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.

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My review of Red Plenty

My review of Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is up at The New Inquiry. It begins, perhaps counterintuitively, with a comparison with David Foster Wallace.

This review represents my effort to make sure that the true Red Plenty addicts — the ones who aren’t satisfied with the Crooked Timber event (which doesn’t yet seem to have its own separate link?) — can get their sick, Soviet fix.

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Thoughts on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds

Rather than review Sergio Chejfec’s novel My Two Worlds, I want to reflect instead on who should read it.

Parks and long walks separate me from time and install me in a different dimension, an alternate one , obviously compatible with the true one, shall we say, or in any case, with the regular one, isolated and at times autonomous as it may be. (75-76)

First & foremost, they should be walkers, for whom each step taken is also one lost — a taking that makes no lasting claim & a loss that is never so final. Their destinations are familiar for their being so incomprehensibly foreign — for every recognition and remembrance they find, of which they try to take hold, proves eventually too heavy with significance, and slips the grip of its proper naming.

Generally, when I walk I look down. The ground is one of the most revealing indicators of the present condition; it is more eloquent in its damages, its deterioration, its unevenness, and irregularities of all sorts. I’m referring to urban as well as rural ground, difficult or congenial. And I’m specifically referring to the ground of paths, to ground altered by humans in general, because ground in the abstract, the ground of the world, speaks different, near-incomprehensible languages. (29)

Second & just as important, these readers should be sitters, who in arresting their forward motion detain, that is, somehow confine, the expansiveness of the moment — who, in those moments of cornering knowledge find themselves seized by a certain unknowing.

But what amazed me was that even though I could see them all on the far side of the fountain, beyond my companion and myself, I heard them as if their voices came from behind us, from where we were actually seated. Perhaps this was another effect of the place or, more precisely, of the mist created by the jets of water, which dissolved present time and distorted space; or it could have been a consequence of the symmetry. The present: until that afternoon I had rarely noticed the confused , and at times inconsistent, meaning of this word, to which we should add the sense of ambiguity it often possess. . . . (59-60) Read the rest of this entry »

Intoxication Without the Sex: Thoughts on Lars Iyer’s Dogma

As you no doubt already know, the heroes of Lars Iyer’s debut novel Spurious recently returned for another round. Too bad for poor W., Dogma goes the way of a downward spiral. Ah, I’m sorry, I’m supposed to alert the unsuspecting reader of spoilers, aren’t I, and then tuck them under the fold. If you fear further insensitivity, rest easy, it won’t happen again. For indeed, what strikes me as interesting about Dogma is that there is remarkably little else for a reviewer to release prematurely.

This is, for those who keep score of such things, of a piece with Iyer’s much discussed literary manifesto declaring the end of literature. Or certainly our response to its demise. Do we, for example, dare look for who has bloodied hands, since we may not have cleaned all well under our own fingernails? Might we eat the corpse, and attempt to find nourishment from the decaying heap at out feet? Or is it better to leave the dead for the dead, and find something else entirely to occupy our attention? However we choose, there is no avoiding the fact that something has been lost. How, then, to appreciate the abyss without falling in it is the question. Read the rest of this entry »

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Lars and W. Do America: A review of Lars Iyer’s Dogma

Few writers have captured the despair and self-loathing that necessarily accompany the academic life as perfectly as Lars Iyer, and surely fewer have done it so humorously. Spurious established the tone for the trilogy, immersing us in the abusive relationship between W. and Lars, in W.’s continually thwarted desires to somehow become worthy of philosopy, and in the sheer squalor of Lars’s existence. The infamous “damp” infecting Lars’s apartment resonated with the wisdom of the ancient Israelites, for whom mildew was a matter to be handled by the religious authorities.

By now, it’s practically required by law to compare Iyer’s work to Beckett and Bernhard, and while those comparisons are surely accurate, there is also something new and intriguing in Iyer’s framing. Read the rest of this entry »

Review of Lars Iyer’s Spurious

While reading Lars Iyer’s recently released novel Spurious I had the curious feeling that he had somehow hacked my Gmail account and read the by-now-countless conversations I’ve had with my closest friends. My suspicion is, considering you lot keep coming around here, where posts untold were first given life in and left germs all over our respective chat archives, that if given the chance you’ll find Iyer cribbing from your conversations as well.

As with Beckett and Bernhard before him, nobody will be fooled by the apparent simplicity of Spurious. Two men, both reasonably intelligent academics, talk. And that is it, really. They talk on trains, on the phone, at the pub. There is talk of action, but no action as such. Well, no, that’s not quite true, is it? Talking is an action, too, after all. It may be more dull than, say, sex (one hopes), and more slow than a high-speed chase, but conversation, the simple being-with somebody else, is perhaps a more primal act than we, who are often bored with those with whom we have to spend time, might wish to believe. The main characters of Spurious, W. & Lars (the first-person narrator), are bound together in this primal act. They are, in fact, in talking, and I dare say only in talking, each other’s Messiah (149)—i.e., the (one) “to come” that “has come.” Fitting, perhaps, that the Messiah of a world such as ours should be so gloriously pitiful. Read the rest of this entry »

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