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.

Music about art: Fragmentary thoughts on Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the classical pieces that is most familiar to me. Ever since my high school marching band did a show based on it, it has been a constant companion, at least in the version orchestrated by Ravel. More recently, however, I have been spending a lot of time with the original piano version, in part out of simple curiosity, but more directly because I plan to use it in my fine arts course — not only because of its unique status as a piece of music “about” visual art, but also to highlight how orchestration affects our reception of a piece of music.

For those who are familiar with the orchestrated version, it can be difficult to believe that Mussorgsky ever intended it as a solo piano piece to begin with. Leaving aside its unwieldy length, some segments seem to be screaming out for full orchestral treatment — most notably the majestic horns of “The Great Gate of Kiev.” The orchestrated version is so much better known, in fact, that the original can seem like a work of subtraction or abstraction, taking away the variety of a full orchestra. In a way, though, it also adds an element. The dissonances are much harsher and stand out more clearly when they’re not spread across a variety of sections, so that some of the segments (like “The Gnome”) can even sound like precursors to atonality.

The question that has returned to me again and again, though, is why exactly Mussorgsky would have started out with a piano version in the first place. It seems so counterintuitive in so many ways, and it’s not as though he lacked the ability to write for a full orchestra. If we take seriously the notion that this is meant to somehow resonate with the effect of an art exhibition, though, I think it makes more sense. Contemplating art is, after all, a very solitary and cerebral pursuit in most cases — hence why a solo instrument could seem more appropriate. In the piano version, the one aspect that struck me as manifestly more convincing are the recurring “Promenade” interludes, which when performed on the solo piano seem much more evocative of the act of reflection while walking between two canvases.

Further, the very inadequacy of the piano (most striking, perhaps, in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle”), the manifest limits the performer (even a very gifted performer like Evgeny Kissin, whose recording on Spotify I recommend highly) strains against, seem to speak to the difficulties of responding to art, the sense that there’s “something more” that one can’t quite capture. With the full arsenal of the orchestra, it’s almost too easy, and this very perfection betrays the experience that it’s meant to recreate.

Art and Gossip

Veronese, “Happy Union” from the Allegory of Love

This weekend, I had the opportunity to go to the big Veronese exhibit at the National Gallery in London, the largest collection of Veronese’s paintings ever assembled outside Italy. For this unique occasion, I did something I normally don’t — I shelled out for the audio guide. It was generally serviceable, and even if the content could’ve been conveyed just as easily in writing, I saw the advantage of being able to look at the painting at the same time as I listened (rather than having to go back and forth from the text on the wall). I felt a strange dissatisfaction, however, which was encapsulated in the fact that only on the commentary for the second to last painting did they mention brushstrokes. We were to understand that Veronese’s technique had changed in some way, and yet our attention had never been drawn to his technique previously (aside from his preference for certain characteristic colors and his skill in portraying elaborate fabrics).

I don’t want to single out this audio guide, because it’s a pervasive problem: the guidance provided for the general public in art museums relatively rarely directs our attention to the actual artwork itself. We learn a great deal about the artist’s life, about the circumstances of the work’s composition, about the representative content of the work, about the various schools or movements it may belong to. What I came here to see is the artwork, and I’m bombarded by facts about everything but the artwork.

The situation is similar when one goes to the symphony — your average program notes will contain 90% biographical information and 10% description of the musical content you’re about to hear. For instance, I once went to a concert featuring Walton’s first symphony, a relatively unknown work. The program notes told me all about how much he procrastinated on it and how it was apparently inspired by a turbulent love affair. I’ve listened to the piece many times, and I can assure you that you cannot hear anything about a love affair in it. What you hear is a bunch of music. Indeed, that’s why I came to the symphony, to hear music — and so why can’t the program notes help me to listen more intelligently to it?

The motivation behind these kinds of supplemental materials is to make art and music more relatable or accessible, but in practice, they cut off our access and fail to train us in how to actually talk with one another about what we’re seeing and hearing. We know all about van Gogh’s tortured life and can discuss that, but then we already knew how to talk about biography and suffering — what we probably don’t know is how to talk about the actual painting in front of us. Everyone knows that Beethoven went deaf, but when we venture to talk about it, it seems as though we’re deaf to the actual music he’s given us.

I don’t think it’s a matter of giving us access to technical terminology, because we all know what a line and a color is, and the majority of technical terminology for music consists in the Italian terms for fairly straightforward concepts (louder, softer, slowing down, etc.). Nor do I want to disallow biographical, historical, or representational information. Nor, most of all, do I want to leave people to wallow in the solipsism of their “personal experience” of the artwork — what I want is to provide tools that will allow people to actually talk about the artwork with one another, to draw one another’s attention to its features and effects so that we can all help each other to see and hear better.

Posted in art, music. 6 Comments »

Michael Grimshaw: The Counter-Narratives of Radical Theology and Popular Music

Counter NarrativesSeveral of us at are involved in Mike Grimshaw’s new edited volume, The Counter-Narratives of Radical Theology and Popular Music: Songs of Fear and Trembling, from Palgrave Macmillan’s Radical Theologies series.  Clayton Crockett has an essay on Joy Division; Joshua Ramey’s chapter is titled “Protocols of Surrender: Stammering across the Gothic Lines”; Daniel Barber’s is titled “Stop, Think, Stop”; and my contribution is an essay on the Pet Shop Boys, whose hit, “It’s a sin,” always struck me as a prayer.

I invited Mike to send me something to promote the book (the table of contents follows, below), so he sent a selection from his opening essay.  The book can be found on the publisher’s webpage here and on  Amazon here.

 

From…Sonic bibles and the closing of the canon:

The sounds of secular, mundane transcendence?

Mike Grimshaw

 To write our own bibles is part of being modern: to write out of doubt, angst, existential yearning and hope, to attempt to make present that which we perceive and experience as absent, to deal with those issues of self and time and place and identity, to give voice to the questions and troubles of existence… Read the rest of this entry »

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Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and the death of God


In my Humanities capstone class, we just finished a unit on music, interweaving key modern classical pieces — Wagner’s “Prelude to Tristan und Isolde,” Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Symphony of Psalms — with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. We concluded with Symphony of Psalms yesterday, and though it’s a piece that may not have the overtowering obviousness of the others, I assigned it because Stravinsky is the composer I know best and because Symphony of Psalms is a major piece of his that I don’t know as well as I’d like to.

As I discussed it with my two sections, it became less rather than more comprehensible to me, particularly the lengthy final movement on Psalm 150. The first two movements, which are paired as a kind of prelude and fugue, seem to fit together smoothly and to display a clear relationship between the text and the movement. The Wikipedia page quotes Stravinsky as claiming, “it is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing.” The quote came up in both sections, and I think it’s pretty plausible with the first two movements — he’s trying to get at what Nietzsche might call the Dionysian impulse that motivated the composition of the text we now have.

In the third movement, however, the emotional content seems strangely out of sync with the text of Psalm 150. It is particularly jarring in the lines about the cymbals, where the music is calm and meditative — “the exact opposite of cymbals,” as I told both classes. There are more upbeat passages, and those are the ones that always stood out to me most in previous listening, more or less in isolation from the remainder of the movement, which often faded into the background. Listening intently and placing them in context, however, the more memorable passages can seem almost shrill or desperate, or at least forced. The slower portions, with their slow and steady repetition of “Laudate Dominum, laudate Eum…,” can seem mechanical, almost evacuated of emotion.

Some have viewed this symphony as a testimony of faith on Stravinsky’s part, and I could perhaps see that for the first two movements — but the last seems almost to evacuate the psalm of meaning. It may not be a coincidence here that the texts of the initial pair of movements are both focused on the subjective experience of the worshipper, while the latter seems to evoke a more purely Dionysian absorption in the worship of God.

Perhaps it’s from this perspective that we can begin to understand the strange ending of the first movement, where the choir belts out the final words of the text, “non ero, I will be no more.” The subject is “no more” in the final movement, which consists of a repeated impersonal command to praise God in various ways — a situation that might initially seem to be just the opposite of that predicted in the text of the first movement, where the subject was afraid of being abandoned by God. Yet if we look more closely at the text, there’s a strange decoupling between the course of the human life and recognition by God: whether God answers or not, the speaker still has a limited sojourn on earth and will eventually return to the nothingness from which he came. The final movement, then, can be read as a final enactment of that decoupling, allowing the worship of God to gradually wind down and run out of steam and allowing the subject to live in the abandonment of God.

Stravinsky and Balanchine’s Apollo

For the last couple years, I’ve been living with a huge Stravinsky boxed set, slowly working my way through it. This overlapped with my teaching as one of the pieces that we use in connection with Ovid in the fine arts course is the Stravinsky/Balanchine ballet Apollo, which has become one of my favorite classical pieces. Its “plot” focused on the interaction between Apollo and three muses (of poetry, music, and acting) and it amounts to an interesting reflection on the ambivalent relationship between the arts and the classical Greek heritage.

I encourage you all to watch it if you have a chance.

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Standard piano repertoire: What am I missing?

Yesterday I received an Amazon shipment that included piano books collecting pieces by Debussy and Satie. When these were added to my collection, I felt fairly satisfied with my holdings in terms of “hitting the bases.” Along with those two, I have a book of Beethoven sonatas, a Chopin anthology, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Gershwin’s preludes, the Peanuts theme, and a couple miscellaneous anthologies. What should be the next addition to give me access to a well-rounded selection of piano repertoire? Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues strike me as an attractive option, as do Schubert’s piano sonatas. But what do you think?

Posted in music. 23 Comments »
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