), technology (“Oxyplasmic Gyration Beam”), and people (“Darthouven Fish Men”) of the Drexciyan world-system. Kodwo Eshun, “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism,” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 2 (2003): 287–302. He does not mean to posit Drexciya as the conceptual equivalent of flat-pack furniture, rather to underscore the fact that the listener is not passive. I have spent a lot of time immersed in Drexciya, heavily influenced, no doubt, by the elaborate concept art that accompanied each release, tying their music to a consistently outlandish visual identity. In my mind, it is a menacing yet liberating place: a drowned landscape of abyssal trenches, jagged peaks, and coral reefs where masked mutants flit through the shadows as strange technology crackles and hums. The Drexciyan world seems so flexible and open-ended to me precisely because it is not prescriptive, or strictly underpinned by linear narrative, but rather offers a number of sonic environments that I can, for a few minutes, imaginatively inhabit.
In the myth of Atlantis, first mentioned in Plato’s dialogues Timaeus and Critias, the city is submerged beneath the Atlantic as divine punishment for a failed attempt to invade Athens. In Drexciya’s mythology, this insurrectionary arc is reversed: the underwater city becomes (via the Bermuda Triangle, as outlined in their 1994 EP Aquatic Invasion) the base for “stingray and barracuda” attacks against the “programmer strongholds” on mainland America—the contemporary equivalent, one might argue, of the Delian League. These Drexciyan attacks are figurations of empowerment: a submerged, suppressed populace rising up from the depths; a nation of discarded bodies—the children of murdered mothers—evolving underwater, gaining military power, and, when the time is ripe, vengefully ascending to reclaim the land.
The paramilitary overtones of Drexciya’s imagery is not mere escapist machismo. Among the black population of America there was (still is) a deep anxiety about the need to defend oneself in opposition to a country that has proven itself historically and systemically hostile—at times murderously so—to black people. Drexciya’s logo depicts a masked soldier leaping forward with a harpoon in his hand, his muscular legs sheathed in curved, fin-like blades, his head protected and anonymized by a diving helmet. The figure’s armored uniform may look like the aquatic equivalent of a Star Wars storm trooper, yet importantly, perhaps deliberately, it also evokes the all-black, openly armed, ready-for-combat uniform worn by members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, formed in Oakland, California, in 1966, to militantly defend minority communities and foment revolutionary Socialism.
Unlike the Panthers, Drexciya did not advocate for the open carrying of firearms, organize rallies, lead armed patrols of black neighborhoods, or earn the dubious privilege of being described by J. Edgar Hoover as “the greatest threat to the internal security of [America]”: Drexciya were musicians, not activists. Their music can, however, be understood in terms of what poet and theorist Fred Moten has called the “reordering of aesthetic space” that “marks and makes possible” resistance to, or disruption of, established racial, economic, and political orders. For Moten, black popular music is a kind of utopian domain “whose essence is an ongoing call for the production of New Space, of a new world, by holding—which is to say suspending, embracing—time.” 16Fred Moten, In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 225. The idea that the temporal space of a popular song momentarily embodies, in sonic form, the possibility of revolution is certainly romantic, yet it explains a deep tradition in black vernacular culture in which present-day yearnings are articulated in the form of alternative futures.
The term “Afrofuturism” derives from “Black to the Future,” a 1993 essay by the author and cultural theorist Mark Dery in which he argues that “African Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare”—as opposed to participating in the American Dream, that is. Afrofuturism emerged as a dominant black-vernacular mode of expression between the late 1950s and the 1990s; its context is the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, Rodney King, and the Detroit Riots of 1943 and 1967. Some examples of the Afrofuturist genre—or perhaps ‘movement’—include Sun Ra’s (disarmingly poker-faced) claim to be an alien from Saturn; the novels of Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler; Parliament’s 1975 album Mothership Connection, which features on its front cover a kind of glam-funk, extra-terrestrial pimp cruising through the cosmos in a silver UFO; the “Jupiter jazz,” “final frontiers,” and “interstellar fugitives” of Underground Resistance’s minimalist techno; and the “techno cities” of Juan Atkins and Richard Davis’s Detroit electro group Cybotron. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in his 2014 Atlanticessay “The Case for Reparations,” “the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets [for exploitation] remained deeply rooted in the broader society” in the wake of slavery. Afrofuturist fantasies of interstellar diasporas and speculative future worlds stood in stark contrast to—and offered an imaginary liberation from—the economic and social realities of life for black people in America. Talk of aliens illustrated present-day alienation.
*Visual ReferenceCover of the Parliament album Mothership Connection (1975) Casablanca Records.
Drexciya’s alter-destiny is remarkably rich and detailed, but it was, importantly, far from unprecedented. In a 1994 interview for Wired magazine, Atkins—Cybotron were a formative influence on Drexciya’s music—was asked how Detroit Techno differed from Chicago House. He answered in philosophical, rather than musical, terms. “It’s always been about insight and forward thinking,” he said. “It goes as far as the science fiction I was into early on and the class I took in high school called ‘Future Studies.’ One of the textbooks I had to read was Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock.” 17Interview with Dan Sicko in Wired, no. 2.07 (July 1994). In fact The Third Wave, Toffler’s 1980 follow-up to Future Shock, is most often cited as the origin of the term “techno.” In the book, Toffler argues that we are entering a new, information-centric age (“third” because it follows on from the agrarian and the industrial) precipitated by the collapse of second-wave economies built upon the mass production and consumption of physical goods.
Nowhere has this collapse been more painfully felt than in Detroit, the ‘Motor City’ brought to its knees by the decline of the ‘Big Three’ car companies (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler); the rise of automated assembly-line production, which took thousands of blue-collar workers’ jobs; and the supply-side Reaganomics of the 1980s, which hastened the decline of the city’s industrial base. In 1987, Robocop was released. It depicted Detroit as a blighted, post-industrial wasteland torn apart by rampant criminality—an image that continues to define it, both in America and abroad. Between 1970 and 1990, Detroit’s population shrank by 483,508 (or 32 percent). 18The decline continues. A 2009 op-ed on Detroit in The New York Times was titled “An American Catastrophe.” In 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy. Most of this was a result of so-called white flight: the departure of the (predominantly middle-class) white population from inner-city neighborhoods.
But for Stinson, Detroit was “not a dark, gloomy place,” and never had been. “There’s a lot of sunshine and a lot of happiness,” he remarked in one of the few (and always anonymous) interviews he gave. “The people have this thing about making something out of nothing, especially when times are hard, and they know how to have fun.” Growing up in the early 1980s, Stinson used to cycle around Detroit with a portable radio and listen to the local DJ Charles Johnson, a.k.a. The Electrifying Mojo. At the time, Detroit’s airwaves were alive with funk, R&B, and disco—the kind of music Stinson’s parents might have danced to in the city’s music theaters and blind-pig bars. Johnson’s show, by contrast, drew on a more avant-garde, even futuristic palate of sounds: Prince, Genesis, Kraftwerk, Parliament, and Human League, as well as, most significantly, the techno and electro that began to emerge from the city during Reagan’s early years in office. Johnson’s sets ritually opened with an uproarious sonic montage called “The Landing of the Mothership,” in which he describes his descent from outer space to Planet Earth. (He took the idea from Parliament’s Mothership Connection.) As if to illustrate the civic significance of his broadcasts, Johnson co-opted Detroit mayor Coleman Young to deliver the opening lines for one of his shows.
The decline of factory capitalism gave rise to other modes of production. For Toffler, the vanguards of the postindustrial era are the “Techno Rebels”—a more contemporary if less glamorous term would be “early adopters”—who embrace the emergence of new, cheaper, and more widely available technology. For example, MIDI sequencers, Roland’s 808 and 909 drum machines, Yamaha’s FM synthesizers, consumer-level analogue synthesizers like the Korg Mono/Poly, and reel-to-reel tape recorders: wire these elements together and you can turn a Detroit bedroom (or in Stinson’s case, reportedly the basement of his mother’s house) into a factory floor of music production. By embracing this shift toward ‘prosumer’ economics, Detroit Techno producers became, in Toffler’s terms, “agents of the Third Wave”: “as much part of the advance to a new stage of civilization as our missions to Venus, our amazing computers, our biological discoveries, or our explorations of the oceanic depths.” 19Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (New York: Bantam, 1980), 12.
Drexciya began releasing music in the 1990s, a decade of renewed interest in the Atlantic Ocean and its relation to black identity. Poets such as Robert Hayden and Derek Walcott had for decades been exploring links between the ocean, slavery, collective suffering, and racial identity. Hayden’s poem “Middle Passage,” first published in 1944 and one of the most widely anthologized poems on the transatlantic slave trade, contains the refrain “voyage through death / to life upon these shores,” positing the ocean as a place of catastrophic pain but also catharsis and renewal. Walcott’s “The Sea is History” (1979)—which reflects on the Middle Passage from Africa to the Caribbean, rather than mainland America—depicts the Atlantic as simultaneously a mass grave and a vital archive of cultural history: a “grey vault” of “tribal memory” whose “groined caves with barnacles / pitted like stone / are our cathedrals.” Both poets present migration and transformation as essential components of black history. Scale these concepts up to interstellar distances, infuse them with utopian science fiction, and you have the essence of Afrofuturism: migrations that lead not to enslavement, but to the promised land of emancipation.
*Visual ReferenceCover of the Drexciya album Neptune's Lair (1999) Tresor 129
In 1993, the same year that the term “Afrofuturism” was coined, the author and academic Paul Gilroy developed the notion of a “black Atlantic,” as outlined in his book of the same name: a transcontinental black identity that is not exclusively African, American, Caribbean, or European, but belongs to the migratory space of the ocean itself. There is no evidence that Drexciya were influenced by Gilroy—Deep Sea Dweller, their first release, precedes the publication of The Black Atlantic by a year, and its music, titles, and cover art demonstrate that Drexciya’s subaquatic mythos was fully formed from the outset—but their music and mythology explores a similar conception of the shifting space of the Atlantic as a source of cultural identity. In the sleeve notes to their 1997 compilation album The Quest, Drexciya anchored their mythology to the historical trauma of the Middle Passage:
During the greatest Holocaust the world has ever known, pregnant America-bound African slaves were thrown overboard by the thousands during labour for being sick and disruptive cargo. […] Are Drexciyans water-breathing, aquatically mutated descendants of those unfortunate victims of human greed? Have they been spared by God to teach us or terrorize us? Did they migrate from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi river basin and on to the Great Lakes of Michigan?
Despite describing 250 years of slavery in America as a “Holocaust,” Drexciya’s alter-destiny was utopian. It constructed, in the realm of the imagination, a society that marked a radical alternative to “the order of things prevailing at the time” (one way in which the sociologist Karl Mannheim’s defines utopian thought in his 1929 book Ideology and Utopia). Echoing Thomas More, there is no talk of private ownership, let alone money, in Drexciya; only bodily mutation, advanced prosthetic technology, and a symbiotic relationship with the universal element of water. It was a power fantasy that emerged from historical trauma. In a well-known example of the murderous nature of the slave trade, in 1781 the slave ship Zong got lost on its journey from Liverpool, England, to Jamaica. Running low on water, the ship’s captain ordered that 133 slaves be thrown overboard in order to collect insurance payments. The event later inspired J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 painting The Slave Ship: a hellish vision of manacled arms and hands reaching up from the thrashing waves beneath a sky bright with colors of blood and fire.
*Visual ReferenceInside cover of the Drexciya album Neptune's Lair (1999) Tresor 129, by A Qadim Haqq
Transatlantic slavery—in which black bodies were at their most vulnerable, abused, commodified, symbolically and actually mutilated—became the basis for an imaginative celebration of black physicality. Yet, for Drexciya, the Atlantic is simultaneously a watery tomb and wellspring from which a renewed, more powerful black identity emerges. The Drexciyan body is a supreme body. It is not considered a commodity, seen through the dehumanizing lens of its economic use-value, but is a highly evolved creature: not weak or degenerate but formidably strong, enhanced by an array of prosthetic weaponry, from helmets to body armor, tridents, harpoons, and flippers. The Detroit artist Abdul Qadim Haqq illustrated the group’s first LP, Neptune’s Lair (1999). In one of his elaborate, colorful paintings, four Drexciyan warriors swim toward the viewer, their red capes billowing. These creatures provide an imaginative or symbolic defense against a culture in which, to quote Coates again, black people “were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.” 20Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 14.
Thanks in part to imagery such as this, which expresses the rage, anxiety, and sheer imaginative potency of Afrofuturist aesthetics, Drexciya have proven influential in visual art as well as music. The Otolith Group paid homage to Drexciya in Hydra Decapita (2010), a film exploring the links between economic abstraction and death through the Atlantic slave trade. Ellen Gallagher’s series of watercolors and drawings “Watery Ecstatic” was inspired by the group’s music. In Bird In Hand (2006), the artist depicts a Drexciyan pirate evolving into a strange, powerful creature of the deep: his peg-leg sprouts black tendrils, bodily rooting him to the seaweed of the ocean floor, while his head erupts into a cloud of intertwining lines that look like coral but might be eyes, peering out at the viewer. As with Drexciya’s warriors, a sense of ambiguous, perhaps unstable power is at play, a feeling that bodily threat has been turned outward, sublimated into an icon of physical alteration and strength.
For Frederic Jameson, true utopian fiction does not offer a “vacuous evocation [of] the image of a perfect society,” but marks a “radical and systemic break with even that predicted and colonised future which is simply a prolongation of our capitalist present.” 21Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (New York and London: Verso, 2005), 72. Does Drexciya’s music satisfy this definition? Does it need to? In Jameson, utopianism distinguishes science fiction from its sister genre, fantasy. While the latter indulges in soothing tales of feudally stratified societies in which clean-cut heroes triumph over straightforwardly malignant villains, science fiction provides a space for sincerely provocative social critique, one that allies itself not with magic but with the empirical tradition of science.
It has become a cliché to say that science fiction set in the future is actually about the present, but clichés are often true. As Terry Eagleton argues in a recent Guardianarticle on the legacy of More’s Utopia: “If we can speak of the future at all, it follows that we are still tied to some extent to the present.” The semantics of futurity always posit the yet-to-come as a kind of elsewhere. Yet Drexciya’s music is arguably less concerned with future-oriented, socio-political change than partying, and parties always (only ever) happen in the immediate moment. I have never seen Drexciya play live, but nor has anyone else. In keeping with their mysterious mythology, they remained anonymous throughout their years of operation and never played in front of an audience. Stinson’s name was only attached to the project after he died; Donald, meanwhile, refuses to acknowledge his involvement publicly. I did once see DJ Stingray—a Detroit techno/electro producer and, as his name indicates, Drexciya affiliate—play London’s Plastic People club. It was a tiny, sweaty, windowless basement room with a small DJ booth and a Funktion One sound system of sobering intensity. I stood there shuffle-dancing with a bunch of friends, ever so slightly bored, wondering when the headline act was going to emerge. Approximately thirty seconds before his scheduled appearance, a huge man wearing a black balaclava and a shiny baseball jacket stormed from the back of the room, parted the crowd, commandeered the DJ booth, pulled a vinyl from a bag and lowered the needle. It was a startling way to begin, but entirely appropriate for a musical tradition that, for all its utopian aspirations and deep historical roots, emerges from a desire to seize and energize the present moment.
In this context, anonymity is less significant for what it conceals than for what it reveals: self-effacement orients the DJ in supplication to tradition—the music’s more important than they are, as individuals. Only Stingray’s eyes were visible from his balaclava. They were focused exclusively on the decks and barely once looked up at the crowd throughout the duration of his set, a fitting illustration of the purist mentality of techno producers. When asked about his preference for keeping a low profile, Stinson once remarked: “dance music is about the people who listen to it,” as if bequeathing his music to his fans. The intangibility of the world that he helped produce was matched by the somewhat incorporeal identity he cultivated, although it is arguably better to think of Drexciya—the world, not the band—as something that exists within, as a liberated, somewhat dreamy state of mind. Stinson never made enough money from producing to support himself exclusively as a musician. Throughout his time in Drexciya he worked as a truck driver, driving long routes across America that gave him time to think. The product of those meditative journeys—you could call them domestic migrations—was one of the most astonishing and ambitious musical projects in the history of dance music. In one of his final interviews, given on Detroit radio station WDET in May 2002, months before he died, Stinson was characteristically upbeat. He was looking forward to leaving Detroit and visiting Atlanta, Georgia, a city referred to as “the new land of Atlantis.”