This essay was published in the catalog for Organize Your Own (Soberscove, 2016) and was commissioned by Rasheedah Phillips in order to reflect on themes introduced throughout Organize Your Own.
Organize Your Own Temporality: Notes on Self-Determined Temporalities and Radical Futurities in Liberation Movements
“Even the singularity of a unique historical time that is supposedly distinct from a measurable natural time can be cast in doubt. Historical time, if the concept has a specific meaning, is bound up with social and political actions, with concretely acting and suffering human beings and their institutions and organizations. All have definite, internalized forms of conduct, each with a peculiar temporal rhythm.”—Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past
In the time-space offered within these pages, I will briefly reflect on and investigate the following series of questions; chiefly: How does a radical movement conceive of its own future in the face of hostile visions of the future? When the future was never meant for them? How does one reconcile a temporal fatality offered by the mechanical linear timeline, with a belief in the temporal duration of one’s own radical vision in change? How else can we position progress when we exist within our own spatial-temporal environments, and how do we join allegiance with others in spite of that, settling on common visions of the future?
If plotted along a linear time axis, one would note a pattern of relatively short active periods of events for many of the major American liberation movements that have risen and fallen in the past century, with a crudely defined start time and end time. Visually speaking, it may look similar to the following:
Such movements appear to be short in duration, but this is only if measured against the linear progress narrative, upon being superimposed onto a linear timeline as shown above. For example, in Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology, Michelle M. Wright states that using “the linear progress narrative to connect the African continent to Middle Passage Blacks today” creates a logical problem, “because our timeline moves through geography chronologically, with enslavement taking place at the beginning, or the past, and the march toward freedom moving through the ages toward the far right end of the line or arrow, which also represents the present.’
If one repositions their temporal lens, these movements, by their very existence and through their radical futurities, meaningfully disrupt linear notions of time. Radical liberation movements reappropriate notions of time and temporality itself, stealing back time to actively create a vision of the future for marginalized people who are typically denied access to creative control over the temporal mode of the future, and redefining that future’s relationship to the past and present. This may involve a reinvestigation and uncovering of hidden histories, and a hacking into future histories where they have already been erased, ensuring their appearance, their continued existence even when the movement’s active period has ended on the linear progressive timeline and receded into the so-called, inaccessible past.
One of the tactics for hacking the future is through the technology of printmaking. Marginalized communities and liberation movements have always used printmaking to share their own news and real-time stories, in a world where mainstream media regularly distorts and misrepresents these groups of people. In the Black community, separate press and print media outlets were crucial to counteracting negative images and to preserving counter-memories and counter-histories of events. From Freedom’s Journal, the first Black owned newspaper established by a group of free Black men in 1827, to the Fire!, an African-American literary magazine published during the Harlem Renaissance, to the 20 issues of the Black Panther Party Newspaper published from 1968 to 1973, Black print media has operated as a powerful voice for the oppressed, and one of the most effective technologies for the transmission of culture, art, and news between people across space-time.
Similarly, Time of the Phoenix, which is being “re-presented and re-circulated” through the OYO investigation, are four out of print poetry chapbooks featuring poems and stories of impoverished Uptown residents about race relations, urban renewal, police brutality, culture, and life. The name is fitting because isn’t it always the time of the phoenix? These lost voices can be re-positioned as merely enfolded and submerged on the linear timeline, yet always present in the time of the phoenix, cycling through life/death/life. Such ephemera, objects, and artifacts recode time in the long form.
“The before and after of an event contains its own temporal quality which cannot be reduced to a whole within its longer-term conditions. Every event produces more and at the same time less than is contained in its pre-given elements: hence, its permanently surprising novelty.”—Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past
In their essay “It’s About Time: Temporality in the Study of Social Movements and Revolutions,” McAdam and Sewell highlight four different temporal rhythms and temporalities that they find to be dominant in political and social movements and revolutions, using the Civil Rights Movement and the French Revolution as examples. The ones presented are (1) long term change processes, or those that “simultaneously destabilized existing power relations and afforded groups new organizational/associational bases for mobilization”; (2) protest cycles, which refers to the temporally narrow period which defines the most active phase of a given movement or revolution; (3) transformative events, that is, “the contingent features and causal significance of particular contentious events” and “the unique temporality of the singular event”; and (4) cultural epochs/master templates, which is an observation that “certain forms of contentious politics, once invented, tend to remain available for long stretches of time . . . and often across considerable reaches of space.’ McAdam and Sewell ultimately argue for “a more event-centered approach” as the most viable platform for engaging with temporalities in social movements. Events, which are “punctual and discontinuous rather than cyclical, linear, or continuous” become, according to McAdam and Sewell, “turning points in structural change, concentrated moments of political and cultural creativity when the logic of historical development is reconfigured by human action.”
An event-focused temporality shares many similarities with an Indigenous African spatial-temporal consciousness. In general, an indigenous African time consciousness had a backwards linearity, in that when events occur, they immediately move backward towards Zamani, or macrotime. In many Indigenous African cultures and spiritual traditions, time can be created, is independent of events, and is not real until experienced. From this time perspective, time is composed of events: so days, months, and years are just a graphic or numerical representation. In a worksheet, A Comparison of the Western and African Concepts of Time, the author notes, “we have to compare the Western linear dead physical timeline (with ‘past,’ ‘future’ and a regularly moving ‘now’) with the African ‘living time.’”
Indigenous African notions of time were generally connected to natural events, such as rainfall and the rising and setting of the sun, or saw time as a natural rhythm or pacing, such as the time it takes you to walk from one place to another. Such an experience of time has such features as “concern for details of the event, regardless of time required; exhaustive consideration of a problem until resolved; and emphasis on present experience rather than the past or future.’ Future events are situated in a potential time, until experienced or actualized. Those events do not depend on a specific clock time or calendar date for their manifestation. Instead, time depends on the quality of the event and the person experiencing it. Once the future event is experienced, it instantaneously moves backward into the present and past dimensions.
“Male temporal consciousness has excluded women from its domain by denying ontological significance to birth, as event and as consciousness; male historical consciousness has written us out of its chronology by demeaning and ignoring our contribution, thus robbing us of our collective memory as women.”—Frieda Johles Forman, Feminizing Time: An Introduction
Womanist and feminist movements have also articulated alternative modes of temporality, ones that “reveal to us [time’s] multifaceted and multiform nature” from the perspectives and experiences of women. Womanist and feminist movements have studied temporal issues and tools to theorize on such issues as “time, age, change, choice, self-image, and the related implications of women’s changing roles.’
In the essay Femalear Explorations: Temporality in Women’s Writing, Irma Garcia notes that “women’s time is purely affective time, disrupting pre-established schemas and structures,” and how in feminine time in general, “notions of the past/present/future are interdependent and blend into each other.’ The time traveling, Black woman protagonist Dana in Octavia Butler’s speculative novel Kindred demonstrates this blended, affective temporality well. She had to ensure the continuation of her family’s timeline in the Antebellum South, and by extension, her own birth, several hundred years into the future. Michelle M. Wright highlights how Butler and other Black womanist writers, such as Alice Walker, create “bold new models for self-defined or internally defined notion of tradition, one Black and female.” Tradition as understood here emphasizes an overlapping past and present temporal dimensions, and in relationship of those two dimensions to each other, necessarily involves a future trajectory, if considered within a traditional linear temporal construct of forward, progressive movement. I would argue in support of an articulated theory of Black womanist temporalities, given our unique, intersectional temporal experiences as Black and woman (For an example of a Black womanist temporal experience see Radical Futurities essay soundscape by Black Quantum Futurism.).
“We have no dedicated sense-organ for the measurement of elapsed time, as we have for the measurement of vibrations in the air (forming sounds) or the wavelengths and relative positions of light-waves striking the retinas of our eyes. To speak of the ‘perception’ of time is already to speak metaphorically.”—Alfred Gell, The Anthropology of Time
On the November 2015 cover of Wired, the words “Let’s Change the Future” are written in bold pink neon, previewing an issue dedicated to race, gender, and equality in the digital age, and guest edited by tennis star Serena Williams. The issue features articles on the #BlackLivesMatter movement as the twenty-first-century Civil Rights Movement, the lack of diversity in the tech industry, and one on a perceived battle over diversity that recently erupted in science fiction culture. In the article “War of the Worlds,” Amy Wallace notes that, “sci-fi that accommodates one future, one kind of politics, and one kind of person just isn’t doing its job.’
Understanding the utility of science fiction to envision new futures and new worlds in concrete terms— particularly for society’s marginalized—Wallace’s words call to mind those of Octavia Butler, who, in an essay called “Positive Obsession,” mused “What good is science fiction’s thinking about the present, the future, and the past? What good is its tendency to warn, to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing? What good is its examination of the possible effects of science and technology, or social organization and political direction? At its best, science fiction stimulates imagination and creativity . . . And what good is all this to Black people?” A new generation of science fiction writers and creators are using their work to answer those questions. Grassroots organizations such as the Afrofuturist Affair and Metropolarity Queer Speculative Fiction Collective are choosing “science fiction as our lens to create new worlds, identities, self-paradigms, and to destroy old, harmful ones.”
Other DIY and self-determination movements are affirmatively claiming or creating the future by actively engaging temporalities and adopting alternative temporal orientations and frameworks, which in turn helps to shift the meaning or placement of the future and the past (i.e., history), as well as shifts the means of access to the future and the past. Alternative temporalities embodied by such cultural movements as Afrofuturism, and DIY theories as Black Quantum Futurism, have developed practical tools and technologies for exploring reality and shaping past and future narratives.
Black Quantum Futurism (BQF) is exploring and developing modes and practices of spatiotemporal consciousness that would be more beneficial to marginalized peoples’ survival in a “high-tech” world currently dominated by oppressive linear time constructs. In crafting new communal temporal dynamics that can function, BQF is developing and enacting a new spatiotemporal consciousness—BQF theory, vision, and practice explores the intersections of quantum physics, futurism, and Black/African cultural space-time traditions. Under a BQF intersectional time orientation, the past and future are not cut off from the present—both dimensions have influence over the whole of our lives, who we are and who we become at any particular point in space-time. Our position from the present creates what that past and future looks like, what it means at every moment. We determine what meaning and what relationships both dimensions of time have to our present moment.
1 Early on, many of us are taught to map out major events, world history, and even our own lives onto a timeline that runs from past to present to future. The timeline typically looks something like a straight line, with major events representing points on the timeline, where time comes from behind us and moves forward. The straight line moving from past to future also represents cause and effect.
2 Wright, Michelle M. Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), p. 57.
3 McAdam, Douglas and William H. Jr. Sewell, “It’s About Time: Temporality in the Study of Social Movements and Revolutions,” in Aminzade, et al., eds., Silence and Voice in the Study of Contentious Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 112.
4 It is important to note that temporal-spatial traditions varied widely across cultures, countries, groups, and individuals across Indigenous Africa, but that the observations presented in this essay are based on extensive research on space, time, and spiritual traditions of a number of African cultures and groups that yield basic generalizations and assumptions.
7 Fisher, Jerrilyn. “Teaching ‘Time’: Women’s Responses to Adult Development,” in Taking Our Time: Feminist Perspectives on Temporality, p. 137.
8 Femalear Explorations: Temporality in Women’s Writing, in Taking Our Time: Feminist Perspectives on Temporality, p. 162.
9 Wright, Michelle M. “Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), p. 56.
10 Wallace, Amy. “War of the Worlds,” Wired (November 2015), p. 97.
11 Butler, Octavia E. Bloodchild and Other Stories (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005; second edition), p. 134–35.
12 Metropolarity Journal of Speculative Vision and Critical Liberation Technologies (March 2013), Season 1, Episode 1 (zine).
About the author:
Rasheedah Phillips is a mother, managing attorney of the housing unit at Community Legal Services, the creator of the AfroFuturist Affair, and ¼ founding member of the Metropolarity speculative fiction collective. She recently independently published her first speculative fiction collection, Recurrence Plot (and Other Time Travel Tales), and an anthology of experimental essays from Black visionary writers called Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice, Vol. I. Phillips was a 2015 artist-in-residence with West Philadelphia Neighborhood Time Exchange. afrofuturistaffair.com