playlist for an alternative future
Shabazz Palaces, José Muñoz, and queer utopias
objective: the golden dead of summer
The sunsets of San Francisco always arrive to me in retrospect. I’m usually caught up in some other endeavor when they happen, lazing on the couch or reading or picking at the remains of my dinner. Later, I lie swaddled in my comforter and see glimpses of them on my feed. Today’s was pink and full and expansive, its edges laced with wisps of clouds.
Many things fill me with joy, but the particular joy of a blazing sky is wide and unadulterated in a way that other joys are not. In My Life, Lyn Hejinian speaks of full, durational moments, of the plenum. “A glass snail was set among real camellias in a glass bowl upon the table,” she writes. These moments are what constitutes a life. By this logic, my own life means barreling down Fulton under a velvet sky, or thighs sticking to linoleum during a particularly hot June, or wading through Riverside at dusk, the trees rustling around me.
It is hard to know exactly what is meant by “a life” when lately so many have been taken from us. Definitions rely on a continuum, on equality. That is, the same term has to mean the same thing in many different contexts for it to take on a stable definition. Otherwise, words remain wavering, unsure of themselves, unfixed. What “a life” is depends on who is looking at it, on who holds it in their hands, on who has the power to destroy it. By this logic, life—and what constitutes one—are factors fundamentally in flux.
I offer these words with the intent of recognizing that it’s near impossible to write right now. I’ve been writing to this playlist I made back in August. It’s full of New Order and The Cure and Cocteau Twins. Lately, its brightness has felt scathing against the backdrop of this current collective mourning, of the continued racial violence that is, and has been, the “life” of the US. That is to say, I can’t think about plenum or sunsets or real camellias in a glass bowl upon the table. It’s not a time for the hopeful, conciliatory essays I’m inclined to write under quarantine, the ones about savoring moments, about snatching them up and eating them whole like stone fruit. I want to commit to watching the sunset every day—but for now, that means staring down the fire, not bathing in the light.
I first heard the album Black Up by Shabazz Palaces on a long drive from Houston to Austin a few years back, in the golden dead of summer. Black Up feels necessary, timeless, and grounded, a combination I rarely encounter in music. Shabazz Palaces haunts me—it’s funk, with a rhythmic undercurrent you can feel vibrating through each limb. My favorite track on the album is “Are you…Can you… Were you? (Felt).” Beyond its obvious poetics, the title opens up the conditions for potentiality, the question of what could be, what is: animating present, future, and past (are/can/were, respectively). “I can’t explain it with words, I have to do it,” chants Ishmael Butler, the words coming out of the beat like a particularly heady flume of smoke. When I listen to this song I think about a clean black box, low to the ground, out of which enumerates a myriad of futures.
Lately, in relation to both the ongoing violence of the state and, selfishly, my own queerness, I’ve been inclined to reread José Muńoz’s “Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity.” I’m no Muñoz expert, but what I do vividly recall from my encounter with this text is the idea that to think through the lens of queerness is to think in the modes of past, present, and future all at once. In the introduction to “Cruising Utopia,” Muñoz writes:
We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain. Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and here. (Muñoz, 1).
Muñoz figures queerness as a mode of futurity, as something that propels from beyond our current moment, as something through which we can feel the potentialities of what lies ahead. I see his collapsing of the “here and now” as a distinctly crucial figuration in this moment, in which unprecedented actions are being taken by the people against the state in order to protest the necropolitical decimation of Black life. The architectures of the militarized, racist-capitalist surveillance state in which we live are, quite literally, burning to the ground.
Lately, Muñoz’s insistence on “think[ing] and feel[ing] a then and here” has felt instructive in my own thinking about alternative futures. At least for me, it’s easy to feel completely swallowed by this moment, to feel paralyzed in reaching beyond it towards a world not inflicted by violence. But Muñoz scrambles the seemingly static states of past, present, and future; in doing so, he destabilizes what is meant by “the present,” and out of this destabilization unfurls a plethora of futures.
Within Muñoz’s construction of queer futurity is the utopic image of a world that is viable for all, not only as it pertains to dismantling the heteropatriarchal structures that continue to rub up against the possibilities of queer love, but as it pertains to the concept of liberated everyday life. In an alternative future, there’s the freedom to bird watch and breathe and run and live. But for Muñoz, queer futurity stretches far beyond this: in his vision, it encompasses the freedom to experience full, durational moments of life without fear of encroaching violence. Moments in which the boundaries of our existence are so expansive, they cease to exist—in which we can run, in collective euphoria, past lakes and through roads and forests and suburbs.
Leaning on the work of Shabazz Palaces and José Muñoz has helped me to strive for these futures, to have faith in their absolute potentiality: futures of love and expansion, futures without limits, futures full to the brim. To quote Ishmael Butler, it’s a feeling.
A conversation between José Muñoz and Lauren Berlant on queer utopianism versus cruel optimism.
Octavia Butler’s incredibly inspirational personal manifesto demonstrates the power of imagined futures.