Afrofuturism

Almost exactly a year ago, the blogosphere proclaimed 'the death of science fiction' (see, for instance, here or here). In a reaction to what was perceived as the institutional biases within sf as unreconstructedly patriarchal, white, ideologically conservative/reactionary and incapable of properly dealing with (a) science and (b) the changing nature of contemporary technology and its impact upon everyday life, several writers lamented the state of contemporary sf, suggesting that it must change or die. This, of course, is an old story: Ursula LeGuin, in putting together the Norton Book of Science Fiction in the late-1990s, inveighed against such biases and attempted, in her selection, to tell another story about sf. We cannot undo the history of sf, however, while admitting those biases; the consternation among some (male) sf writers about LeGuin's revisionist project (and the way she handled the selection of some stories by white male writers) was not only a sense of aggrieved pride, but that LeGuin had thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Is sf incapable of 'representing the Other' without falling into a Derridean binary, a hierarchy of value which places 'us' above 'them'? Is sf determined to repeat the representational imperatives of (post-)imperialism? Is it racist, strictly Anglophone, culturally irrelevant? I think the answer to this is no, but even if it were, in the phrase of Fredric Jameson, it is the 'failure to imagine the other of what is' which is the true locus of critique and the diagnostic focus of sf.

Several times, I have seen sf characterized as 'the literature of change' in these blogs, by writers who see science fiction as having failed in a progressive political project. Contemporary sf from the 'West' (Anglo-American sf) falls into facile post-apocalypticism or the adventure-narrative structures of 'cowboys in space', it is alleged. What we have here, I think, is a confusion of discourse, and my reference to Jameson is key here. It is not 'science fiction' that has 'failed', but utopianism. However, as Jameson has long argued (see 'Of Islands and Trenches'), the imagination of utopia succeeds by failure, because the dialectical relationship between utopia and contemporary ideological formations means that utopia is never achieved, but the struggle to imagine it goes on.

Of course, sf is not only written by white, heterosexual, Anglo-American men. While Mark Dery, in his famous article ‘Black to the Future: Afro-Futurism 1.0’ writes:

‘Why do so few African-Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other -- the stranger in a strange land -- would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists? Yet, to this writer's knowledge, only Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes, and Charles Saunders have chosen to write within the genre conventions of SF.’

Jetse de Vries, who wrote the blog asking whether sf should die, noted:

‘throughout its history novels and short stories by people of colour have been — and continue to be — published: Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Vandana Singh, Steven Barnes, Nalo Hopkinson, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Nnedi Okorafor and David Anthony Durham immediately come to mind, and then I realise I am overlooking many, many others.'

There is racism in sf, certainly, but sf is not a racist genre. In fact, as Mark Dery and others have argued, sf provides a crucial formal vehicle for the African-American literary imagination. This finds its most important manifestation in the form of ‘afrofuturism’. Although a recent Guardian commenter revealed their ignorance in assuming that afrofuturism was a critical neologism essayed by a reviewer (of a hip-hop album), the term has a history as far back as Dery’s article (published in 1995) and its cultural manifestations go back much further. What is it? Dery’s definition runs thus:

‘Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture -- and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future -- might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism.’

On Gary Dauphin’s ebogjonson.com website, where he hosts a page called ‘Afrofuturism archives', in an article commemorating the African-American sf writer Octavia Butler, he offered this definition:

‘Afrofuturists believe (and it is a form of belief) that only the specific formal interventions of the speculative narrative genres can accurately capture the shifting states and conditions and, yes, powers of blackness.’

Afrofuturism is essentially bound up with 20th century developments in the political self-consciousness of Africans and African-Americans: from Marcus Garvey, to Pan-Africanism, to anti-colonialism, to Black Power, lensed through sf and, markedly, through music. One of the first Afrofuturist artists is Sun Ra, the jazz bandleader and visionary, who David Toop, in Ocean of Sound suggests ‘may be contextualised in a mystic-political undercurrent of black American thought alongside Marcus Garvey and the turbaned founder of the Moorish Science Temple, prophet Noble Ali Drew’ (p.27). The connections to Garvey, Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism are crucial here, but so is science fiction, for it is that which enables the visionary nature of Sun Ra’s music, its attempt to ‘imagine the other of what is’. Toop goes on to describe Sun Ra’s performances with his Arkestra like this:

'With sound, light, words, colour and costume, Ra concocted a moving, glittering hallucination of Ancient Egypt, deep space, the kingdoms of Africa [...] a history of the future with which he battled for the souls of his people against the legacy of slavery, segregation, drugs, alcohol, apathy and the corrupting powers of capitalism.' (pp.28-9)

Sun Ra, acknowledged as a musical innovator, is also crucial to the development of another Afrofuturist musical innovator, George Clinton. Releasing albums under the names Parliament and Funkadelic, Clinton constructed an Afrofuturist sf mythology to articulate similar concerns to Sun Ra: the deliverance of people from slavery (in ‘Funky Dollar Bill’ from Funkadelic’s 1971 album Free Your Mind... And Your Ass Will Follow, servitude to the imperatives of materialism and consumerism) through the ‘holy Funk’. Clinton’s funk cosmology takes sf as a means by which to narrate an alternate history and consciousness, an alternate and enabling mythology of human consciousness based on spiritual enlightenment and sexual awakening, which is clearly utopian in character. Funk may lead to the kingdom of heaven within, but it also leads to the reconstruction of human consciousness.

All this leads me to Janelle Monae.

Mark Bould, in his article ‘The Ships Landed Long Ago: Afrofuturism and Black SF’, published in issue 104 of Science Fiction Studies (34:2, 2007), wrote:

‘Taking in contemporary music and sf, Sinker positions hip-hop in “the grand syncretic tradition of bebop, not ashamed to acknowledge that technological means and initial building material are always simply what falls to hand: but that meaning is nonetheless a matter of energetic and visionary redeployment, not who first owned or made this or that fragment” (“Loving the Alien”). Although cyberpunk has typically been discussed in terms of European avant-garde detournement or Burroughsian cut-up, its parallels and affinities with bebop and hip-hop have generally gone unacknowledged.’

For Bould, sf (particularly cyberpunk) and African-American cultural production (particularly bebop and hip-hop) have close affinities, especially in the light of appropriation, collage and what the Situationists called ‘detournement’, the turning of a cultural practice or technology away from its intended use and to more resistant or radical possibilities. Mark Dery, in ‘Black to the Future’, argues in a very similar vein:

'African-American culture is Afrofuturist at its heart, literalizing Gibson's cyberpunk axiom, "The street finds its own uses for things." With trickster elan, it retrofits, refunctions, and willfully misuses the technocommodities and science fictions generated by a dominant culture that has always been not only white but a wielder, as well, of instrumental technologies. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reminds us
that:
"Black people have always been masters of the figurative: saying one thing to mean something quite other has been basic to black survival in oppressive Western cultures..."Reading," in this sense, was not play; it was an essential aspect of the "literacy" training of a child. This sort of metaphorical literacy, the learning to decipher complex codes, is just about the blackest aspect of the black tradition."
Here at the end of the 20th century, there's another name for the survival skill Gates argues is quintessentially black. What he describes as a deconstructionist ability to crack complex cultural codes goes by a better-known name, these days. They call it hacking.'

Janelle Monae’s two releases, Metropolis Suites I (The Chase) (2007) and The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) (2010) have found wide critical acclaim.
Monae’s music mixes hip-hop, funk, pop and soul and marries it to an overarching sf narrative which draws upon Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Monae’s alter ego is the messianic rebel figure Cindy Mayweather, whose story is told in the two albums. In an interview with MTV UK, Monae said:

‘Cindy is an android and I love speaking about the android because they are the new “other”. People are afraid of the other and I believe we’re going to live in a world with androids because of technology and the way it advances. [...]The first album she was running because she had fallen in love with a human and she was being disassembled for that. This time around we’re talking about The Arch Android the chosen one, the Neo of The Matrix or the Archangel from the Bible. She (Cindy) finds out that she is indeed the one and is the mediator between the haves and have-nots. She’s the one who can get rid of all the discrimination within the android community. It deals with self realisation as she realises that she is that.’

Explicitly, then, Monae, in her own Afrofuturist music, attempts to ‘represent the Other’. Her music attempts to imagine a politically better world. It does not fall prey to apocalypticism or ‘cowboys in space.’ It uses science fiction as a means by which to create a concept-driven musical collage which narrates the experience of otherness. Like Sun Ra and George Clinton’s music and mythologies, it wants to liberate the slaves.

So science fiction is dying? Fantasy fiction is the future? (One of the blog entries was written by Mark Charan Newton who is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a fantasy writer. His most facile argument was that in bookshops, more space is dedicated to fantasy titles than science fiction titles. The crude commercialism of this is breathtaking, let alone its seeming ignorance of the economics of the contemporary bookstore, i.e very little of anything appears in them.) Science fiction, like utopia (with which it has, in the words of Darko Suvin, ‘degrees of kinship’), is a resource, which is always available to writers who want to imaginatively critique contemporaneous cultural and social formations in an estranged form, and represent alternatives.

Lavie Tidhar, one of those cited by Jetse de Vries as criticizing sf for its Anglophone bias, in fact criticizes award panels and shortlists, not sf itself (and Tidhar does not spare fantasy from criticism, either), and paints a rather more positive picture of the health of global sf: ‘I take international speculative fiction – that whole wide and exciting world of Malaysian horror and Japanese manga, of Israeli fantasy and French steampunk, of African magic realism and Chinese science fiction – seriously, because it’s seriously cool’. If we think of sf as the broad church of speculative fiction – and I do – then there’s plenty of reasons to think of sf as a still-vibrant world literature.

Comments

  1. Is bricolage only playing amidst the detritus or an act of agency? Is belonging to a subculture an act of power or the exertion of same?

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  2. Actually I don't fully accept that afrofuturism is coterminous with recombinant cultural practice, as Dery and Bould imply. (DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid is sometimes bracketed as an afrofuturist but I find that hard to sustain.) However, I do think that detournement/bricolage is viable as a political act, as an act of agency as you put it, Josh. Without that possibility in our foreclosed pre-mediated world, doesn't it evacuate any radical potential for modernism and postmodernism as cultural practices? What interests me about afrofuturism, besides the music of P-Funk and Monae, is the use of an explicitly sf mythography as a kind of narrative politics, one that encompasses African-American experience, the post-colonial and so on, but is more than just a bricolage of sf bits and pieces. I'm not sure its politics is strictly appropriative even if its practices are: it seems to me that afrofuturism is more dialectical, offering a synthesis of (white) technoculture and its narratives, and African/American experience of 'otherness'. I don't think that all hip-hop is per se afrofuturist, I should say, because that is often content with making (albeit remarkable) cultural artefacts out of 'playing among the detritus'. I don't think Public Enemy are afrofuturist either, for instance, although they're recombinant as hip-hop artists and that practice is political, because they don't construct an sf cosmography.

    I'm not sure about the distinction you're making in the second question, though. Could you explain?

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  3. And this is where my uncertainty about post-Hegelian thought comes to the fore and answers your question, too, I hope. The dialectic doesn't cancel out the original--it negates the negation, like a zigzag, meaning the original is changed but not removed in the "rise"--just like a subculture may have a degree of agency, but isn't it one always already bounded by the culture(s) around it? You can't claim that they're co-determinate because then you lose the "sub-" in sub-culture, so there has to be an "island" of some kind--Stephenson's clades or like the culture (pun intended) of one's of Banks's orbitals or rings come to mind--but it's surrounded by a larger system. This is where my skepticism about any Kantian system comes in--and for me, Hegel operates within Kant: once you go out to the hinterlands, you don't know what's coming back, hence the creative/destructive potential always lurking in the Ulterior or, my personal fav given my own work, of course, the Scattering in the final three original Herbert texts. An unbounded system a la the Scattering brings back dragons. I think the current generation of hard SF in the UK is analyzing this terrain--Asher, Banks, Hamilton come to mind immediately--they seem obsessed with working this issue of system boundaries and what it would mean to go beyond the limits of knowledge: is that transcendence or disaster lurking? Is there a way out of our system or not? Is the modern/postmodern urge freeing, escapism, or capitulating to a larger system?

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