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.

“White men” as a curriculum

It’s always easier to design a syllabus with only white men — a particularly potent instance of the way Sara Ahmed teaches us to view “white men” as an institution. An inclusive syllabus is a struggle. You can anticipate the dismissiveness, the uncomfortable silence, the angry rejection. The syllabus filled with white men, by contrast, is calm. Their debates are all well-known, and they’ve all staked out positions that have their valid place in the intellectual firmament. They are precisely debates — ritual exchanges of well-known positions and evidence, rituals that we must reenact. After all, those debates have been so “influential”! You don’t have to agree with them, of course, just be able to give an account of them. Such soothing neutrality. Such comfort and familiarity.

Who would want to disrupt this equilibrium with arguments that don’t already have their pat answers, with positions that haven’t already been incorporated into the repertoire of reasonable options? Why gum up our political discussions with questions of how we structure our households, how we act in our most intimate relationships, how we go about excluding and corralling some so that others can feel comfortable and safe? The pushy interloper’s positions don’t seem to belong to the set of familiar toys we know how to manipulate. They don’t seem to allow us to take up our accustomed stance of studied neutrality, don’t let us assess them from afar by clear rational standards everyone would agree on. We’re trying to have an intellectual debate here, and the pushy interloper insists on asking us questions about how we live our lives. Worse, they seem to be insisting that we change our lives — and not in the uplifting way of that Rilke poem!

The endless conversation: who could want to bring it to an end? Who would dare interrupt it? Better to tell, once again, the story of how secular tolerance solved the problem of religious conflict while leaving room for the exploration of spiritual truth. Better to review the three ethical options: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Better to trace the progress of those scientific and artistic and literary traditions in which white men have been in such intricate, intellectually satisfying dialogue over the centuries.

To bask in the influential and the great — who would turn away from this to pick a fight, to document a struggle, to leave no room for neutrality? Why would we turn away from the influential and the great, from the guaranteed payoff of quality (well-attested!) and prestige (well-deserved!) to risk our world enough and time on texts that almost certainly are not the very best, and that surely can’t dream of the level of influence of the greats. And where would there be room, when we already know for a fact that they must read Homer and Dante and Plato and Aristotle and all the names we all know how to name in the syllabus we could all sketch out in five minutes or less if pressed? Surely you would never ask us to deprive one of these great and influential texts of its rightful place in service of a divisive partisan agenda.

So much easier, then, to reproduce influence under the guise of neutrally, objectively responding to it. After all, we already know the correct liberal positions we’re supposed to have — a skill we demonstrate when we ignore or explain away passages in which the influential greats contradict them. We all know that one must transcend those merely time-bound elements to reach the universal truths, whereas the texts you’re asking us to include do just the opposite, openly wallowing in the merely particular, the concrete, the historically conditioned. Don’t we enter the seminar room to escape from all that? And aren’t we glad of it? Isn’t it calm? Soothing? Comfortable?

The (somewhat) rational basis for the US-Israel alliance

As the Gaza crisis intensified, I’m sure I’m not alone in having wondered why the US’s support for Israel is so absolutely unconditional. What’s in it for America? Hasn’t it reached a point where Israel is a liability and should be cut loose?

This post is an attempt to account for the seeming unshakability of the US-Israel alliance, on the basis of what would seem like good reasons to the bipartisan political elite. It seems that the core “US interest” motivating it is the desire to maintain the overall stability of the global capitalist system, which means assuring an uninterrupted flow of oil from the main oil-producing region on earth. Please note that it’s not a question of the US itself directly wanting to steal the oil or something — it’s maintaining the overall equilibrium of the global system in which US corporations and the US military operate.

Once it is conceded that this goal makes sense, the politics of the Mideast do not look promising. You’ve got a lot of potentially hostile factions, some nationalistic, some religious, some a combination of both. The borderlines drawn as part of the decolonization process don’t help, but redrawing them would likely lead to instability and conflict. The religious element is a further problem — an Islamic state is likely to have goals other than the free flow of capital and to be less susceptible to the kinds of incentives the US can offer. Hence: lockdown. Anyone who can keep the oil flowing and keep a lid on the population gets US support.

Yet — and here’s where it gets even uglier, if that were possible — all those dictators, whatever their other merits, are swarthy Arabs. How can (racist) Americans trust such people? Better to go with the more natural ally: Israel, which is led by people who are basically white Westerners. This element of trust became all the more essential after the end of the Cold War, when Saddam Hussein demonstrated that even previously faithful clients can go rogue. Similarly, we can assume that the importance of the alliance with Israel only increased when the Arab Spring called into question the Americans’ traditional methods of controlling political outcomes in the Mideast.

On their side, as the political situation in the Mideast destabilizes, Israel sees increasingly clearly that they are the only game in town for the US and that they can basically do whatever they want without endangering their aid or privileged status. And so the vicious cycle continues.

Does anyone have a better explanation?

Liquidating Blackness – Blood Book Event

In The Nomos of the Earth, Schmitt attends to the fact that the sea was always located outside of territorial, juridical regulations, defined as a space that enabled and, indeed, linked the very two “practices” that Kant and Schumpeter saw as distinct and even opposite, namely, we saw, war and commerce. In the naval space … only war and commerce take place. And all that is solid melts into blood. Both the dissolution of space … and the liquefaction of money—its circulation as blood money, under the figure of unification in the blood of Christ—partake of the same logic and of the same transformation. 1

The lawlessness of the sea, its openness and outsideness is the space of transformation and magic. Solids melt into blood, money becomes liquid, and circulates as blood money. I don’t know that there is any clearer example of this magic than the transatlantic slave trade. The dissolution of bodies into blood—differentiated blood—and into blood money. The transformation of black people into property occurs under the banner of the blood of Christ. Read the rest of this entry »

On the old saw, “Islam isn’t a race”

One strange feature of the online atheist movement is that while all religions are bad, Islam is consistently presented as the very worst — so that Richard Dawkins, for instance, can wonder aloud whether atheists should support Christian missionaries in Africa to combat the spread of Islam. Many people have suggested that this anti-Islam sentiment is racist, and the response is always that Islam isn’t a race and hence being opposed to Islam can’t be racism.

Let’s unpack that. For these thinkers, Islam is obviously a bad and destructive system of thought. Yet billions of people spend their whole lives trying to live according to these stupid teachings, generation after generation. What’s worse, in the modern world, they have ready access to knowledge about the superior system of secular modernity, but they persist in embracing a crappy religion. At a certain point, you have to wonder if there is simply something wrong with such people, right? Perhaps their reasoning capacities are hampered in some way. Indeed, one begins to wonder, could it perhaps be something … inborn?

Obviously atheists won’t embrace the extrapolation I’ve just made, but it’s ultimately the only conclusion — if Islam is a terrible thing, and if people continue to embrace it despite knowing about a superior alternative, there must be something wrong with those people’s reasoning capacity that doesn’t allow it to reach the high level of white people’s.

A really robust belief in the powers of human reason, of course, would take us in the opposite direction: if all human beings have basically equal reasoning capacity, and if billions upon billions of people have found Islam to be plausible and appealling, then there must be something good about Islam. Yet people who self-identify with “reason” never draw that conclusion, because the “party of reason” always turns out to be an elite who knows better than everyone else and deserves to be in charge. And when you ask why not everyone is willing to submit to the leadership of the “party of reason,” you begin to suspect that maybe there’s something wrong with their reasoning capacity, maybe on a biological level, etc., etc.

Basically, declaring oneself to be on the avant-garde of “reason” is always going to lead to racism if you take it to its logical conclusion. Thankfully for the mental health of the “party of reason,” however, their self-regard and in-group loyalty keep them from following the dictates of reason on this matter, because it would make it seem like maybe their empty gesture at a contentless “reason” had accidentally made them into bad people.

Divine Racism and the Theological Imaginary

I recently finished reading through William R. Jones Is God a White Racist?  and it was a good read. More than that it felt good. I say it felt good because in Jones I feel like I have found a kindred spirit. His methodology and commitments in particular dovetail nicely with my own. While much of my methodology comes out of my reading of Laruelle (a dualistic theory of religion, cloning or modelling forms of thought, an attempt to speak of the generic, a central focus on what both Laruelle and Jones refer to as a modified humanism but which I think of as creature-oriented), Jones likely wasn’t engaging with any of that when he originally wrote IGWR and yet refers to his work as “a generic clone of liberation theology’s mission and models” that he then uses to evaluate black theology’s fittingness with that mission and model. His ability to critique black theology while also affirming it (performing a kind of negative dialectic throughout his analysis) is part of his own dualistic theory of religion which sees within black theology a mainstream that he will confront with all the tools afforded him by theory and polemic, while also allowing room for a certain minoritarian tradition that he will valorize and attempt to amplify. Then, of course, there is his emphasis on theodicy and suffering as the matrix through which theology must be evaluated, rather than evaluating suffering on the basis of already-existing theologies.

I am curious why so few theologies of hope deal with the arguments Jones presents in his text. One of the targets of his criticism are theologians like Jürgen Moltmann and his eschatological theodicy, where God’s future justice somehow erases the suffering of the present. While Moltmann isn’t the explicit focus of Jones’ text, this eschatological theodicy is subjected to the criteria of ethnic suffering. How can a people, like black people in America, stake a claim on a future event without any significant economic, social, or political liberatory event? Jones here refuses the usual separation of the empirical or lived with the transcendental or ontological. Theo-poetic claims are subject to what is actually lived, regardless of their beauty as fiction.

So I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, to find that my excitement over Jones raising that question of divine racism (“Is God a white racist?”) upset some Christian friends on Facebook. The conception of God, it seems to many Christians, precludes racism or racist acts. This concept does so ontologically. And yet the theological imaginary seems to almost always present God as white. I asked my students the other day, while reading a work of Latino theology, what color Jesus was in their head. Not what color they thought he was if they took a few minutes, but immediately what skin color presents itself to them without thinking. 25 of the 31 students said white. Many of those students were themselves black, hispanic, and mixed-race.

It reminded me once of an icon a friend had. He was and I assume still is a very sensitive, caring Christian. Yet this icon showed a scene where Satan was bound and submitted to Christ. Christ was white, as you would expect from Eastern Orthodox iconography, and Satan? Well, Satan was black with kinky hair. George Yancy reports on the discursive theological tradition of this anti-blackness:

The normative construction of the Black body as evil had already begun as early as the fifth century. Gustav Jahoda writes about John Cassian, a monk who wrote a series of spiritual Conferences. Some of these portrayed the devil “in the shape of a hideous Negro,” or a demon “like a Negro woman, ill-smelling and ugly.” Saint Benedict [whom MacIntyre claimed we needed a new version of and from whom Pope Benedict XVI took his name], an admirer of Cassian, made sure that the Conference were read in the monasteries and thus these images would have had a wide circulation. An axiological frame of reference where blackness is identified with demons presupposed the identification of whiteness with “light,” “divinity,” and “goodness.”

Christian racism and anti-blackness isn’t a recent phenomenon, the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation and the rise of fundamentalism. What I admire about Jones book is the call for a new theology whose focus is not continuity with the Christian tradition, but a response to suffering.

A link in honor of Martin Luther King Day

At Women in Theology, Amaryah Armstrong has a post critiquing the idea of “racial reconciliation”:

I want to be clear here that conflict resolution at an interpersonal level is important for life together, but the framework of reconciliation, even when it attempts to speak about justice, values the confession and the future to come above the present. Reconciliation displaces structural analysis for narratives of various experiences that end with a unity in Christ and a theological vision that is white. These narratives are used to imbue hope for the possibility of reconciliation but they actually prevent the possibility of ending white supremacy, anti-blackness, and racism because it is the supercessionist framework itself that is the problem. Reconciliation thus becomes a way of displacing structural dominance and oppression to the level of inter-personal conflict and confessions of privilege, moving our focus away from the ways Christianity itself structures racial domination and racial formation. Because reconciliation is never able to call Christianity itself into question as a problematic framework, only white people. Reconciliation continues to reproduce an inability to recognize itself as that which produces the division in the first place through its narration of identity as things to be superceded. Rather than clarifying relations of power, reconciliation mystifies them.

In addition to its intrinsic interest, her post includes many helpful links.

Posted in "the church", Martin Luther King Jr., race. Comments Off

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