CFPs: I/Mages of Tomorrow & Techno Resistance and Black Futures

Just received these calls (thanks, Anja and Holly), which may be of interest to readers. More info on I/Mages of Tomorrow here and on Techno Resistance and Black Futures here.

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“I/Mages of tomorrow invites activists, artists, academics, film-makers, community organisers, scientists and tech-creators to consider what can be achieved when we come together as people of colour, as black and brown bodies, as queer, trans and non-binary voices and do not only talk about whiteness, patriarchy, islamaphobia, racism, or homophobia. Blackness will be explored not only in the diasporic context in which it operates almost always in the position of minority, but from the perspective of majority narratives from geopolitical and geographical locations in which whiteness is not the normalised, de-politicised default.

We welcome submissions addressing critical whiteness by white and white-migrant bodies speaking out on privilege, solidarity, silence, giving space and calling out. This anti-conference conference will be an immersion in the impossible materialised, a beautiful and empowering attempt at community, healing, creation, a challenging and unsettling exploration of our capacity to invoke dreams and to enact them into reality.

I/Mages of tomorrow prioritises black and brown, queer and trans, people of colour voices and we especially encourage those submissions. “

Techno Resistance and black futures conference

#blacktechfutures

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“We’re delighted to announce Techno Resistance and Black Futures conference taking place at Goldsmiths, University of London on 27th May, 2017.

In his 1994 essay ‘Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel Delaney, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose,’ Mark Dery describes the black body as inhabiting a perverse space of cultural intolerance. In a very real sense, Dery describes the black body as occupying a place in history where the Diaspora is more reminiscent of the strangeness of alien abduction, rather than that of a self-determinant peoples.

Still, according to Dery, subjugation of the black body is situated in the techno-scientific, where the subject is articulated as real only in as much as it is made visible in contact with the most (dis)functional modes of technological progress: today in terms of the tip of a police bullet, the subject of the body cam or racial profiling, the efficiency of redlined pricing and other technologies that disproportionately reduce the free mobility of black people. For technology has been, and remains today, an insufficient means of liberation for the black body.

Paradoxically, since the projects of the Enlightenment and the technological dystopia called modernity, the technical has also functioned as the black body’s precise mode of individual and collective departure. Technological speculation, as a technique of relation borrowing from Brian Massumi (2008) or what Alanna Thain (2008) describes as ‘a lived reality of relation too often obscured by a retroactive distancing between mind/ body, self/ other, subject/ object, artist/ artwork, discovery/ invention,’ offers the black body a method by which the alienness of terrestrial belonging can be re-scripted, re-coded and re-organised into alternative modes of being and becoming. Here we reference Denise da Silva’s adoption of mathematical reasoning to devise procedures that unleash ‘blackness’ to confront life or Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s proposed methodology of the undercommon which prompts black people to adopt a right of indifference to representation in the break of artistic production.

One goal is to understand how the black body operates at the intersections of history, speculation and technique. Another is to move beyond a methodological immediacy that reflects historical and present modes of sufferings and displacements. The overall aim, however, is to imagine new relational frameworks that seek to understand how the imposition of circumstance can emerge as a politics of self-determinate belonging.

It is here, at the junction of encounter and context, that Félix Guattari views the racialised group as assigning meaning. This meaning is a force that ‘constitutes the seeds of the production of subjectivity’, as ‘we are not in the presence of a passively representative image, but a vector of subjectivation’ (Guattari, et. al., 1995: 29−30). It is through the meaning of backness that the black, brown and racialised individual creates a cohesion of (mis)representation, expounded by aesthetic markers, dynamic vibrations and cultural kineticisms often expressed as a sense of belonging.

Techno Resistance and Black Futures takes this point of departure as method of intervention and critique (in literature, philosophy, sonic resonances, short film, science fiction, social platforms, gaming, cosplay, graphic arts and other digital and geek ecologies) that put forward the potential for alternative modes of living for the racialised body. In other words, it asks how the black, brown and ‘othered’ body can move beyond the study of symbolic, transcendental or physiological human attributes, or critique that exposes the violences of power (in their colonial, imperial and capitalist articulations) toward conditions of relation that activate new modes of being and becoming, and ultimately the liberation of black potential?”

Organised by: Ramon Amaro, Digital Culture Unit, Centre for Cultural Studies

‘Blow up my town’ @ Market Gallery, Glasgow

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Image: Bhanu Kapil, Performance for Ban at Pratt Institute, New York, April, 2013

An interesting discussion is taking place in Glasgow on Sunday 22 January 2017. Entitled “Blow up my town: Perspectives on self-abolition, the body, and transgression”, it is a one-off “reading/group/discussion” that takes inspiration from artists and writers such as Chantal Akerman, Bhanu Kapil, Jack Halberstam, Nathaniel Mackey, Pipilotti Rist and Marina Vishmidt. They seem to be fully booked, but the website already has some interesting materials that may be interesting to readers. I’ve been told that the website will continue as a resource – and hopefully as a platform for future events!

RGS-IBG 2017 RACE Working Group Call for Sessions

The Race, Culture and Equality (RACE) Working Group would like to invite proposals for sessions to be sponsored by RACE at the RGS-IBG annual conference 2017 titled ‘Decolonizing geographical knowledges: opening up geography to the world’. A key objective of the RACE Working Group of the RGS-IBG is to promote scholarship on topics of racial inequality, colonization, decolonization and whiteness, and to encourage dialogue on race that advances academic knowledge and progressive practices. The RACE Working Group therefore welcomes proposals on these topics more generally, but we strongly encourage proposals that critically and creatively engage with these topics in relation to the conference theme specifically, for example; by exploring the limitations, contradictions and injustices of organising a conference on the topic of decolonization in western neoliberal academic settings; and/or by examining the contemporary co-option of decolonial thinking in a range of settings. We are also interested in sponsoring sessions and activities by activists and scholar-activists, as well as artists and scholar-artists, that propose and explore practical initiatives for dismantling colonial processes within the discipline, within the university system, and within the RGS-IBG.

Please email proposals to raceworkinggroup@gmail.com by 22 January 2017. Submissions should include a title, an abstract (max 250 words), the format of the session or activity, the number of timeslots requested (if applicable), and name(s) and affiliation(s) of the organizers. The guidelines for organising sessions can be found here http://tinyurl.com/pdrjfek. We will endeavor to respond to organizers by the end of January 2017.

  1. For more on decolonization, please see Tuck, E. and Yang, K. W. (2012) Decolonization is not a metaphor, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), p. 1-40.

Race and the Academy events at Warwick

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Image source: Warwick Anti-Racism Society

Two events coming up at Warwick (where I currently work) that may be of interest to readers. They are organised by the Warwick Anti-Racism Society.

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Antinormalisation: Academic Action in the Political Present

The Role of the Academic in the Current Political Context: Working Against Normalisation

University of Warwick OC1.01 The Oculus
5-7pm

Recent political events have taken a dangerous turn: white supremacist actors are taking up prominent positions within formal politics, while far-right groups in society are becoming increasingly emboldened, vocal, and violent.

Within academia itself, however, established technologies of exclusion — including Prevent, migration monitoring, and the exploitation of racialised labour — have already been normalised by our institutions. How might these existing structures articulate in oppressive ways with a broader renewed politics of exclusion?

In this critical context, this event draws together members of the Warwick community in order to discuss, and commit to, ways of counteracting the normalisation of white supremacist and fascist politics. We will use the session to work towards a collective statement of purpose setting out a series of common commitments to building solidarity with students and protecting our intellectual environment in the present context.

Gurminder K. Bhambra, Shirin Rai, Pablo Mukherjee, Goldie Osuri, Lara Choksey, Adam Elliott-Cooper, Kathryn Medien, Nicola Pratt, and other members of the Warwick community will make interventions in order to build the conversation.

There will be a planning meeting open to students and staff immediately following this event, from 7-8pm, in the same room (OC1.01). We’ll discuss the following:

1. A BME staff-student network
2. A Race Equality pressure group with staff from across the university
3. Responding to racist incidents on campus.

Abstract

Political shifts around the world are becoming increasingly indicative of the onset of a global fascist era. In the US, the election of Donald Trump has come to pass after a campaign period in which he referenced his own sexual violence, labelled Mexicans as ‘rapists’, and pledged to collate a register of, deny entry to, and deport Muslims on the basis of their faith. Prominent white supremacists have already been appointed to the White House, while far-right groups, fortified by their access to mainstream politics, have become more prominent and outspoken.
Meanwhile, the UK has witnessed the recent political murder of MP and anti-racist campaigner Jo Cox by a white supremacist connected to far-right networks, while the post-Brexit context has been marked by widespread racist and xenophobic violence and abuse brought to bear against persons racialised as ‘non-native’.
Further, regimes in Turkey, India, and the Philippines are intensifying racial, ethnic or religious forms of exclusion and increasingly using violence and other means of oppression against their own people.
In parallel to, and in support of, fascist politics at the formal level, neo-nazi (so-called ‘alt-right’) supremacist movements are gathering strength globally and becoming more active online, on our campuses, and in other social spaces.

As members of the Warwick community, we do not take these grave social and political changes lightly and we are particularly concerned about the impact of fascistic actions and discourses on our own students. This event is therefore intended to provide a platform for us to confront our own responsibilities, both as citizens and academics, in this political moment. It will also be an opportunity to consider the technologies of exclusion which have already been normalised in our institutions — from the Prevent strategy to the monitoring of migrants — and to consider how these might be further countered.

During this session we will address the following questions:

What is the role of the academic, and the university more broadly, in an age of resurgent white supremacy?
In what ways can we show support and solidarity to our students of colour, migrants, and other targeted minorities as racist discourses and actions become ever more prominent in the public domain?
How can we collectively stand together to reject the fascist, racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic politics and sentiment which is gathering pace?
What can we do to resist the normalisation of the politics of exclusion?
How can we reconsider concepts such as no-platforming, non-cooperation, anti-normalisation, academic freedom, and freedom of speech in the urgent context of the rise of deadly political ideologies?
How can we construct spaces of sanctuary within our own flawed institution for students who feel as though they are in danger?
How can we counter those technologies of exclusion which have already been normalised?

This event is organised by Lisa Tilley (PAIS)

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Racism on Campus: The BME Attainment Gap in Higher Education

The Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Attainment Gap in UK Higher Education: A Student-Staff Roundtable

Wednesday 18th January
OC1.06 (Oculus Building)
4-6pm

This event invites students and staff to participate in a roundtable on the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) attainment gap in UK Higher Education. National data suggests that BME students routinely get lower grades than their white peers even when they enter on the same grades. Why does this occur? What are the barriers that BME students face in attaining higher grades? What practices at universities could support a fair, equitable system? Is blind-marking an effective insurance against institutional bias? What are the processes available to students who experience institutional discrimination?

This event will provide a forum for students and staff to learn about the BME attainment gap and to discuss ways of addressing it.

With Robbie Shilliam (QMUL) and Paul Warmington (Warwick), chaired by Gurminder Bhambra (Warwick).

This is the second event in the ‘Racism on Campus’ roundtable series, and is co-hosted by Warwick Anti-Racism Society. All welcome.

‘Is it a race thing or a lady thing?’ – the new Ghostbusters and the Academy

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Image: A female theorist dealing with another load of crap

When I first saw the announcement and trailer for the new Ghostbusters film, I thought I would hate it. Promoted as a film that would get girls interested in science, it seemed to reflect the usual blindness of institutional feminism to race and class. As the script itself puts it: ‘three scientists – plus Patty’. After the academic qualifications of Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) were written back out of the script of the 1984 film – no one knew he was actually a black superscientist – you would hope that the new film would be different, but it is not. On the other hand, it is not the trainwreck that I expected it to be – on the contrary.

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Image: ‘Guilty as charged!’

Many reviewers have complained that the ‘flipping’ of Ghostbusters is shallow and has failed to introduce a women’s perspective. I think the opposite is the case. In fact, the failure to recognise the female perspective is indicative of the ubiquitous white male blindness to processes of exclusion routinely faced by women and other ‘minorities’. Like the Ghostbusters’ assistant Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), white men are often oblivious to why the world works for them and why their gender or race isn’t an issue. This is especially obvious in this article in which a white male reviewer criticises the film for being apolitical and failing to produce an analysis of its time. In my view, the new Ghostbusters seems more political by going deeper into the mechanics and political embeddedness of academic exclusion than its predecessors.

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Image: ‘Let me in!’

As schemes from STEMnet science ambassadors to Athena Swan illustrate, there is a problem not only with recruiting women into science, but with retaining them. The higher you go up the career ladder, the fewer women you will encounter (in some science subjects, female students even outnumber male students, but this is not reflected in the faculty). It is the same story (but worse) for BME (black, minority ethnic) scholars, and there are also class and other biases. Even if you perform well in academia, the same factors that should have excluded you in the first instance, are likely to still work against you. This is brilliantly illustrated through the Ghostbusters characters.

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Image: Erin is denied tenure by the dean at Columbia

First we see Erin (Kirsten Wiig), a theoretical physicist whose tenure is delayed by increasingly ridiculous requirements that no male colleague would have to perform. Another reference, another grant, another book – something is always missing, while male colleagues with less impressive achievements effortlessly move past. We see how Erin is aware of this, anxious to meet these criteria down to her appearance, but, at the same time, angry at having to perform a disproportional amount of ‘ass-kissing’. What I also like about the Erin vignette is the attention to knowledge policing: what gets validated by Western academia and what doesn’t. Academia rewards particular standards, particular modes of thinking and producing. You need to be similar to others, to cite the canon, to orient your research towards the current funding. The film even shows how the refusal of other knowledges and experiences has shaped Erin’s private life. After her encounter with a ghost as a child, she was subjected to lengthy psychotherapy for rectification.

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Image: Patty tries to convince three white women that they have something in common

Patty (Leslie Jones) represents an extension of this theme by race and class. She is obviously very educated, but self-educated. US academia would have excluded her on the grounds of lack of funds and lack of appropriate background, most probably including schooling in non-prestigious institutions. If the film had been set in 1980s UK, she might have been an Open University student, but these sorts of opportunities have ceased to exist. Bored with her job and excited about expanding the boundaries of her knowledge, Patty decides to join the outcast women, with whom she feels a connection. The three white scientists at first do not feel or see a connection – Patty has to beg and bribe the group with her ‘benefits’ – but it gradually dawns on them that they have something in common. When she finally joins the team, Patty again takes to self-education. The scientists initially do not even consider that she might be interested in science – she is their equipment provider, ‘muscle’ and ‘native guide’ (not even historian) – but Patty observes, listens and starts to get active in the lab and in the field.

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Image: Abby has to realise that the margins are increasingly hard to find

In the original Ghostbusters film academia was the subject of critique for being oversaturated with time, space, funding and equipment. The new Ghostbusters film performs a reversal by its portrayal of the privatised, neoliberal academy: the university is now the space where you have to apply for funding, and you will only receive it if you can demonstrate ‘results’. If you want to do something long-term, creative and out of the ordinary, you have to stay out of sight and hide in the margins. This is shown through Abby’s (Melissa McCarthy) character who does exactly that, although she underestimates how much the margins are increasingly being closed down. When her institution is taken over by a crude cookie-cutter corporate type, the women and their research are immediately kicked out. Abby’s original plan was to save Erin from mainstream academia and show her the beauty of the margins, but they are now even further than initially anticipated. As even the most dubious institutions aim to get in with the top achievers, the margins have to move outside of any institution. You essentially have to sacrifice your career and expose yourself to the risk of your own enterprise.

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Image: Holtzmann: all bets (and safety lights) are off

Unlike Abby, Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) seems more clued up about the constantly moving margins. She is very socially observant and knows where boundaries are, why they are there and why they need crossing. She appears to be in a constant state of adaptation, which includes making do with equipment pieced together from dumpsters and generally making full use of the freedom not to have to conform. While Holtzmann certainly delivers, her work would be considered too extreme in a university context, as it disregards protocols on any level from health and safety guidelines to outward representation. With an attitude like ‘we nearly got killed – it was awesome!’, any institution would be in constant fear of litigation and of threats to its reputation. Holtzmann is not a dutiful workaholic loner, but a fun-loving, thrill-seeking boundary-pusher. Like Abby and Erin, however, Holtzmann has a PhD, which means that, at one point, she must have managed to pass through the university system. We later meet her mentor, Dr Rebecca Gorin (Sigourney Weaver), of whom we don’t know if she was her formal or informal supervisor. This also mirrors a frequent academic pattern of how some mavericks – and black or female academics – survive. They have someone who ‘gets’ them and has their back.

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Image: This is not the solution

Overall, the four women each have developed a different coping mechanism for being at odds with the system: self-education (Patty), self-experimentation (Holtzmann), refuge in margins (Abby) and self-censorship to fit into the mainstream (Erin). Their antagonist, Rowan (Neil Casey), has had similar experiences with the system, but his coping strategy is revenge. The women understand the source of his pain and madness, but they also understand that total obliteration is not benefitting anyone and even validates the authority and prestige of the system. While prestige through validation is seductive, one also ends up reproducing the problem instead of remaining open to alternatives, including more supportive forms of co-operation. Perhaps the Ghostbusters are also more used to facing default devaluation because of their gender, and have learnt not to individualise the issue. This awareness, of course, does not render them immune to the desire to be known. When Erin is about to make a deadly mistake solely to refute another white male expert who tries to discredit her, Abby sharply reminds her ‘who cares??’ Erin succumbs anyway, and almost ends up putting everyone in jail for an inexplicable murder – there is no win situation.

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Image: Now on Amazon – ghostwritten

In a twisted way, the situation mirrors the title of Erin’s and Abby’s book: the four women continue to be haunted by the ghosts of white male supremacy and ‘official culture’ literally and figuratively, whether it’s male antagonists, debunkers, saboteurs, or supposed male allies like Kevin (the latter ending up bonding with ‘debunker’ Heist over his hat). This is rendered very literal in the film’s takedown of the freshly supercharged Rowan, when he resists the women’s efforts of putting him away into the netherworld by clinging onto two skyscrapers: ‘Let’s loosen his grip’ (on Abby’s command, the Ghostbusters open fire on his crotch, not his hands) Patty: ‘That’s where you wanted us to shoot, right?’.

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Image: Patriarchy comes to haunt the Ghostbusters wherever they go

In a less obvious manner, the film reflects arguments that have been made about the status of the margins made by people such as bell hooks and Moten & Harney. The latter offer an extensive manual for dealing with academia and wider power structures in their publication ‘the undercommons’ (link to pdf): how to use spaces where you are not supposed to be. As in ‘the undercommons’, the female Ghostbusters represent “the subversive intellectual [who] came under false pretenses, with bad documents, out of love. Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings”. Indeed, the film shows constant attempts at repressing the efforts of the Ghostbusters from official side, even though they show ‘results’ – better results. Yet solutions are not officially allowed to come out of the margins, as much as they are inofficially needed. The illusion that the current system works must be maintained at all costs: ‘the mayor thanks you, privately, but don’t tell anyone!’

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Image: Another gatekeeper says no

In conclusion, you could say that Ghostbusters represents science accurately: not just in the ‘techno-babble’, but also in its institutional make-up. If the makers of the film think that it will attract more girls into science, they might be right. The female scientists are not only nerdy, but clever, funny and cool. Whether young women – or other ‘marginal’ thinkers – will be able to enter academia and advance within it, is a different story. Under current institutional conditions, present exclusions and hierarchies are sharpening rather than loosening up. The film seems to be aware that, for these women to succeed in mainstream science, conditions would need to be very different. Even when the Ghostbusters are finally acknowledged and generously rewarded, they choose to claim and maintain their own place. The message might be very much akin to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s strategy of the undercommons: if you do your research out of love, take what you can from the system and run.

RACE Awards & Teaching Workshop now open for registration

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Image: Ellen Gallagher IGBT (2008)

Two exciting things are happening at the RACE (Race, Culture & Equality) Working group.

1) Two of our members, Margaret Byron (our chair) and Parvati Raghuram (committee member) are receiving awards from the RGS-IBG on 6 June. Margaret is receiving the Taylor & Francis Award for the promotion of diversity in the teaching of human geography, and Parvati is receiving the Murchinson Award for furthering geographical understandings of mobility.

2) Our RACE teaching workshop has been confirmed by the RGS-IBG conference organisers. It will take place on the Tuesday of the conference and will be free to attend (no conference registration needed!). The workshop is divided into two themes: Race in the Curriculum and Challenging Exclusionary Spaces. We hope to see you there! You can register for the workshop on our Eventbrite page.

Super-natural futures: One possible dialogue between Afrofuturism and the Anthropocene

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Image: Ellen Gallagher, ‘Abu Simbel’

Two types of invitations seem to be floating into my inbox with increasing frequency, for talks and exhibitions on the Anthropocene and Afrofuturism respectively. The latter was the subject of Union Black/The British Library’s Space Children, Kosmica’s ‘Astroculture’ event at the Arts Catalyst, Tate Modern’s Afrofuturism’s Others and the Photographers Gallery’s Afronauts by Cristina de Middel. Afrofuturism even cropped up at UCL’s interdisciplinary Cosmologies symposium as an example of a ‘dissident cosmology’. As discussed in a previous post, much Anthropocene themed art uses geology as a starting point to re-think the human as a geologic agent. Afrofuturism, by contrast, (re)imagines African (especially African diaspora) pasts and futures through flamboyant scifi and spiritual aesthetics. Canonical examples include the music Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic, Nona Hendryx and Drexciya, the writing of Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson and Samuel Delaney, and the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Rammellzee and Renée Cox.

Despite their apparently different aesthetics and citational practices, there seems to be a dialogue between the two genres that goes beyond mere navigation between far pasts and futures. Looking at the common reference of the cosmic and its role as both origin and culturally marked space, the first part of the dialogue could be summed up as: who (or what) makes the future? Is it geologic or cosmic forces? Is it humans? And, if it is humans, what sorts of humans? Poor, rich, Black, White, male, female, straight, gay? Scientists or politicians? None of these assumed polarities? Here, Afrofuturism does not provide an answer, but possibilities. First of all, it confronts us with our expectations of ‘race’. As Lisa Yaszek writes:

‘[f]rom the ongoing war on terror to Hurricane Katrina, it seems that we are trapped in an historical moment when we can think about the future only in terms of disaster — and that disaster is almost always associated with the racial other.’

Or, in Anthropocene terms: rich White people cause disaster, poor Black people are its victims. While people in the ‘global North’ indeed have a disproportional share in furthering climate change, such framings have led to warnings about a potential resurgence of ‘old… tropes of racial capability’, as issued, for instance, by Yasmin Gunaratnam and Nigel Clark. Rather than trying to silence the debate, they call for an exploration of ‘the ‘primitivism’ inscribed in our bodies, psyches and cultures’. It is such inscriptions of primitivism that Afrofuturism plays with, not only regarding African cultures, but all cultures. The play with Egyptian origins and aesthetics by Sun Ra and Ellen Gallagher exemplifies the historical struggle over cultural legacies and the construction of ‘high culture’ and primitivism.

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Image: Still from Sun Ra’s ‘Space is the Place’ film

Although often humorous in nature, the Egyptian imagery points to questions about whom this construction continues to serve and about how it can be rewritten. The origin of Afrofuturism in the ‘global North’ further contributes to the cultural challenge. As South African digital artist Tegan Bristow phrases it: ‘[u]nlike what it suggests, Afrofuturism has nothing to do with Africa, and everything to do with cyberculture in the West’. Seen from this angle, the origin as well as the necessity of the term ‘Afrofuturism’ underscore the fact that the ‘African’ and African diaspora have routinely been excluded from ‘modern’ and techno-futurist visions and set apart from the ‘mainstream’ (there is an excellent talk by Madhu Dubey on this topic here). Here I am reminded of Octavia Butler’s response (around 7 minutes in) to a White science fiction author who argued that there is no necessity for Black people to appear in their novels, because statements about the Other can be made through aliens. In an inversion of stereotypes, some Afrofuturist commentators highlight the ‘primitivism’ of a science that seeks to classify the ‘primitive’, pointing to mainstream science’s contribution to racism and genocide at various moments in history (examples can be found in Alondra Nelson’s book Body and Soul and in this catalogue on Ellen Gallagher).


Dipesh Chakrabarty on ‘History on an expanded canvas: The Anthropocene’s invitation’ at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.

Similarly, the Anthropocene discourse practices inversion as a strategy to unsettle visions of modernity and to search for new models of human agency. Although scientists have not been able to agree on a potential beginning for the proposed new era, the industrial revolution and its heavy reliance on fossil fuel consumption remains a strong contender. When it comes to our (primitive?) dependency on these energy sources, scientists and social scientists have started to re-examine preconceived notions of cause and effect: are fossil fuels shaping human society and not the other way round? (Yusoff, Moore, Roddier) What kind of agency do humans have to affect social and environmental change? Are new strategies in order? Again, such debates, draw on arguments about our current interpretation of ‘modernity’: what kind of ‘rationality’ should modernity (and ‘modern science’) follow? Do ‘subaltern modernities’ reflect a more accurate vision of modernity? Can humans see themselves as a ‘species’?

AFROGALACTICA: A short history of the future from Kapwani Kiwanga on Vimeo.

Turning back to Afrofuturism, sociologist and writer Alondra Nelson suggests that it represents more than a critique of modernity – it is about ‘aspirations for modernity’. Rather than dwelling on the negative, it ‘enables thought about a lineage of work that propels future other work’ that co-shapes the future. It is occupied with the ‘living future’ (to use Barbara Adam & Chris Groves’s term), the potential for different futures inherent in the present. One trajectory that Afrofuturism pursues is a reshuffling of difference. According to Nelson, popular interest in genetics and the potential discovery of links to previously unknown, geographically distributed ancestors, is, despite its focus on physical difference, already unsettling and reshaping identities, both at the micro and macrolevel (audio here).

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Ellen Gallagher, ‘IGBT’

In this context, an important question was asked at the Tate Modern, in conjunction with artist Ellen Gallagher’s AxMe exhibition: who can be an Afrofuturist? Entitled, ‘Afrofuturism’s Others’, the organisers, panellists and audience explored whether Afrofuturists could be anything other than African American. In discussing the work of Kara Walker, Lili Reynaud Dewar, Larissa Sansour, Mehreen Murtaza, Jean Genet, Ellen Gallagher and others, the case was made that Afrofuturism contemplates an absence of racial and geographical boundaries. In particular, the speakers considered the problematic, but also potentially productive relation between racialization, as turning certain humans into part of the ‘productive landscape’, and ‘species being’, which is also a materialisation, but one that can go either way in terms of dealing with difference (the work of Sylvia Wynter was mentioned). The works discussed included examples of deliberate and accidental solidarities: art and music that referenced ‘Afrofuturists’ or became interpreted as ‘Afrofuturist’ on the basis of aesthetic (mis)interpretation (curator and co-organiser Zoe Whitley described a humorous encounter where she misread a painted black figure as signifying ‘Black’).

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Image: Mehreen Murtaza, ‘Divine Invasion’

Here, a second trajectory seems to emerge that asks not only ‘what is ‘afro’, but ‘what could the ‘afro’ be and do?’ This takes us to the ‘Africa is (not) a country’ awareness campaign (example blog here). As many African Americans point out, the slavery system often deprived them of more detailed knowledge about their ancestry other than ‘African’. At the same time, the ‘African’ has acquired meaning for the community and is increasingly also tied to particular political imaginations. During my visit to Detroit, I found that African American activists were talking about promoting an ‘African model’ of community and of reshaped institutions against the ‘White corporate’ model. At a film screening of Branwen Okpako’s ‘The Education of Auma Obama’ at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, African visions of trajectories for modernity again came up, prompted by Auma Obama’s discussion (in the film) with Kenyan students about the kind of lifestyles they are hoping to pursue. Obama asked her students to consider what premise notions of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ are based on. Development of/towards what? Industrial farming, increased levels of consumption, loss of community? Why could certain ‘African’ models of living not hold the key to human development? Seen through the lens of Afrofuturism, one could say that if the ‘afro’ can be shaped into something coherent, this move does not necessarily imply a wish to do away with nuances and differences. Instead, it could be read as a productively employed and reframed cliché that critiques a privileged socio-economic model. Its future trajectory could indeed transcend its current context. The question here might be phrased as: can established categories be rejected by getting contemporary ‘non-Others’ to adopt the model that is normally deemed ‘other’?

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Image: from Cristina de Middel, ‘Afronauts’

The corresponding Anthropocene question might be put as ‘what could the ‘geo’’ be and do? The logic seems to be that if the human can be a geologic force, how else is human life geophysical – and how could this perspective lead to a more constructive reframing of politics and the social? Especially since, thanks to climate change, the stability of the ‘meteorological White middle class’ (as a recent German TV satire described Europe) might become seriously unsettled… So far, quite a few proposals have tried to put human politics into perspective: we might do all these politics for economic power – but at the end of the day, when oil is used up, the water is polluted and the temperature is up, our role as a geologic force might be unsatisfactorily short. Shouldn’t humans work more in cooperation in the face of geophysical processes that will carry on without consideration of human needs? It is interesting to note that some of the most interesting proposals have again been excluded from the ‘mainstream’ and have been consigned to the area of ‘post-colonial ecologies’. I am thinking here especially of French-Caribbean discussions of geopoetics (Maximin, Glissant, Condé etc). Conversely, scholars from post-colonial studies, such as DeLoughrey and Handley, have criticised that ‘Westerners’ are in search of ‘Other’ models to bring a much needed conceptual injection. This debate raises questions about the conditions under which dialogue should take place.

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Ellen Gallagher, Detail from ‘Afrylic’

For me, visiting Ellen Gallagher’s exhibition at the Tate Modern (on view until 1 September 2013) synthesized the dialogue between Anthropocene and Afrofuturism even more intensely (enter the ‘Afrocene’?). Walking through the different rooms, I was struck by what I experienced as a ‘hypermaterialisation’ of layers and layers of material and meaning. Many art critics have commented on her relationship with the material, for example, Gallagher’s wish to ‘maintain the ‘vulnerability’ of her materials and their forms’ (Shiff), her use of African American wigs as a conduit to the supernatural (de Zegher), but few manage to capture the intensity of an entire retrospective. Robin Kelly comes the closest: he describes his encounter with Ellen Gallagher’s work as ‘confounding’.

‘To confound is not simply to confuse, but to surprise or perplex by challenging received wisdom. It also means to mix up or fail to discern differences between things.’

I don’t think any term could be more accurate. To me, Gallagher’s shifts between meanings of medicine and wig adverts, ‘high’ and ‘low’ art/culture references, ‘nature’ (I especially loved the title ‘Double Natural’) and ‘blackness’, marine creatures, minstrel imagery, ambiguous organic shapes and political pamphlets rendered tangible the multiple ways in which people are being materialised and enlisted as part of social and economic production: overworked and stuck in a job you cannot get out of? Pop a pill. More ‘organic’ than society’s ideal? Neighbours throwing bombs into your house? Buy a wig. Keep calm and carry on. The sheer ridiculousness of the enterprise as well as our complicity in it becomes apparent. Does Gallagher suggest any way out? It seemed to me that she was perhaps implying that the path towards more productive forms of materialisation may lie not only in realising the ridiculousness, but to start from it. Geology and politics? Ridiculous! Africans in space? Ridiculous! A more equal global society? Ridiculous! Or is it?