The DJ Is a Time Machine

Our three-part series Far Futures casts a long view on today’s crisis, using science fiction and other futurist thinking to explore the possibilities of other worlds, or the strangeness of this one. Today, part 2.
Let’s rupture and reject the “timeline,” a flawed and colonial form of teaching history.

When I was a student, half a century ago, we used to talk of the abolition of distance, because of those then comparatively recent triumphs, the telegraph, the steamship and the railway train. … All my life I have seen that abolition of distance becoming more and more complete.

—H. G. Wells, “Wanted—Professors of Foresight!”


The first thing to do would be to consider time as officially ended. We work on the other side of time. With the official end of time comes the end of a history that includes African slavery and all the miseries of the dead.

—Sun Ra, Space Is the Place


In this era that requires “physical distancing,” we live six feet apart horizontally, for fear of being six feet under vertically. And yet the axis of time is one that pulls us into a different sort of distanced affect (affective distance): of distance learning and how it places us, temporally. We have been here before.

It is no epiphany to Black and/or Indigenous people that humanity is temporally stuck, perhaps in a loop. The cycle of democracy conditions the US public to live in a cycle of crisis, hope, and stasis; of campaign cycles and fundraising. History repeats itself, even as emails are drafted with the form language of the hyperbolic “unprecedented times.” At this point, that phrase has lost all meaning, and yet the shape of time we should consider is the hyperbola. It is asymptotic and approaches a limit, which is to say it approaches but never reaches an end, the end.

For starters: let’s rupture and reject the “timeline,” a flawed and colonial form of teaching history. The linear, one-dimensional narrative of liberal progress fails us time and again, while instead we know we are approaching the asymptote of apocalypse. As Sun Ra says, “Consider time as officially ended.”

Some perpetually live close to the end of the world, to the limit of the apocalypse—as Anishinaabe writer Grace Dillon proposes in her vision of Indigenous futurisms—because, as Black feminist poet Audre Lorde says, “We were never meant to survive.” For Black and/or Indigenous peoples the conquest is ongoing, and at stake is premature death.

The cyclic epiphany of Black Lives Matter follows the cycle and history of violence, of Black people dying on film on repeat from the first cinematic capture. Black artists like Suzan-Lori Parks have depicted that repetition poignantly, as she does in the play The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead.

Therefore, to think of this current crisis of COVID-19 and protest as unprecedented is ahistorical. One hundred years ago, the globe experienced the 1918 flu pandemic; the United States was reigned over by Woodrow Wilson, who championed structural racism (via, for example, interfering with the advancement of African Americans in the postal service), all while screening the white-supremacist Birth of a Nation in the White House. This first capture, the first blockbuster Hollywood hit, set the stage for a century of violent US racial theatricality. The cyclic repetition, and the attendant racial amnesia, is uncanny. Cyclic blackface, cyclic Black death. Cyclic dispossession of Native sovereignty and expropriation of Indigenous peoples’ lands. The Tulsa Massacre recalls the Tulsa Rally, where Herman Cain succumbed to a premature death by what can only be called racism—in the way that Black feminist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines it—after being exposed to COVID-19. We see not only the terror, but also the struggle and hope of an abolitionist movement (to which Gilmore has been pivotal), resurging into the mainstream.

The signature of time is whatever the DJ decides. DJing is the pure manipulation of time.

What Alexander Weheliye calls sonic Afro-modernity is the potential antidote and soundtrack to how Black folks were always already modern. The dehumanizing processes of transatlantic chattel slavery attempted to bridge technology and humanity to make flesh into a machine, an object. Black and Indigenous people and other people of color have continued to invent in spite of the conditions of apocalypse. Sensorial modes of storytelling abolish distance and envision time as nonlinear and entangled. Among the most important of these life-affirming rituals is music.

In this vein of nonlinear and sensorial histories, I founded the Dark Laboratory, an engine for digital storytelling (including virtual/augmented reality, film, videogame design, DJing) and social justice, with filmmaker Jeffrey Palmer. With this humanities lab, we intend to center the entanglement of the dispossession of Native sovereignty and African enslavement in relation to the hemisphere. Together we plan to rupture the notion of time as a line by considering the heritages and homelands of our storytelling traditions: Kiowa, Oklahoma, Africa, China, Hakka, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom.

DJing is my praxis of rupturing time. The signature of time is whatever the DJ decides. The BPM, or beats per minute, is her pulse. She squeezes and shifts intervals; she lowers the pitch and speeds up the tempo. DJing is the pure manipulation of time. It chops and screws. It pulls up, rewinds, fast-forwards, loops, echoes, and fades out. DJing is the ultimate control of time, time control. DJing as form points attention to the fiction of time as a construct that is culturally determined and measured, or allotted.

There have been calls to “hang the DJ.” A DJ can save your life, it has been said. DJs prophesy; they have the potential to be soothsayers—composing future sounds—attuned to the essence of temporality.


Black Speculation, Black Freedom

By Petal Samuel

The school year is cyclic too; education is a season that orders life. This summer I taught a 10-week virtual workshop “at” Cornell Tech, Wednesdays from 8:00 to 9:30 p.m., without grades, using Zoom with 40 students. The course of my invention was entitled “sound x color: electronic music and technologies of empire.” The workshop was an investigation into the meaning of electronic dance music from the gramophone to the MP3, from 1925 to the present.

As I often do in whatever class I might be teaching, I challenged my students to think speculatively about what the distant future—here, the year 2350—would sound like. I extended the concept of my Future Sounds DJ Workshop to ask, with the other instructors in this summer program, what it would mean to curate a museum in the year 2350.

I first chose the year 2350 at random, because it represented to me a concept that exists in Japanese temporality of the far future, as opposed to the near future. I was not interested in the omphaloskeptical predictions determined by our lifetimes or the foreseeable future. Rather, the unforeseeable future—the concept from Haudenosaunee philosophy of acting for the seventh generation—has always intrigued me since my father introduced it to me when I was a child. It is a type of intergenerational love, not a possessive love or care, intended for those you may never meet and who may not even be your blood relations. The idea was to consider, for example, if by then we will be underwater because of the climate crisis, or if by then we will even be here at all.

Students produced original visual soundtracks (like this one) to tell the future something about 2020. They examined long-distance relationships and artificial intimacy, urban decay and the impact of the Anthropocene, and EDM as a form of global travel. Considering the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing protests for Black lives, this listening for the future was a fraught and meaningful assignment.

Did I mention the workshop was not graded? Distance learning was difficult, but the meta-attention to the medium—communications technology—that mediated the education helped me to examine what my expectations as a professor are. In an unspoken contract, because the director of the program decided there would be no grades, the students and I had to ask what our expectations were for ourselves and for each other. While this was not theorized by the director of the program and was incidental, it led me to contemplate how I could probably measure my life in report cards and transcripts, another construct of time, school time. I have been “in school” continuously since the age of four. I never took a gap year, and now my life as an assistant professor is determined by the ticking of the tenure clock as tenure-track jobs disappear into thin air.

The wavelength is the breadth of the Black diaspora, the participatory aesthetic of call-and-response.

I appointed two primary guides for our speculative summer experiment of time travel and virtual-museum curation: H. G. Wells and Sun Ra. Forty years apart, H. G. Wells and Sun Ra both prophesized about the state of the world through sonic technology. So I proposed we think this odd couple together, in order to unravel the fiction of science and fiction of history as the keys to our ongoing crisis.

In some ways these two thinkers could not be more different: a white Englishman of the late 19th century and author of sci-fi, and an African American Afro-futurist composer born in Alabama who cited his origins as the rings of Saturn. Yet they both know something of temporality and time machines.

While H. G. Wells’s time machine is made of gears and levers (and transports the Time Traveler through the Fourth Dimension to the far-future year AD 802,701), Sun Ra’s time machine is the Moog synthesizer that hops between 1920s jazz clubs, 1970s Oakland, and other galaxies of Black being. Black music is Sun Ra’s device, and he notes while in outer space, “The music is different here—not like Planet Earth—we could set up a colony for black people—bring them here through transmolecularisation—or teleport the whole planet here—through music.” Sun Ra muses on how soundwaves could be a device for intergalactic transportation. The wavelength is the breadth of the Black diaspora, what Gilroy describes as its antiphonal mechanics, the participatory aesthetic of call-and-response.

The antiphonal poetics of the Black diaspora are inherent in DJing, a practice that developed with the invention of the sound system, in Jamaica after World War II. The sound system is not simply the arrangement of equipment: wires, speakers, enclosures, a turntable, and microphones; it is the multitude of people required to assemble “the sound,” as it is called in Jamaica. My research and the crux of the summer workshop at Cornell Tech was to understand the homegrown technology of the sound system, which developed in conditions of austerity, as the conditions of possibility for technology and humanity to thrive in creativity and symbiosis. I write about how Afro–West Indian servicepeople, such as Hedley Jones, returned from the segregated Royal Air Force (where they had often been remanded to repair-work) with the technical know-how acquired through tinkering with PA (public address) systems and radar (radio detection and ranging) and sonar (sound-navigation ranging) to engineer the sound system in 1940s Jamaica, the infrastructure of modern DJing.

As we approach the US presidential election, we are triggered by participatory democracy and the memories of participating in elections past. The cycle of four years gives us just enough time to suture the wound that would not heal before cutting it open again. Is four years the interval (time signature?) of hope, as it was trademarked in 2008 and deferred in 2016?

My cousins who live in Suriname also faced an election year 2020. On our family WhatsApp group chat, they sent photos of each other with one purple finger, stamped in ink, showing they had dutifully voted. From my diasporic distance in New York, I could feel how anticlimactic it was, because that is the affect of the linear narrative of dictatorship. And yet a new leader of Suriname was elected, disrupting the rule of Dési Bouterse, who had been in power a total of 17 years. The political future is even more uncertain in ways. Peace without justice is often the tempo of dictatorship. Totalitarian time has a different affect than the cycle of participatory democratic disappointment.

Is this cycle of the academic calendar, of distance learning, a cycle of participatory disappointment for the educator, too? Are some instructors totalitarian leaders in the classroom? The hope and promise of September inevitably lead to the cruelty of April. To live on school time is to be in the warp of a tenure clock that is running out. It is to be continuously up for review, for valuation and validation.

In the film for the exhibition The Foreigner’s Home, which she curated at the Louvre in 2006, Toni Morrison says, “We are dreaming all wrong. Art is otherwise, all that is left, able to lift the grime and glitter caked under eyelids and halt, thereby, our crippled, crippling dreaming. Truth is otherwise. It risks all to be born, to be unstoppably, irresistibly alive.”

So, I left my students this summer with these words as we endeavored to imagine, design, theorize, build, curate, code a virtual museum that represents the past in the future. I said, again echoing Morrison, “If there is a museum you want to go to that doesn’t exist yet, then you must curate it. The year is 2350.” To curate the past in the future, as I enticed my students to join me in doing, is to position oneself as not only a time traveler, but as an ancestor. Now I am leading a collective of humanities technicians and theorists to embark on the same sort of speculative design of creative technology with the Dark Laboratory.

I was a student in the course The Foreigner’s Home, taught by Professor Morrison in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president. She referred to him as Time’s Man of the Year. He had just chosen Song of Solomon as his favorite book.

Perhaps we were dreaming all wrong in 2008. As a professor myself now, I know I was not ready to teach in 2016, and yet the question returns as it does every four years: How to teach the day after time has officially ended?


This article was commissioned by Kelley Deane McKinney and Ben Platticon

Featured image: Untitled, Newtown, Johannesburg, South Africa (2018). Photograph by Bongani Ngcobo / Unsplash