I enjoyed watching Synchronic recently, in which paramedic Anthony Mackie gets a brain tumour on his pineal gland and tries to solve the mystery of a designer drug that is disappearing people or causing them to suffer bizarre and horrible deaths.
It just so happens that the drug affects the pineal gland specifically and allows the user to travel through time. With law enforcement not taking the emerging social crisis seriously, and with his tumour making the potential effects of the drug oddly intriguing to him, Mackie falls down a surreal rabbit-hole where he begins to lose his grip of reality — or “reality” otherwise begins to lose its grip on him.
Mackie is far from a puritan; occupation aside, he is on a path, it is claimed, to becoming “a junkie-paramedic cliche”. But when he is called out to a medical emergency involving his best friend’s daughter, who goes missing after taking the drug, Mackie seems torn between getting it off the streets altogether and abusing it for himself. It is an interesting development, to my mind, in that the film initially walks an uncomfortable tightrope between light social commentary on the bizarre scourge of designer drugs and the potential liberation offered by such radically new chemical compounds. That the drug affects the user’s sense of time feels appropriate to this. There are few topics that have so captured our attention as time-travel, but in almost every sci-fi film in which it is a major theme, we are presented with oddly abstract morality tales that insist time is the last thing you ever want to play with.
All of the Back to the Future films revolve around an escape from the temporality of certain social structures. In the first film, the enclosure temporally fought against is the family, although its enclosure must notably be affirmed anew towards the end if Marty McFly is to exist at all as a subject when he returns to the present.
The second film reveals time-travel as a weapon that can be used both for good and ill; in the future, Marty purchases a sports almanac that tells him the results of various sporting events, which eventually falls into the hands of his neighbourhood bully, allowing him to accrue great wealth and power by exploiting this knowledge and gambling across time periods. Marty must travel backwards and forwards in time in order to rectify this mistake and stop the development of a dark and dystopian future. This particular morality tale runs both ways — though Marty in the hero, he learns the hard way that his desire for self-actualisation through twisting time has as many potential risks as it does rewards. (Of course, he and Doc generally can’t help themselves despite this.)
Left with a considerable temporal mess, after becoming stranded on an “alternate” timeline at the end of the second film — it is not the present they hoped for, at least — the third and final film in the franchise returns our heroes to that period in American history when the nation-state and its body politic was far from settled, the Wild West — a space and time that continues to exert a powerful symbolic hold on the American imagination as a period of raw potential and possibility, prior to the settled political programmes that now define it.
This sort of return to historically significant (and significantly indeterminate) time periods is often where more positive examples of time-travel’s benefits are found. By way of another example, we might consider the recent TV adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which occulted film reels are fought over by political elites and those who resist them. The films show the Allies winning World War II — our reality, of course, but an alternate vision of the fictional character’s history — and so the films provide hope and a sense of potential new futures to a cast of characters living in a dystopian America that is ruled by the fascist coalition of imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
Whatever approach we take, time-travel narratives are essentially narratives about control in this regard — that is, control of our own destinies or the fate of the world in general. It is seen as a method of manipulation, of affecting the bigger picture, contrary to our otherwise minor role in time’s great expanse. But to turn to drugs as a way of manipulating time solely from the perspective of the individual is interesting. It aligns this sense of control with one that may be more familiar to readers of philosophy.
Gilles Deleuze’s understanding of “control” is the same, he acknowledges, as that of William S. Burroughs. Writing on and extending Foucault’s thesis of disciplinary societies, Deleuze notes that, whereas discipline takes place in “major sites of confinement” — that is, in space — control, for Burroughs, instead takes place in time. “Control needs time in which to exercise control”, Burroughs writes, but it also, notably, “needs opposition or acquiescence; otherwise it ceases to be control.” Control responds to the fact that there is always the possibility of resistance to its mechanisms, and so it knowingly holds open a (space-)time — read: time-as-enclosure — of possibility and becoming for its own benefit.
Though seemingly paradoxical, retaining this sense of a possible resistance works in control’s favour. “All control systems try to make control as tight as possible,” Burrough continues, “but at the same time, if they succeeded completely, there would be nothing left to control.” This is to say that control must allow the person subjected to it to retain a certain sense of becoming in time, if it is to remain control at all. Whereas confinement and discipline are more absolute and rigid, fixing us in space, control is more indeterminate and diffuse, providing us with the illusion of freedom through the paltry gift of limited “free time”.
It is precisely this temporal struggle that allows control and its dissenting subjects to persist and adapt. Consider how we relate to cultural time and its artefacts under capitalism — that is, within its totalising global market — which allows for the contradictory proliferation of arguments against its hegemony from within itself. The irony should not be lost on us that capitalism’s vast distribution network means you can have the Communist Manifesto rapidly delivered straight to your front door. Tales of historical alternates — real or imagined — are made readily available to all of us in the present, albeit with all tension removed. With everything “available” — or at least “consumable” — in the present, our sense of temporal becoming is diminished.
But this does not make the very expression of opposition to control impotent in and of itself. We must continue to resist, albeit with a little more cunning, so that we might stay one step ahead of control, rather than allowing it to remain one step ahead of us. If time is essential to control, it is just as essential that we fight for more time in actuality. Let us remember Deleuze’s famous adage: “It is not a case of worrying or hoping for the best, but of finding new weapons.”
These weapons must be temporal in nature. The Communist Manifesto remains one such example, if an “old” one, for the ways its ideas continue to haunt and inspire us through time, despite their apparent irrelevance in our restricted present. This is an argument made most famous, of course, by Jacques Derrida, in his book Specters of Marx, where he affirms the ways that the idea of communism haunts us, despite the suggestion that it has been vanquished by capitalism’s new universalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Francis Fukuyama later argued that the Soviet Union’s collapse precisely brought about the “end of history” — that is, an end to time’s symbolic advance — as the twentieth century’s political battles were settled and the world came to accept that any future was bound to be capitalist rather than potentially anything else. But the writings of Karl Marx linger on as a promise of another world and another future, making their historical arguments a kind of temporal weapon that aims to think the future otherwise.
Though a contentious argument in contemporary political discourse, we can nonetheless see similar processes of temporal control and resistance unfolding in many science-fiction films, in which time-travel is used as both a tool for fugitivity and capture. But in truth, few of the examples we might think of are wholly positive.
In the alternate worlds we depict, wherein time-travel is possible, its potentials are understandably like catnip to the curious, but the sheer complexity of time’s functioning always delivers the same lesson: meddle all you like, but you’ll only be left with a bigger mess to tidy up than you started with. The science of time-travel is so complex and dangerous, it can never be made accessible to the plebs. When it inevitably is, however, time dilutes the paternal function of our understanding of the universe, only allowing us to play so that we can learn lessons for ourselves the hard way. We wander into temporal chaos, through hubris, but also acquiesce, returning to linear time’s symbolic order.
That is, at least, how time-travel appears to us in so many films, where it is often representative of the highest form of technology — the ultimate Promethean flame that we better not steal from the Gods above. But what becomes of time-travel when the tables are turned, when such a power is not the preserve of gods or mad scientists but is produced from below, in the backstreets, in makeshift drug labs, in the mind? What if time-travel were understood as being properly psychedelic?
Capitalist realism loves to brag about its win against communism in the twentieth century, but so many other wars were not won, and the war on drugs is one of the most infamous “social” conflicts to be usurped by an unrelenting guerrilla warfare. I reckon the time war will be similar. And it is interesting to see films like Synchronic that — all sci-fi spectacle aside — seem to implicitly connect the dots. But in the end, not even Synchronic can escape the expectations of your average time-travelling fable, and so it struggles to make good on its own premise.
Halfway through the film, Mackie references Back to the Future himself, making the now-common observation that time-travel is a whole lot easier for white people. “The past sucks.” But it seems strange that the film never offers Mackie (or us) a sense of the future. He can only ever travel backwards. The future always remains strangely unknown — a truism that loses its edge when Mackie finds himself travelling all the way back to the Ice Age and sharing a fire with a nomad on the tundra.
This oversight is made all the more disappointing when it turns out that, in the end — and despite the light-hearted swipe at its predecessor — Synchronic echoes Back to the Future‘s morality tale exactly: family is everything, and there’s no time like the present.
Unfortunately for Mackie, in the film’s closing moments, it is made abundantly clear that he no longer has either. For a film that raises so many questions about the time-travel genre, approached from a genuinely interesting and modern angle, it dare not hypothesise any notable answers…
In the trenches of both the drug war and the time war, the potentials of psychedelia ares till yet to be fully re-established.