In Defense of the Future

Zoë Bracken

Zoë Bracken studied sociology, education, art, and environmental studies in her four years at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. In addition to writing sociological scholarship, Zoë writes poetry some of which has been featured most recently in Argot Magazine, Vassar Student Review, and Boilerplate. She currently resides in Brooklyn, where she will begin teaching pre-schoolers in the Fall.


The Spheres

 As my friend Violet and I were walking out of an environmental sociology seminar and towards our house, I tried to explain to her a thought I had during my modern social theory class. My professor and I had discussed the impossibility of creating egalitarian social systems when minds are socialized by the hegemonic powers that be. In working through this thought I showed Violet a drawing I had doodled in class. Our society, I explained, was at the epicenter of a circle, the area of which was everything we could conceive of. As we move towards the edges of the circle our thoughts move further away from social norms and into radical thinking. The answer to the problem of socially sustainable and just futurities lies somewhere outside of the circle, though its direction is unclear. By shifting the epicenter to anywhere in the periphery, the scope of the circle changes, moving closer to something else. This is when I began to evaluate the capacity of radical Utopic thought.

The labor of Utopia is inherently unstable, its etymology being rooted in the Greek “outopos,” translating literally to “no place.” Different radical thinkers imagine different loci for Utopia: some view it as a promised land and others as a relationality. Utopic thought can be engaged with for pragmatic reasons as well as for more ephemeral ones. Various iterations of this concretize Utopic thought as a valuable project. This work of expanding the imaginary is necessary in order to work actionably towards a socially just futurity. Utopia has been considered overly optimistic, useless, and naïve, particularly in relation to realist and pessimist thought. Classifying Utopic thought as strictly optimistic or pessimistic is a limiting project, forcing Utopic thought into an inherently anti-queer binary, allowing it only to exist in opposition and not expansively. Relegation in this way dilutes Utopia with a binary sensibility, one which has historically upheld hegemonic power structures by investing in binary understandings of social systems and logics (black/white, gay/straight, past/present, criminal/ victim etc.). The delegitimizing of queer and non-binary identity is expanded to queer, non-binary temporalities and futurities. Perceiving of Utopic concepts, instead, as transitory and non-binary allows Utopia to be expansive yet adaptive, making space for queer temporalities. The voices and minds on the periphery, in spite of and through marginalization and oppression have imagined visions of Utopia in struggles for liberation. These movements are poised to break beyond deep socialization and move into new capacities of thought. By sharing in these Utopic visions, communities and individuals can radicalize their own thinking and attempt to imagine new futurities. Envisioning Utopia necessitates labor and produces impact that eclipses whether or not society will arrive at these exact iterations of Utopia.  

The Stakes

The necessity of these thought projects cannot be understated. The stakes shared by those participating in this practice are high. In the midst of mass incarceration, police brutality, the razing of the planet, the subjugation of queer bodies, and systemic hatred, Utopia illustrates an alternative futurism. This alternative moves away from a typical futurism, entrenched in capitalist, racist, mechanistic ideals, and towards something, somewhere else. Within epidemics, hazard, uncertainty, and risk, there lies a magnitude of problems so massive and pervasive and interconnected that it demands equally complex solutions. The available solutions are unlimited and boundless when they live and breathe in the realm of radical Utopic thought. Divestment from hegemonic paradigms necessitates sustainable social futures; how can these be envisioned if our minds are socialized to think only within the pre-existing limits?

We need to linger in the moments that make life livable. Within these we find refractive Utopias. They are rays of light altered and projected outward. In livable moments we are able to identify pleasures and liberatory desire, which serve as a skeletal Utopia of sorts. The glint of refracted Utopia exists here, in something amorphous and not fully knowable. How can we begin to explore a futurity that values the under-valued? How can we be ready for justice if we cannot imagine what it might feel like? Vital to liberation is the preparation to be free; it is not enough to tear down systems of oppression. Without building up community there will be nothing at the end.

The Road

This essay roots itself in artist Janelle Monáe’s recent emotion picture: Dirty Computer (2018). In this she weaves music and film to create a visionary, dynamic understanding of radical Utopia within a dystopic context. I analyze the film as a text; it exists aurally, visually, emotionally, and textually at once. It speaks to Black, queer love and the radicalizing capacity of desire. Dirty Computer both grounds and expands theoretical defenses of Utopic thought which I will explore later in the piece. These theoretical frameworks serve as useful lenses to view case studies of Utopic thought projects. Social theory and philosophy offer valuable understandings of Utopia, time, the imaginary, and our senses. Here, I rely heavily upon the writing of Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse, Jose Esteban Muñoz, and adrienne maree brown. Collectively these thinkers span disciplines. Within these framings, I make my own interventions as a means to broaden my initial understandings of temporality. These are all read together to begin creating a synergistic framework of Utopic thinking and time.

This paper argues for the radical capacities of Utopia through a close analysis of select scenes from Dirty Computer. I posit the necessity of improvisation, relational memory, queer love, and imagination in devising socially just futurities. The act of creating visionary Utopias is social; it rests upon and within community. Monáe’s work is a reminder, a guidebook, and a celebration.  

Let All Souls Be Brave

 Janelle Monáe’s self-labeled Emotion Picture, Dirty Computer (2018), creates for viewers and listeners a dystopian world that exists at the intersections of identity based oppression, anthropocenic habitats, state enforced “sanitation,” and the subjugation of people through their classification as “dirty computers.” As an accompaniment to her album of the same name, the picture explores themes of race, gender, sexuality, dystopia, Utopia, and love. In the world of the film, the state views people and organic matter in mechanistic terms, within a background of desolate ecosystems and highly developed technology. Dirty computers are abducted and cleaned by the state, a fate that Monáe makes clear at the opening of the picture. Dirty Computer is a radical science-fiction narrative, one which relies uniquely on visual media, music, and narratives centered around violence and liberation faced by the land, queer folx, and people of color.

Throughout the film viewers witness moments of rebellion, scenes of celebratory resistance in which the characters create art, play with gender binaries, delve into sexuality, dance, find new spiritualism, and love together. It seems almost impossible, within a system that seeks utter domination, that there might be spaces for and embodiment of liberation. However, Monáe imagines a fugitive mode of existence for her characters, one in which they dream of Utopia and realize liberty within the loopholes. Viewers are treated to shots of raucous, colorful, queer parties set to hedonistic, liberatory melodies and beats. There is a special attention given to celebration by and of Black queer women, fittingly as Monáe’s lyrics oscillate between praising the strength of queer Black women and illuminating the violence their bodies are subjected to.

In this dystopia, where marginalized people are seen as dirty, Monáe foregrounds the significance of memory. It is through the scanning and elimination of memory that the House of the New Dawn works to clean dirty minds. The protagonist, Jane 57821, played by Monáe, is abducted early on in the film after continuous surveillance by the state. She is taken to the House of the New Dawn for cleaning where, despite fighting to preserve her memory, she is consistently forced into subjugation by the deployment of a noxious “nevermind” gas (a fume which causes the user to forget their will to resist). As she is stripped of her agency and selfhood, Jane fights to remind her lover-turned-employee-of-the-state, Zen of their shared history and, through this, of their shared struggle. Monáe makes clear the communal stakes we will all hold in a dystopian future. The loss is not only our own, but that of our cherished spaces, loved ones, and free will. Jane is met with a defeated and confused version of her lover who hauntingly insists: “Thinking will only make it harder. It’s best if you just enjoy the process, accept it. People used to work so hard to be free, but we’re lucky here. All we have to do is forget” (2018: 33:28) Zen’s defeated nature is a testament to oppression’s laboring to break, twist, and warp its victims. Its goal is to make pain so unbearable and objection so futile that subjection is disguised as a willful choice rather than a result of intricate and pervasive domination. To Zen, Jane replies, “I don’t want to forget you. [emphasis mine]” (2018: 33:58). Here it is made clear that Jane’s final tie to determination is tethered to Zen, and later to her second partner, Ché. She recognizes the deep importance of retaining memory and pushing Zen to do the same. This moment is striking in its emphasis on relational memory, specifically in its queer, polyamorous, Black context.

The salience of this care is reified throughout the picture as viewers watch the characters’ love stories unfold in warm, pinkish hues and poetic lyricism. In choosing this queer, Black love as a central theme of Dirty Computer, Monáe creates a vision of Utopia within the most desolate and grim of realities. Each party, each kiss, each lyric is an active rebellion against the state’s assertion that this dystopia is acceptable and necessary. In moments of everyday Utopias, Jane, Zen, and Ché (and their community of queer rebels) know that they deserve something better, no matter how uncertain or unstable that “better” may be. I choose to witness this as evidence that there is and should be such a category as radical Utopic thought, full of art, theory, and testimony from many voices, including, emphatically, those in the periphery.

We can see utterances of Utopia in a plethora of actions and visions. As Jose Esteban Muñoz aptly explains in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009), Utopia may be found in the quotidian. In his text Muñoz finds Utopia in the quotidian, the relational, and the aesthetic, in public sex (gay cruising), in visual art, and in poetry. I argue that in Monáe’s project Utopia can be found in similar places, notably in the queer Black moments I have chosen to discuss. In the film’s ultimate shots, Jane has also been converted to serving the House of the New Dawn and is meant to attend to Ché, whom viewers can assume has been recently brought in. A figure clad in a gas mask enters the room and, after a beat, tosses a mask to both Jane and Ché. In this moment we hear the opening lines for the picture’s final song: “Americans.” The figure reveals herself to be Zen and smiling, says only: “Let’s go.” The shot sequence moves from nevermind gas being deployed to a fly succumbing to the fumes. The triad standing calmly together, gas masks on, wait for the smoke to clear, and Janelle’s chorus begins:

Hold on, don't fight your war alone

Halo around you, don't have to face it on your own

We will win this fight

Let all souls be brave

We'll find a way to heaven

We'll find a way

(2018: 44:44)

These six lines deviate from the dystopic norm painted by the film and move towards a vision grounded in unity, strength, and ultimately, a belief in Utopia. Monaé reassures her listeners that there need not be solitude within struggle; instead, she envisions victory, bravery, and togetherness. In this instruction there lies a path to “heaven.” So, what is the promised land, and how do we get there? And if there is a Utopic place or a futurity that we can exist in, how do we know once we’ve arrived? As Angela Davis might ask, how do we know when we are free? Dirty Computer serves as a prophetic work, in its timely understanding of political and social realities, and future potentialities. With grace and clarity Monáe evokes deep feeling and meaning-making.

The Emotion Picture makes active choices that make readers feel simultaneous dread and hope, forcing a revelation that we are bound up together not only in our struggle, but also in our liberation. As Ché, Zen, and Jane execute their escape they move down a near empty hallway, bodies intertwined, holding one another up, moving towards the light. As they stumble nearer the end of the hall, they pass the scattered, unconscious bodies of employees of the House of the New Dawn. Monaé makes no promises that we will all make it to this Utopia, she does not say that some will not remain lost. Oppressors so deeply entrenched in their work for the state are not the focus of this radical imagining. The focus, rather, is this queer Black love that heals and generates. There is a clear through line here: the importance of memory, of relating through love, and of liberation in community. Even though the odds are slim, the stakes are too high. Even though it may be “harder,” we must remember—and not only remember, but also reimagine. As the song ends, Monaé sings, “Please sign your name on the dotted line,” and with a backward glance, beckons us to join her (2018: 48:34).  

Woven Theories

In order to fully appreciate the necessity of radical Utopic thought projects, a relationship between the visionary, the oppressive, and the liberatory must be established and explored. Where our Utopias come from is an integral part of understanding what they look like and how they operate within social imaginaries. Utopic tradition can be found across disciplines and exists within both classic and contemporary theory. In the following sections I will pull in and lean on the frameworks of Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse, Jose Esteban Muñoz, and adrienne maree brown. Their works are indispensable; each thinker expands and complicates social relationships to the imaginary, the senses, community, and praxis. When read with and through one another these works create a lens on which radical Utopic thought projects can be examined and understood. Marxist theory establishes alienation and socialized senses as central sociological phenomena. Marcuse furthers this by exploring the aesthetic dimension and its capacity to enhance imaginative social development. Muñoz queers this understanding, working to find Utopia in the quotidian and the relational. brown complicates and enriches these projects by articulating the stakes of these projects, within what she terms an “imagination battle” (brown 2017: 18), as they seek to bring forth the healing power of “visionary fiction” (2017: 27). Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse, Jose Esteban Muñoz, and adrienne maree brown illustrate Utopic thought within different modalities of imagination, operating on different axes of meaning. While Marx and Marcuse are rooted in past, classical analyses of futurity, Muñoz and brown critically engage Utopic thought through the present and in a queer temporality. When read together these theorists create a map for exploring the value of radically imagined Utopias. Monáe’s Dirty Computer Emotion Picture serves as a through line between these thinkers: exemplifying aspects of theory, throwing others into question, and developing a connective tissue.

Emancipating the Senses

Alienation emerges within the Marxist canon as a fundamental social product of capitalism. Marx uses the term to explain the experience of wage-laborers who are alienated from themselves, their fellow workers/class, the product they manufacture, and the larger society. This can be translated somatically: wage-laborers within capitalism are distant from their senses. One aspect of socialization Marx discusses centers around human senses. He states: “senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human. The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object – an object made by man for man” (Marx 1844: XI). These senses, as they become produced objects, are alienated in their relationship to people. Marx goes on to discuss the “complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities” explaining that this is emancipation precisely “because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human” (1844: XII). Herbert Marcuse continued exploring this concept of sensory emancipation in his work, The Aesthetic Dimension: Towards A Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (1977), by critiquing Marxist conceptions of the aesthetic and relying upon art as a powerful political tool. In this work written towards the end of his career, Marcuse illuminates ties between art and liberation, and between creativity and breaking away from socialization. He writes:

I shall submit the following thesis: the radical qualities of art, that is to say, its indictment of the established reality and its invocation of the beautiful image (schoner Schein) of liberation are grounded precisely in the dimensions where art transcends its social determination and emancipates itself from the given universe of discourse and behavior while preserving its overwhelming presence. (1977: 6)

Here Marcuse argues that truly liberatory work cannot be held within social limits but rather it must artistically “transcend.” This transcendence is evoked on many levels, where it is at once temporal, real (vs. imagined), and embodied emotionally. In this sense, the aesthetic becomes a plane where image can be both grounded yet unbound. Through liberatory works of art audiences are projected into new planes of thinking that push past social limitations and beyond creative bounds. Marcuse elaborates on his thesis by exploring the “political potential of art in art itself” (1977: IX). He argues that art reflects class interest and that it goes on to subvert “the dominant consciousness,” calling into question institutional and social relationships (1977: IX).

Marcuse aligns his aesthetic theory with the radical by claiming that what appears in art as remote from the praxis of change demands recognition as a necessary element in a future praxis of liberation—as the "science of the beautiful," the "science of redemption and fulfillment." Art cannot change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world (1977: 32) While Marcuse may claim that art cannot change the world, there seems to be an inherent contradiction in his phrasing. The artistic work that he says has this radical political potential is referred to as a fundamentally consciousness-altering praxis which ultimately leads people to power that does change the world. Marcuse introduces the idea of liberating subjectivity, a concept which lends itself easily to support the consumption of alternatives (it is not just what Utopia may look like for you, but how it morphs within the imagination of others). This becomes an element of the emancipation deemed necessary within the Marxist lens. He goes on to emphasize the importance of emotion and imagination, as well as the risk of leaving these behind, saying: “It is all too easy to relegate love and hate, joy and sorrow, hope and despair to the domain of psychology, thereby removing them from the concerns of radical praxis” (1977: 5).  I see emotionality and vision as being central to the praxis Marcuse deems necessary to achieve liberation.

Utopic vision is woven throughout The Aesthetic Dimension. Marcuse explains that the affinity, and the opposition, between art and radical praxis become surprisingly clear. Both envision a universe which, while originating in the given social relationships, also liberates individuals from these relationships. This vision appears as the permanent future of revolutionary praxis. (1977: 71)

Art and radical praxis are rooted in vision, an imagination of an alternative futurism. This is seen throughout the Utopic thought projects examined within this thesis, as they each seek to examine and free social relationality, while articulating a liberatory imaginary. Art has the potential to at once be reflective of reality and project itself into unknown realms of futurity. In this way art can become “a utopia to be translated into reality” (1977: 57). The works of Marx and Marcuse can ultimately be relied upon to argue that imagination of social alternatives to current systems of oppression are not accessible to socialized and sensorially dominated realities.

With senses so bounded, the imaginary is heavily conditioned to perceive the world in particular ways. It becomes nearly impossible to fully intake what is needed for an alternative futurism. Minds become blocked to recognizing sites of resistance and Utopia within our world, though they are not unable to experience them. Understanding emancipation of the senses becomes increasingly profound as we expand the definition of senses. I posit that imagination is, at its core, a sense and is embodied in this way. Within the need for liberation is the necessity of emancipating the senses, including the human imagination. Through various channels it becomes possible to refuse systemic oppression and envision what could be. In her thesis on movement and abolition, or “Why White Boys Don’t Dance,” Maggie Kennedy explores the ways in which dance as practice expands how bodies know to exist. She writes:

In order to interact with the world differently, and think different worlds are possible, we must be able to feel and reframe what we know through our bodies. I want to emphasize practice here, as our bodily habitus are being practiced and reinforced constantly, so any aim of liberating the senses, and walking towards different embodiments will have to be a forgiving practice as well. (Kennedy 2019)

The idea of a forgiving practice eases the body through emancipation. Kennedy’s emphasis on practice is applicable to radical imaginaries. Utopic thought projects need not be individualized instants, they can exist, rather, as an expansive practice.

The domination (and necessary emancipation) of the senses that Marx, Marcuse, and Kennedy discuss is evident throughout Dirty Computer. Monáe’s dystopia is filled with visible state surveillance and control of bodies. The central characters push back against this in acts of rebellion that are ostensibly rooted in emancipating their senses. They dance, fuck, sing, and move together. In the film’s opening moments Jane and her friends, after evading a camera-carrying robot, drive to a party whose guests push the boundaries of normative aestheticsism. They move together in a futuristic hover-car, synchronized in their dancing, raising their hands to Black Power, echoing movements of the revolutionary Black Panthers.

Analyzing movement and dance in particular are essential to reading Monáe’s work as she foregrounds bodies. Sara Ahmed, a queer phenomenologist and critical race scholar writes both that “bodies become orientated by how they take up time and space” (Ahmed 2006:5) and that “Orientations…are about the intimacy of bodies and their dwelling places” (2006:8). The bodies in Dirty Computer are oriented towards one another and away from the clutches of the state which seeks to oppress them. In dancing and moving together, they embody the community and Utopias that they wish to exist in. The notion of improvisational dance can be practically connected to liberation, as movement theorist Danielle Goldman explains:

In order to make improvised choices (which is not to imply a rigid opposition between instinct and rationality), one must develop a sense of how one’s own body pulses–how it moves habitually and how it might move otherwise–in relation to its surrounding rhythms, which are neither static nor essential. (2010: 52)

In order for Monáe’s protagonists to be able  to improvise their freedom (a freedom which presumably is not fully familiar to them, though it may be momentarily echoed) they must somatically practice this improvisation. Through somatics they build connection and refine attunement to their selves, others, and their environment. This concept is further explored in Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation (Syedullah, Owens, & Williams 2016), which reads as a meditation, set of liberatory protocols, reflection, and a call to action: “anyone engaged in the practice of liberation must actively discover it in their own being, and having a body-based or somatic practice is a direct way to reclaim connection to their psycho-physical connection to themselves” (Radical Dharma 2016: 100).

Dirty Computer exemplifies Marcuse’s assertion of the radical qualities of art, while broadening Marx’s scope of what rebellion against the capitalist state might look like. As characters sing “Crazy, Classic, Life” they are seen connecting and rebelling through, often queer, touch. Viewers share in the intimacy between the characters on screen, especially Jane (Monáe) and Zen (Tessa Thompson). The Emotion Picture also works to emancipate the senses of its viewers, foregrounding deviant audiovisuals. In centering queers of color, rebellion, and the pursuit of freedom Dirty Computer tells stories that are underrepresented in United States media. Radical storytelling works within the picture to push back on social ideologies that privilege the dominant voices, failing to explore myriad experiences and identities. Almost every frame of “Crazy, Classic, Life” is at least half filled with people, centering individual humanity while orienting towards community. Characters fill the screen with an abundance of queer coding through both fashion (leather, studs, non-gendered/androgynous dress) and modified bodies (dyed hair, piercings, tattoos etc.). This party becomes quickly symbolic of a relative Utopia within a larger dystopic world. It is a futurism accessible within our imaginary, a close or near future of sorts.

This future is not one that the government of Monáe's world wants to repress, shutting it down with a police raid that evokes fear, chaos, and confusion. The practice of freedom in this party scene is a threat that must be neutralized. Emancipation of the senses here bleeds into emancipation from the state, which becomes explicit in the song’s bridge:

            We don't need another ruler

            All of my friends are kings

            I am not America's nightmare

            I am the American dream

            Just let me live my life

(2018: 6:04)

The continuation of this, allowing for the emancipation of the imaginary and the envisioning of this as a sense, is central to the narrative that Monáe constructs, and can be clarified when it is read through the work of Jose Esteban Muñoz.

Momentary Glimpses

In his seminal text, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009), Jose Esteban Muñoz develops a queered understanding of Utopia and temporality. Within aspects of the queer canon Utopic thought is easily dismissed. It may become, for example, a fanciful engagement, one that may be aesthetically pleasing, but does little labor to actually offer up radical social systems or antidotes to social plagues (Karma Chávez: 2013). Muñoz pushes back on arguments that Utopias must be purely and stiflingly optimistic, instead allowing them a messiness and an intimacy they are not usually permitted to have. Marcuse’s theory of the aesthetic as political and Muñoz’s development of quotidian Utopias argue that there is certainly a way to make the production and digestion of Utopic thought radical and actionable. This is especially true when the project is moored by voices on the margins and thinkers in the periphery or the shadows.

Envisioning does not need to be the only form of liberatory thought projects, rather it is one of many practices for liberation. It does not need to replace political activism, but instead can serve to build empathy, hope, and vision. Muñoz finds Utopia in the quotidian and the relational, in public sex and in poetry. By performing close analyses of a variety of art, Muñoz threads out the Utopic within the aesthetic. He emphasizes that many of these sites are located within the everyday. The Utopic as quotidian allows for a re-imagination of how queer time might be kept. In discussing the purpose of his text, he states:

Cruising utopia can ultimately be read as an invitation, a performative provocation. Manifesto-like and ardent, it is a call to think about our lives and times differently, to look beyond a narrow version of the here and now on which so many around us who are bent on the normative count. (2009: 189)

The temporality Muñoz refers to is “bent on the normative,” restricting itself to linear constructions of time and history. Here Muñoz invites readers to consider through an alternative lens how the everyday and the future might weave together and perhaps coexist in a queer time, one which deviates from the normative. How can Utopia serve as an intervention, a performance against and a journey away from the heteronormative? How might it create a certain queer Utopian memory and envisioning that is all at once about love, otherness, subversion, and resistance?

Muñoz expands on his conceptions of queerness by viewing it as “not simply a being but a doing for and toward the future”; it rejects limiting being to the present, insisting on “potentiality or concrete possibility for another world” (2009: 1). Queer ontology is not reliant on recognition and often locates itself precariously between past, present, and future temporalities. There are limitations of linear thought, which force the three to be separate from one another, failing to acknowledge the reflection of one within the other. Non-linear, queer, bent time visibilizes the residue of the past left in the present to become and the ways in which it might settle into the future. It witnesses the three happening together; it acknowledges that the future we choose to believe in begins its life in the present. What I believe Muñoz’s work can bring readers towards is an understanding of our present glimpses of Utopia. These are the moments that make life livable and the future something worthy of existing for that Muñoz allows to exist messily and intimately. They are prophetic moments that cast radical possibility, rested upon constellations of relationality. We mark sacred truths that are in danger of dissolution, and find inspiration for the types of futures we desire for ourselves and one another. As these moments are experienced, they serve as sites to make ethical commitments to telling time through a relationship to being, becoming, and being with.

Cruising Utopia shows the wealth of loci this act can be found in, ranging from cruising to sharing art. It is in these interactions, whether they are with our own bodies, our surroundings, our minds, or others, that we find our own refracted utopias. Closing my eyes in the woods I listen to the birds and the river, breathing crisp air deep into my lungs; in that moment I can imagine a world without highways and smog, one where organic life is valued over inorganic commodities. In improvised movement bodies become temporarily liberated from homonormative chains and can begin to conceive of futurities that bend time, love, and being away from the normative, as Muñoz writes. It is in these moments that relational memories are formed, a reservoir that can be drawn upon later in hopes to imagine Utopia. This intervention of prophetic, refractive, Utopic moments remains rooted in Marcuse and Marx’s assertions of the need to emancipate the senses.

Throughout Dirty Computer viewers watch as Jane finds such reservoirs of resilience in her memory and imaginary. It is not inconsequential that Monáe’s fictional authoritarian overlords use the deployment of a noxious, memory-wiping fume as their primary tactic of subjugation. Jane is repeatedly violated as her captors use this “nevermind gas” to remove important moments in her life from her conscious mind. One of these memories is centered around a soft, stylized celebration of women’s bodies and networks of femme resistance. This scene, which doubles as the music video for Monáe’s song, “Pynk,” celebrates black femmes and finds a beautiful paradise in an arid landscape. Monáe locates vitality in the middle of a seemingly barren setting, finding the possibility of life-making in a place devoid of life. The visuals are all strikingly emotional, exuding a joyful, colorful, loving, crush-filled, sweet, and resilient energy. Each frame offers up tastes of a radiant version of communal resistance. There is an emphasis on taste (largely through visuals of eating), movement (in dance and touch), sound, and warm, glossed visuals.

In “Pynk”, Monáe sings the refrain: “It’s cool if you got blue, we got the pynk” (2015: 25:24). They do not want just any Utopia, certainly not one that is patriarchally bent, but rather want their own. Nor do they need to rely upon a surveillance state that uses police force to subjugate part of its populous in the name of “safety.” This double meaning of the word “blue” is particularly poignant in the sociopolitical context of widespread police brutality. Monáe points to a truth iterated by many: the police exist to “protect” certain communities (read: white, wealthy, cisgendered, straight) at the expense of others. One that is heightened in the rest of the Emotion Picture, which makes explicit the violent racism of U.S. society through both lyrical testimony and narrative parallels. Blue Lives exists to negate the validity of Black Lives Matter, victimizing the police force rather than holding them accountable and creating space for outrage, grief, and pride in the face of brutality. What necessary gendered, racialized implications does this construction rest upon? What would a pynk life look like? And how does this hold within it understandings of care and softness that are present throughout the video?

Throughout “Pynk” there is a sense of precariousness; time is uncertain and there is a desire to “make it last.” Dirty Computer’s time is queered, pulled like taffy to wrap around itself. Zen and Jane share what is arguably one of the most intimate moments of the film. The tempo slows down. Monáe sings:

            I just wanna, I just wanna I just wanna, I just wanna

            I just wanna, I just wanna paint the town

            I don't wanna hide my love

            I just wanna hold your hand and be the one that you think of

            When you need a holiday, when you wanna drink rosé

            I just wanna paint your toes and in the morning kiss your nose

            (2018: 27:17)

The emotionality of the scene is evoked not only narratively and lyrically, but also through the cinematography. Zen and Jane are cast in pink light while all of the other characters fade away. They exist together in their own universe, yet their love is unbound. It does not necessitate longevity or monogamy, nor does it require reproduction or restriction. Jane’s love for Zen is one of many roots that exists within their larger community. This is Muñoz’s queered time, the context for refracted prophesied moments of future sacred spaces. Queer love is at the center of this Utopia. It’s because of this moment that Jane resists and knows that a universe where queer black femme love is free and celebrated is possible. What may appear to be misleadingly inconsequential moments have the capacity to change the course of a life. Loving Zen makes Jane's life livable and clarifies the possibility for loving, nurturing futurities worth fighting for.

Imagination Battles

adrienne maree brown in her recent work, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (2017), writes about the importance of imagination. Throughout her work she blends activism, environmentalism, racial justice, and science fiction. She posits that the U.S. has found itself in an “Imagination battle” (brown 2017: 18). Implicit in this battle are questions of who gets to imagine, what kind of things get to be imagined, and what the stakes of imagining are.

Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Renisha McBride and so many others are dead because, in some white imagination, they were dangerous. And that imagination is so respected that those who kill, based on an imagined, racialized fear of Black people, are rarely held accountable. Imagination has people thinking they can go from being poor to a millionaire as part of a shared American dream. Imagination turns Brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else's imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free. All of this imagining, in the poverty of our current system, is heightened because of scarcity economics. There isn't enough, so we need to hoard, enclose, divide, fence up, and prioritize resources and people. (2017: 18)

Understanding imagination battles as the context for Utopia has a deep connection to the stakes of these thought projects. They are not only just about imagining for the sake of imagining, nor are they solely to practice a sustainable future, but they exist, in part, as oppositional to other futures. brown places the concepts in this thesis within a larger sociological understanding. She acknowledges the horrific types of imaginations that have been allowed to exist over time and names their very real consequences. Expanding imaginaries is a necessity, though it is also a privilege, one that is foregrounded by danger. My own stakes in the project are both individual and communal. They are my whiteness and the ways it perpetrates racial violence, the way my feet root in the soil and crave life on concrete sidewalks, my mother’s latinidad and my own, queer love and gender exploration, the bills that pile up and the anxiety that accompanies them.

The mythos of scarcity works to create a worldview moored by individualism and fear. In battling this one must explore their own plentiful imaginary. There are infinite possible futures and as brown says, “if we can't articulate more viable futures, and adapt, our human future is pretty hopeless” (2017: 17). There are so many imagined futures that are not viable. They are futures that rest on degradation: of the Earth, of brown/Black bodies, of women, of queers, of refugees, and many more.

At the center of brown’s work is a primary strategy of fighting against oppression and working towards just futurities. She terms these: emergent strategies. “Emergent strategies are ways for humans to practice complexity and growth of the future through relatively simple interactions” (2017: 20). These are planning and acting within connections. They premise themselves on relationality found in nature. brown looks to these with admiration and gratitude saying:

Together we must move like waves. Have you observed the ocean? The waves are not the same over and over—each one is unique and responsive. The goal is not to repeat each others motion, but to respond in whatever way feels right in your body. The waves we create are both continuous and a one-time occurrence. We must notice what it takes to respond well. How it feels to be in a body, in a whole—separate, aligned, cohesive. Critically connected. I would call our work to change the world "science fictional behavior"—being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations. We are excited by what we can create, we believe it is possible to create the next world. We believe. (2017: 16)

There are infinite worlds possible, the question is what world do you want to exist in? And what are the ways of moving towards it?

Thought projects are central to answering these questions. “A visionary exploration of humanity includes imagination“ (2017: 17). brown acknowledges the impact of sociology within this, explaining that “imagination is shaped by our entire life experience, our socialization, the concepts we are exposed to, where we fall in the global hierarchies of society” (2017: 17). brown’s theorizing of emergent strategies and placing of Utopia within a natural order begins resolving (or accepting) the inherent contradictions in Utopia-building. As Libby Falk Jones and Sarah Webster Goodwin write in Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative:         

Dreamers of utopia have a particular problem with diversity, since every utopia must account for the disorder, the conflicts and fissures, that it wants to resolve into some orderly harmony. A disorderly utopia is an unstable one…Utopia is traditionally a genre associated with gaps: between what we have and what we’d like to have; between what we would like to have and what someone else would prefer; between our apprehension of possibilities and the words we find to construct them.” (ix)

adrienne maree brown’s work begins addressing some of these problems while reifying Jones and Goodwin’s characterizing of Utopia. Firstly, by establishing a theory of imagination battles, brown posits that Utopias need not all be in collaboration with one another and that failing to imagine simply allows dominant imaginations to go unfettered. Secondly, considering Utopic interventions within the natural world allows both order and chaos, there is a certain amount of collaborative harmony in nature, though it exists in a larger realm of disorder. Thirdly, brown, and the other theorists enumerated in this thesis, embrace living in the gaps. It is in these spaces of in-betweeness that Utopia takes on a radical posture—one that pushes back against the what-is, moving towards all of the what-could-bes.

Imagining cannot exist in a vacuum, nor can it exist on its own. It must work collaboratively, engaging with both its situational context as well as with the imaginaries of others. They are thought projects. These begin to serve as work. They are active as both the channel and the channeling. This is only the very beginning of the work. It must move through activism and scholarship, find itself in classrooms as well as bedrooms, channeled through speech, feeling, and movement.

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