hauntology and Afro-futurism?
November 15, 2019 1:04 AM   Subscribe

Wondering if someone can explain these interesting concepts to me in a simple way.

They fascinate me but I don't feel like I actually understand them! The wiki entries only confused me further. I think in general, pomo crit theory is really difficult for me to parse.
posted by CancerSucks to Grab Bag (4 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Mark Fisher is a very readable 'theory' writer, and pretty much made hauntology the concept it is considered today (after Derrida). Try his main book covering the subject, but also take a look back at his old blog entries (Mark sadly committed suicide a few years ago), which are really accessible.

Afro-futurism might be argued to have some overlaps with hauntology, but I would pretty much separate the concepts. There have been a lot of write ups on this in recent years, with a surge in interest. Perhaps look at the theory work of a writer like Kodwo Eshun, or browse Monoskop's bibliography of Afrofuturism.
posted by 0bvious at 4:50 AM on November 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Seriously, read the Eshun, a lot of it is like a story more than a theory essay. It's one of my favorite essays. Also, the introductions to some of the Afrofuturist compilations will probably provide more detail - Octavia's Brood, Mothership, etc.

I think that there's both pop and academic use of "Afrofuturism" and neither is a really precise definition. Popularly, I think "Afrofuturism" is "science fiction, science fantasy or fiction about the space race that centers Black consciousness and either shows a future of Black liberation, a future of Black liberation struggle or a trajectory toward liberation coming into being". Very often, people mean that it has an aesthetic that draws heavily from sixties futurism, black liberation movements, Sun Ra and arts from many African cultures.

The ideas that I've taken away from some more theoretical readings are a bit more about narrative, which is where the Eshun comes in.

Like, he draws from Mark Fisher's idea of "science fiction capital" - basically a narrative of the future which gives power to what we'll call the Forces of Evil to shape the present. "Science fiction capital" is when you can tell the stories of the future as if they are about only white people, capitalism, dominion, expansion, wealth, exploitation - when everyone understands the future as the continuation of the evil present. That understanding is actually a kind of capital because its logic literally underpins things like government policy, access to loans and myriad daily actions.

So part of Afrofuturism is about contesting the future - saying that multiple futures are possible and that people can create a kind of "capital" by making Black futures the strongest and most enticing. Afrofuturism centers Black possibility and the destruction of racism, and uses Black experiences (individual or collective) and Black history as the framing devices/starting points to understand the world - like, what history does everyone remember? what experiences shaped people? what philosophies speak to Black experiences? (And people make the point that "the alien invasion already happened" for Black and indigenous people - the white standpoint is "ooh aliens might arrive and do bad stuff" but really we were the monstrous aliens who arrived and did bad stuff, the theme of alien invasion has a really different valence depending on whose standpoint you accept.)

This also implies an Afropastism, which Eshun is getting at when he writes about the archaeologists. If you're going to follow the threads of a liberatory future, you're following them from the past, so you need to seek out a "usable past", a past that lets you tell the story of where you want to go. So a past that centers Black experiences, Black liberation, Black writers, etc and a past where you can say "look at all these possibilities, things could have been different, so we can still imagine that they'll be different".

This is a theme of two really neat books - Terry Bisson's Fire On The Mountain and Nisi Shawl's Everfair. (Bisson is white and in general white people are not ever going to be Afrofuturist writers because they obviously can't write from a Black subject position, but an excerpt from this was included in the anthology Octavia's Brood and Bisson the man has a long history of militant involvement in Black-led activism, so he's a bit of an outlier.)

Anyway, Fire On The Mountain has a wonderful alternate present-US and a Mars expedition as a framing device, but it is mostly an alternate history of the US Civil War, in which Harriet Tubman is not ill but leads the raid on Harper's Ferry, which is successful and starts the Civil War from a radical left guerilla standpoint. So Bisson is making this alternate past which flows through to an alternate future.

Everfair starts out before the Civil War with a Black and white-organized effort to found a sorta-Black-liberation-based colony in Africa (and the book does deal with all the ways in which this is problematic). It plays with time and narrative and the individual role in history - it's a terrific book,some people find it a bit difficult if you're not used to the perspective and time jumps she uses, but just a wonderful moving book about a whole society and liberation struggle.

There's this idea that the future doesn't just...happen. That it's a story and that there's a fight about the story - who gets to tell it, who gets included, how it is told. (Both the Bisson and the Shawl use multiple perspectives and movement through time to sort of destabilize the "and then A happened and then B happened and the individual is the most important and white supremacist capitalist patriarchy on Mars the end"...so there's like a writerly aesthetic component as well as a "what do things look like" aesthetic component".

So I would also add that I am not an expert on Afrofuturism and also I'm white; it's not like I'm going to be able to give some kind of lived, deep, intimate answer. It's just that I feel like it is so good and so exciting; I've rarely been so moved as by the Eshun essay, for instance. It never loses its amazing feeling of possibility.

I wouldn't say I'm totally up on hauntology - also a nebulous term - but I think it ties together with Afrofuturism in that the idea is that all the possible futures that "didn't happen" still left these traces in how we think, remember and live. Like, on a trivial level, all those "space age" diners and architecture, or the Jetsons. We're still "haunted" by those ideas about the future, they still have physical persistence in the world and persist in the ways we think about what might have happened, ought to have happened, was prevented from happening, etc. And this in turn opens up questions about what still might happen.

If there's one thing I took away from reading Fisher, it was his focus on this same kind of "fight for the future" - like, how do we fight the narratives which say that "there is no alternative" to the Forces of Evil? He described (I mean, lots of people described) how Thatcher and later other neoliberals created this "there is no alternative, there is no society only individuals and families" to try to foreclose the futurist narratives about what could possibly happen. And how restrictive readings of the past made it seem like only one future could emerge. "Hauntology" is a way of seeking out those other possibilities in a time when they are occluded, attacked or hidden.

I think that both hauntology and Afrofuturism emphasize the popular and the everyday - pop music, decor, genre fiction, movies, etc. They're about popular experiences that underpin our daily consciousness.

Now the future seems contestable once again, even if that's more because things are out in the open - the economy is polarized everywhere, uprisings and coups are happening, it's not possible to assert the old bad stability so sought by Thatcher et al.

You know the idea of a "hegemonic project"? The idea that something is hegemonic when it is the common sense of the times, when it is assumed everywhere in thought, culture, economics, aesthetics, politics? I think that both Afrofuturism and hauntology function as ways to contest the hegemony of the forces of evil*.

*I mean, I'm quite serious; white supermacist capitalist heteronomative patriarchal capitalism as personified by the Thatchers and Thiels as well as by the "nice" ones like Gates etc and how they appear in culture and politics. Those forces that are united in their desire to take as much as they can from everyone they can conquer and who strive to make this the normal, universal understanding of the world and to write out other understandings of the past and future.
posted by Frowner at 5:59 AM on November 15, 2019 [15 favorites]

This pair of tweets, one from CLR James and one from an anthropologist, Jonathan Rosa, also seem related to what I understand about Afrofuturism - that whiteness/capitalism/the whole Evil project is predicated on philosophically excluding or subordinating Black people (BIPOC generally in various different ways, too) and once you start from a Black standpoint the bad assumptions don't work anymore.

Like for instance, I've been reading The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, which, among other things, talks about how the American banking system and the expansion of American territories grew in large part out of white people's desire to use slavery as an investment vehicle - like, treat enslaved people as physical securities for loans, bundle those loans the way the mortgages got bundled in the mortgage crisis and make them into investment vehicles that shared the risks of slavery among investors all over the [white] world. American capitalism isn't at all "natural"; it's the result of going to Africa and taking people away to work to death in the new world - to work to death! - and then selling the risk which itself complexifies and expands financial markets. You can see that what we frame as a "naturally occurring" economic development, or at least one that's "violent" in sort of an "it's a kind of violence when people can't afford the doctor" nonspecific way, is actually the result of this specific concrete intentional serious of monstrous acts, worse than a horror movie.

So once you start digging into the past, telling a story that doesn't assume that capitalism is normal and natural and that white people's stories are the important ones, you start seeing different pasts and a different present, and the old teleological "this was a natural development that happened through hard to quantify, hard to prevent actions and things could have gone no other way" thing falls apart.

So I guess what I was trying to say is that although Afrofuturism centers Blackness, the way that white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is constructed means that centering Blackness isn't just "the way things are plus some new stuff"; it knocks down the whole house of cards.
posted by Frowner at 7:42 AM on November 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Hauntology via Derrida seems a bit different than where Fisher and others took it, some looking to the term in almost a genre sense, applying it to existent works that they think capture the concept and making new works around the idea. The links provided are good ones and Fisher is worth reading, I'd just suggest questioning some of the underlying ideas beyond the categorizing, since I'm not convinced it is all that different, other than in the word play, than memory itself. As we age, for example, we often hold a vision of ourselves that is based in who we were at a much younger age, our "primes" or some such, that we hold as a sort of inner truth of self that our actual lived condition may not match. The "ghosts" of the past and our missed possibilities act as a drag on our present because they are so entwined with our lived memory of self. We know our past and don't know our future, so of course the past defines how we see the world and share our experiences of it.

It's not that there isn't anything to hauntology in that way, but it's now gained a new life of its own in seeking to make manifest what was always implicit via the attempts to categorize and create works that appear to put hauntological interests at their center, like showing the future as a world of ruins from our past or making music "today" that builds from a dated aesthetic of "yesterday" and so on. The aesthetic can be powerful, so the appeal is easy to understand, but the idea of hauntology as something genre-like can miss the more universal side to it that Derrida seemed to be speaking of, but, since it is Derrida, it's not like it was going to be all that clear anyway.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:20 AM on November 15, 2019

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