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.

The Romance of the Job

Is it possible to tell a compelling love story any longer? Romantic love is of course fascinating to the couple involved, but from the outside it seems difficult to portray without recourse to stale clichés and contrived conflicts — all the more so given the excessive overgrown of romantic stories in Western culture from the late middle ages into modernity. Romantic plotlines are increasingly called upon to do work they cannot do: to lend emotional credibility and investment to action films, for instance, or to introduce a level of humanity into television shows that are fundamentally about “the job” (the many variations on police procedurals, including medical and defense attorney procedurals).

In part, this evacuation of romantic love stems from the fact that contemporary characters love the job above all and have no emotional room for anything else. Read the rest of this entry »

Milton’s Dangerous Game

[Obligatory disavowal of any implicit claim to be saying something original about Milton.]

In the wake of the #CancelColbert saga, I’ve been thinking a lot about the attempt to “subvert from within” — not just Colbert’s method of subverting the right by portraying an (only slightly) exaggerated right-winger, but things like Watchmen or Game of Thrones that seem to want to expose the ugliness in their respective genres by amping it up a hundredfold. As I discussed with Gerry Canavan in a long-lost Twitter conversation, it doesn’t seem as though this strategy ever actually works. Right-wingers can happily watch Colbert, and audiences receive the “subversive” extreme version of a given genre as a particularly badass example of that genre. Even if it does sometimes achieve the desired end, adopting such a sophisticated, roundabout strategy is surely a dangerous game.

As I finish up Paradise Lost in my devil class, it seems to me that Milton is engaged in a similar dangerous game. He doesn’t merely want to join the epic tradition, with all the one-upsmanship that has always implied — he wants to destroy it from within, rendering the traditional epic impossible. In this view, the fact that the devil is the hero of the epic in traditional terms is not some scandalous secret, but rather the whole point: the heroes of traditional epics were wicked men, and the kinds of activities that were lauded in the epics (war, deception, etc.) are evil. Hence the devil does all of that, taking on the role of proud Achilles, crafty Odysseus, etc., and all of his actions are portrayed as being nihilistic and pointless. The hope is that Paradise Lost will break the spell of the traditional epic and highlight how much more amazing and meaningful the Christian narrative of redemption is.

Hence Milton was not secretly on the devil’s side — only his unshakeable faith could allow him to pursue this strategy so naively. Only a committed Christian could be so tone-deaf to how bad God comes across and expect proto-modern audiences to prefer God just because he’s God. As with other subversive meta-commentaries on a genre, the only person who would receive Milton’s critique as intended is someone who doesn’t need the critique. For everyone else, the extreme epic poem where the devil himself is the hero appears to be a particularly badass epic poem.

Young adult dystopia

It’s well known that dystopia is the hottest teen trend since vampires, but it’s more than a momentary trend — dystopia has been a staple of young adult literature and high school curricula for decades at this point. It’s very strange, because most high schools don’t remotely equip their students to understand the abstract social questions at play in such literature. I assume that part of the reason for spending time on 1984 or The Giver is to innoculate teenagers against the temptations of “totalitarianism,” but it seems like the strategy may be in danger of backfiring. Whereas before we had dystopias about the inevitably horrific consequences of any attempt to indulge in utopian impulses, our new dystopian literature is no longer about the ironic dystopian results of utopia — instead, it’s made up of pretty straightforward extrapolations from our contemporary experience. We’re no longer congratulating ourselves for avoiding the folly of central planning, but instead imagining the consequences of our contemporary ideology of never-ending high-stakes competition.

The Hunger Games is the obvious example. It’s far from a total fantasy, because I assume that someone will figure out a way to make an actual life-and-death reality TV show within our lifetimes. When that happens, people will be outraged, but will they be surprised? I don’t think so. Divergent has a similar immediate pull, as it is essentially about high-stakes testing regimes. And it makes sense that as these dystopias ever more closely approximate our contemporary world, the protagonists tend to be teenage girls — because who has more experience of trying desperately to carve out some space for agency in an oppressive regime than a teenage girl?

The long death of the middle-brow

The Oscars do not give awards for the most popular movies — that would simply be redundant. The Oscars also do not give awards for the best movies — they will make their presence felt over time. The Oscars instead operate in the uncertain terrain of the middle-brow. They have to hit a mark that’s snobbish enough not to simply endorse popular taste, but not so snobbish as to be a serious engagement with cinema as an artform. In short, they have to make moderately educated people feel smarter than average without accidentally making them feel dumb.

Read the rest of this entry »

The dystopian vision of high school

Gerry Canavan has linked to a nice article on why Americans’ high school years seem to shape them so disproportionately. It’s worth a read, though I think it might still lean a bit toward the more sensationalistic and dystopian vision of high school that American culture fetishizes.

I recognize that the experience can be very difficult and even traumatic for some people, particularly those with non-normative sexual identities. Yet these dystopias are not about people with such obvious “problems” — they are precisely about what the culture at large regards as “normal” people. And this of course means mostly white people: all the mainstream cultural fantasies related to the black or Hispanic high school experience are fantasies of a white teacher swooping in to save them, and this includes even The Wire.

If those of us who are broadly “normal” look back honestly on our high school years, I imagine that most of us would find that it looks more like Freaks and Geeks or My So-Called Life than like the “classical” pop-culture high school with its clearly-defined groups, its ruthless status competitions, etc. — a time characterized above all by confusion and unusually intense emotions. What does it say, though, that those shows, universally regarded as truer and more realistic than standard high school fare, were lucky to make it through a single season?

In other words: Why is our cultural fantasy one that puts forward high school as a non-stop reality TV show? Read the rest of this entry »

Book announcement: Religion and Hip Hop

My colleague Monica Miller, a fellow CTS PhD currently teaching at Lewis and Clark in Portland, has a new book coming out this summer called Religion and Hip Hop. Here’s the book description:

Religion and Hip Hop brings together the category of religion, Hip Hop cultural modalities and the demographic of youth. Bringing postmodern theory and critical approaches in the study of religion to bear on Hip Hop cultural practices, this book examines how scholars in religious and theological studies have deployed and approached religion when analyzing Hip Hop data. Using existing empirical studies on youth and religion to the cultural criticism of the Humanities, Religion and Hip Hop argues that common among existing scholarship is a thin interrogation of the category of religion. As such, Miller calls for a redescription of religion in popular cultural analysis – a challenge she further explores and advances through various materialist engagements.

Going beyond the traditional and more common approach of analyzing rap lyrics, from film, dance, to virtual reality, Religion and Hip Hop takes a fresh approach to exploring the paranoid posture of the religious in popular cultural forms, by going beyond what “is” religious about Hip Hop culture. Rather, Miller explores what rhetorical uses of religion in Hip Hop culture accomplish for various and often competing social and cultural interests.

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