The uncomfortable origins of ‘Afrofuturism’

The term ‘Afrofuturism’ was coined by Mark Dery in his article ‘Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose’. I finally got round to reading the piece recently; as you might infer, it’s not my area of expertise, so it’s more than possible that someone has made these observations better than me, before me. But I thought it was worth writing about: firstly because I was so taken aback by how uncomfortable it was to read, as a white person who’s minimally aware of the many perils that beset the work of white people like me writing about black culture; and secondly because after a throwaway comment I made on Twitter, Mark Dery took it upon himself to sealion me, and demand that I explain in detail my critique of his work:

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I’m doubtful as to the sincerity of this demand – the Panopticon is, after all, a tool of discipline rather than reflection. But as a scholar of Žižek, one thing I’ve learned is that sometimes the most ethical thing to do is simply to take a person at their word.

‘Black to the Future’ opens with a conundrum: ‘Why do so few African Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounter with the Other – the stranger in a strange land – would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists?’ Why is it that African Americans are not producing the sort of culture that Mark Dery, a white guy, thinks they should be producing? Dery does at least realise that if there’s an answer to this question he can’t figure it out on his own, and so the bulk of the article consists of interviews with Samuel Delany, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose. Most of the words are not Dery’s own. It’s not clear how closely the text itself hews to the original interviews, but on the account that Dery himself gives, the bulk of the analysis the article contains is Delany’s, Tate’s and Rose’s. They’re fascinating, smart, insightful interviewees, with a lot to say about the relationship between black culture and science fiction. Dery? Not so much.

For someone who is so sure about his competence to assess the contributions of African American science fiction, Dery is remarkably unreflective about his own position in relation to the people he is interviewing. African American culture which engages with technological, sci-fi and futuristic imagery and concepts is a ‘largely unexplored psychogeography’ towards whose exploration Dery himself is taking ‘a first, faltering step’. That’s right: Dery, a white guy, is positioning himself as bold explorer into a largely unknown region populated by people of colour. A voyage into the heart of darkness, if you will. This ‘largely unexplored’ region is so unknown, so previously unthought, that Dery must appoint as his native guides an author and literary critic (Delany), a musician, producer and cultural critic (Tate) and a Professor of Africana Studies who is ‘currently at work on a book on rap music and the politics of black cultural practice’ (Rose).

Dery is right, however, that his first steps into this region are faltering. His unfailingly gracious interviewees spent a truly remarkable amount of time gently correcting the assumptions which underlie the questions he asks them. It’s excruciating:

Dery: One thing that intrigued me about your brief essay [on cyberpunk] is that you made no mention of the orbital Rastafarians in Gibson’s Neuromancer. I find that curious.
Delany: Why should I have mentioned them?
Dery: For me, a white reader, the Rastas … are intriguing in that they hold forth the promise of a holistic relationship with technology.
Delany: You’ll forgive me if, as a black reader, I didn’t leap up to proclaim this passing presentation of a powerless and wholly nonoppositional set of black dropouts, by a Virginia-born white writer, as the coming of the black millennium in science fiction; but maybe that’s just a black thang…Your question is indicative of precisely what I was speaking about in the essay you cited: the interpretive idiocies that arise as soon as a book is lifted out of its genre and cut loose from the tradition that precedes and produces it.

Dery: Why, then, would black youth be alienated by SF signifiers for high technology?
Delany: The immediate answer is simply that the sign language is more complicated than you’re giving it credit for.

Dery: Wasn’t there an elitist, if not crypto-right, slant to [science fiction] literature from the very beginning?
Delany: Once again, that sounds to me like a simple historical misunderstanding about the history and tradition of science fiction … I’m not even sure what you could be referring to.

Dery: Why has there been so little overtly gay SF?
Delany: There is, of course, a whole bibliography full of gay science fiction … And there is a considerable gay fandom …. There is at least on annual gay science fiction convention … And the gay programming that regularly, today, turns up in other science fiction conventions is almost always among the most crowded, standing-room only event.

Dery: Why hasn’t the African-American community made more use, either as writers or readers, of science fiction?
Tate: I don’t know that that’s necessarily true.

Dery: I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an inherent dichotomy in hip-hop between a displaced people’s need to reaffirm a common history and the quintessentially American emphasis on forward motion, effected through technological progress. Don’t these contradictory impulses threaten to tear hip-hop apart?
Tate: No, because you can be backward-looking and forward thinking at the same time.

It’s clear that Dery simply hasn’t done the work required to be a good interviewer. He asks his interviewees about areas of culture in which, as they make clear to him, they have no interest or expertise. Many of his questions draw not on Dery’s own observations but on work that has been done by other people. The article ends with the final interview: Dery writes no summary, and makes no attempt to sketch out a map of the terrain in whose exploration he describes himself as a pioneer. What’s interesting about the article, one of Dery’s best known works and the reason why his name is so omnipresent in discussions of Afrofuturism – a phenomenon which he both names and claims to have discovered – is precisely how little work he does. A great deal of intellectual labour is visible in the essay, but almost all of it is undertaken by Delany, Tate and Rose, who not only tolerate Dery’s ill-informed and – let’s be honest – occasionally racist questions, but offer smart and insightful accounts of the areas in which they are, after all, experts.

There’s so much in here that I want to reflect on, to digest, and to be formed by intellectually. But I can’t cite this work on the part of Delany, Tate and Rose without citing Dery himself. What’s worst about ‘Black to the Future’ is that Dery has found a way to identify an area of black culture, declare it unknown territory, and, by appropriating the labour of black creators of both culture and critical reflection on that culture, has ensured that this terrain has come to bear the name that he chose for it.

An Opinion For Which I Could Live and Die

For anyone teaching philosophy, one of the most frustrating responses to a question asked in class is ‘it just comes down to opinion’. Variations on this include ‘it depends on your personality’, ‘it depends on your upbringing’ and ‘People believe what they want to believe’. In other words, many undergraduate students (unsurprisingly) reflect a default cultural relativism, in which there are no certainties and absolutes and in which talk of criteria for making valid critical judgements is assumed guilty until proven innocent.

What I’ve found interesting recently is how such sentiments can be combined with a high level of dogmatism. For example, in a recent seminar on Hume’s Dialogues, a student said both these things: (a) how you describe God is a matter of personal opinion and what you want God to be like; (b) Christians who did not believe in a literal six-day creation and a young earth were guilty of a totally illegitimate ‘pick and choose’ approach to their faith.

The student seemed unaware of any contradiction between these statements. Now, maybe they were just being inconsistent, as we often are. However, I wonder if there is something more going on here. For what the combination of the two positions amounts to is this (which I guess is a Zizekian point): all you have is opinion, but you (or someone on your behalf) must hold that opinion absolutely. It is a microcosm of neoliberal ideology: everything is flexible, everything is subject to maximum choice and competition – except the system of flexibility, choice and competition itself.

In this scenario, the only thing to take seriously is the utter arbitrariness of the act of choice itself, to the extent that we become angry with those heretics who presume to make judgements about what choice is. The existence (real or fantasised) of others with non-ironic absolute commitments thus plays an essential role in maintaining the corrosive power of capital. They are the ultimate figures of the ontology of Opinion, whose foundation in naked power and terror we must always keep contained.

Book Event: Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible

Cloud of the ImpossibleWe are excited to announce that our next book event will be on Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible, which is now available from Columbia University Press. Keller’s faculty page has links to her other work:

Catherine Keller is Professor of Constructive Theology at the Theological School of Drew University. In her teaching, lecturing and writing, she develops the relational potential of a theology of becoming. Her books reconfigure ancient symbols of divinity for the sake of a planetary conviviality—a life together, across vast webs of difference. Thriving in the interplay of ecological and gender politics, of process cosmology, poststructuralist philosophy and religious pluralism, her work is both deconstructive and constructive in strategy. She is currently finishing Cloud of the Impossible: Theological Entanglements, which explores the relation of mystical unknowing, material indeterminacy and ontological interdependence.

In addition to some AUFS regulars, several of the new contributors to this event are current or former Ph.D. students under Keller. The combination of inside and outside perspectives on her work should make for excellent discussions. As is our recent style, the moderator (me) will introduce the book and contributors will engage thematically, placing Keller’s work into dialogue with their own interests.

 

Confessions of a White Dude

Today, a hateful post was written about me by someone notorious for mean-spirited personal attacks. It is easy enough to determine what I’m referring to if you’re curious, so I won’t link to the post. Nor do I plan to respond in detail to its claims, because every claim he makes is seemingly booby-trapped to make me look foolish no matter which way I respond.

One claim, however, stood out to me: namely that I only critique White Dudes to exempt myself from the category and assure my own moral righteousness, when in fact I am the most White Dudely White Dude of all. The first half of the claim is categorically false. I critique whiteness and masculinity because they are toxic modes of social formation and reproduction that need to be ended. Demography is not destiny here — I know plenty of white males who do not seem to me to be White Dudes.

On the second claim, however, I have to admit that I have not fully destroyed the White Dude within. A big part of the impetus behind my ongoing critique of White Dudes is simply my delight at how much it angers the White Dudes themselves. I find it profoundly amusing when they reply in their distinctively whiny and aggrieved way. Setting up the critique and watching White Dudes play out their role brings me an abiding joy.

In other words, I am carrying out the signature White Dudely move of being “provocative” for its own sake, of needling people just so that they will respond as I predict and I can be right about them. All breeds of White Dudes do this. Atheists egg on religious people, and lo and behold, the religious people respond just like they predict! Chauvanists egg on feminists, and would you believe it, turns out feminists don’t have a sense of humor! I’ve chosen a particularly “meta” position within the field, as is my wont, but I have not escaped it (nor does this acknowledgment mean that I’ve escaped it, nor does the last one, nor this one, onward to infinite regress).

All of my enjoyment might be excusable if my critiques of White Dudeliness had any positive social function, but it’s not at all clear that bringing out the worst in an already pretty shitty class of person is serving any positive social function. Certainly other demographics don’t need a demonstration that White Dudes are terrible — they know it in their gut, at a very early age. And with the White Dudes themselves, at best it produces a kind of vortex of performative contradiction that renders the White Dudical construct claustrophobic and seemingly inescapable.

The critique serves no function: you must change your life. Through a combination of fortuitous circumstances and half-conscious choices, I did once find myself in a community that durably changed my life. It was a shockingly diverse community compared to what I had known up to that point, and there were many aspects of life in that community that rankled my White Dudely instincts. But over time, I began to learn to swallow my pride, to be accountable to the people around me, and in short, to grow the fuck up.

A left that needs to get past what I learned in that community is a left that no one should want to be a part of.

The no-win vortex

In the last week especially, I have started to notice how often politically-charged online memes open out onto a “no-win vortex.” Take the example of the cat-calling video. On the one hand, it calls attention to street harrassment, which is a very real problem. On the other hand, it was edited in a racist way in the service of a gentrification campaign. How does one respond? It seems that no matter which direction you go, someone loses — you either wind up downplaying the destructiveness of racism and gentrification or dismissing the seriousness of the atmosphere of harrassment that women have to navigate.

The same goes for the Lena Dunham affair. On the one hand, I’m shocked that anyone on the left would buy into the framing of a right-wing smear campaign that is structurally identical to the “moral panics” that legitimate homophobia (and, even worse, that trivializes real child sexual abuse). On the other hand, though, I don’t want to dismiss black women’s very justified critique of white feminists who claim to speak for all women while ignoring black women’s very existence. They may be jumping on this because they previously disliked and distrusted Lena Dunham — but we can’t ignore that they had excellent, indisputable reasons to dislike and distrust her. And much of what they’ve said about how Dunham gets the benefit of the doubt while a black child would be painted as a monster is sadly true. Simply responding that no child should be painted as a monster seems a little too easy.

In both cases, perhaps I should have left well enough alone personally. I feel like it’s better, though, to venture my opinion and get responses so that I can learn to attend to such issues more sensitively. While many White Dude leftists observing these events may take them as a case in point for how divisive identity politics is, etc., I find it hard to believe that the lesson we should take away is that we should be less attentive to difference and to the complexities of intersectionality.

Thoughts on the Lena Dunham affair

Everyone with an internet connection is now aware that Lena Dunham’s memoir includes some creepy passages centering around her childhood sexual expression. An article in National Review (a publication I’d prefer not to direct traffic to) called attention to these passages, which had previously passed unnoticed in mainstream media reviews. Many feminists, most prominently black feminists, are now decrying Dunham as a child molester, despite the fact that the scene most graphically described took place when she was seven years old. When pressed on this issue, many critics clarify that whatever allowance we might make for her young age, there is still something alarming about the fact that she’s writing about the incidents now. In particular, it’s believed that she should not be morbidly amused to recall her strange activities, but deeply remorseful. After all, we must hold children to some moral standard!

What’s striking to me is that everyone is apparently in possession of a clear set of moral standards for the expression of childhood sexuality. There is an acceptable level of such expression — broadly described as “playing doctor” — and what Dunham describes is supposedly far beyond that. I find this interesting, because I am not at all aware that American culture has any coherent standards for childhood sexual expression. Indeed, it seems to me that American culture avoids discussion of such topics at almost any cost. If someone could send me a link to the universally acknowledged rules of childhood sexual expression, that would be helpful to me for future incidents where I’m expected to rush to judgment on this matter.

Another strange thing about this whole discussion is that Dunham’s parents simply do not factor in. If she was doing something abusive and destructive, surely it was her parents are the more relevant party to be passing moral judgment on. But no, it’s seven-year-old Lena we’re all focusing on — almost as though this whole incident is an excuse to scapegoat someone the participants already didn’t like, regardless of how much sense it makes!

Further, we might also expect Dunham’s sister to show signs of damage or trauma if her seven-year-old sister were a relentless child abuser. Instead, today she tweeted that the kinds of simplistic judgments expressed against Lena are an example of the heterosexism that is always enforced by the state and media.

There are a lot of good reasons not to like Lena Dunham. There are good reasons to resist her elevation to the level of a feminist icon. Certainly her “over-sharing” tendencies are off-putting, particularly when she’s talking about something as creepy (to most people) as childhood sexual expression. Overall, though, it’s difficult for me not to see the revulsion against her and the recklessly hyperbolic claims that she’s some kind of child molester as yet another example of the ways that non-normative sexual practices are rejected and tarred with “guilt by association.” In other words, it’s no mistake that this toxic framing of the passages in question originated in a right-wing publication — and it’s a huge mistake for anyone on the left to be making common cause with such a heterosexist smear campaign.

Bad Versions, p.s., Abstraction

I appreciated the reading and comments of my previous post, and wanted to respond a bit more formally — though also perhaps too tangentially. The operation that my criticism tried to indicate is one that often seems to be associated with the need for and power of abstraction. For my part, I don’t have any a priori complaint about abstraction. In many ways, I think it’s central and essential. The question, though, is that of how abstraction is articulated, or even spatialized.

In the operation I was criticizing, abstraction tends to serve as something like a common space, one that is, at least in the last instance, able to remain exterior to the differences that intractably appear, or that appear to be intractable. The demand for emancipation has a normativity or universality that — regardless of how this demand has been misused or perverted or functioned for domination, etc. – is, in the last instance or in its essence, capable of (and necessary for) resisting or overcoming these differentiated modes of domination. This, in any case, is how the operation seems to work. And abstraction is then the means by which this essential value of normativity or universality is indicated or expressed. In other words, regardless of the variegated differentiations that embed and/or are embedded by domination, there remains the capacity of abstraction, understood here as the capacity for the differentiated to encounter one another in a manner that is ultimately or in principle free of the determinative differentiations. Read the rest of this entry »

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