Vernacular Reality

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***We also recognize:***

The imaginative challenge that awaits any Mundane Afrofuturist author who accepts that this is it: Earth is all we have. What will we do with it?

The chastening but hopefully enlivening effect of imagining a world without fantasy bolt-holes: no portals to the Egyptian kingdoms, no deep dives to Drexciya, no flying Africans to whisk us off to the Promised Land.

The possibilities of a new focus on black humanity: our science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individuality, needs, dreams, hopes, and failings.

The surge of bedazzlement and wonder that awaits us as we contemplate our own cosmology of blackness and our possible futures.

The relief of recognizing our authority. We will root our narratives in a critique of normative, white validation. Since “fact” and “science” have been used throughout history to serve white supremacy, we will focus on an emotionally true, vernacular reality.

The understanding that our “twoness” is inherently contemporary, even futuristic. DuBois asks how it feels to be a problem. Ol’ Dirty Bastard says “If I got a problem, a problem’s got a problem ’til it’s gone.”

An awakening sense of the awesome power of the black imagination: to protect, to create, to destroy, to propel ourselves towards what poet Elizabeth Alexander describes as “a metaphysical space beyond the black public everyday toward power and wild imagination.”

The opportunity to make sense of the nonsense that regularly—and sometimes violently—accents black life.

The electric feeling that Mundane Afrofuturism is the ultimate laboratory for worldbuilding outside of imperialist, capitalist, white patriarchy.

The sense that the rituals and inconsistencies of daily life are compelling, dynamic, and utterly strange.

Mundane Afrofuturism opens a number of themes and flavors to intertextuality, double entendre, politics, incongruity, polyphony, and collective first-person—techniques that we have used for years to make meaning.

Text: Martine Syms, The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto, via rhizome.org

Pic: Hebru Brantley, Into Obscurity, via Chicago Reader.

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Transizion

“Science is a way of thinking about reality that takes its objectivity for granted. Fiction is a way of describing reality that assumes the subjectivity of experience—for every fiction, a different way of seeing things, a different reality. The two words together contradict each other. A thing cannot be both “science” and “fiction” at the same time, any more than it can be both “reality” and “fiction.”

“We don’t talk about “reality fiction”; we talk about “realistic fiction,” literature that seems real even though we know it is fictional. But despite numerous attempts to change the name, we do talk about “science fiction.” I suspect the name evokes the central paradox of the genre; science fiction pretends to take the objectivity of the world it describes for granted, yet clearly does not describe the objective world as we know it to be. It is “scientific,” but clearly unrealistic.

“[Darko] Suvin’s “Cognitive estrangement” is the “factual reporting of fictions.” For Suvin, this has the significant effect of separating or “estranging” us from our usual assumptions about reality. “Estrangement” is Suvin’s version of Bertold Brecht’s “Verfremdung,” usually translated as “alienation.” Brecht was talking about describing familiar things as if they were unfamiliar; not quite logically, Suvin borrows the phrase to comment on how science fiction describes unfamiliar things as if they were familiar. But for Suvin the final effect is the same; by Brechtian distancing or by the unfamiliarity of science fictional worlds, we are estranged from our assumptions about reality and forced to question them.”

Text: Perry Nodelman, The Cognitive Estrangement of Darko Suvin, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly Volume 5, Number 4, Winter 1981.

Video: Transizion, Suna Celik [2013].

A Subtle Oscillation

“Power now deploys a mode the critic Mark Fisher calls SF (science fiction) capital. SF capital is the synergy, the positive feedback between future-oriented media and capital. The alliance between cybernetic futurism and “New Economy” theories argues that information is a direct generator
of economic value. Information about the future therefore circulates as an increasingly important commodity.

“It exists in mathematical formalizations such as computer simulations, economic projections, weather reports, futures trading, think-tank reports, consultancy papers—and through informal descriptions such as science fiction cinema, science-fiction novels, sonic fictions, religious prophecy, and venture capital. Bridging the two are formal-informal hybrids, such as the global scenarios of the professional market futurist.

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“Looking back at the media generated by the computer boom of the 1990s,it is clear that the effect of the futures industry—defined here as the intersecting industries of technoscience, fictional media, technological projection,and market prediction—has been to fuel the desire for a technology boom. Given this context, it would be naïve to understand science fiction, located within the expanded field of the futures industry, as merely prediction into the far future, or as a utopian project for imagining alternative social realities.

“Science fiction might better be understood, in Samuel R. Delany’s statement, as offering “a significant distortion of the present” (Last Angel of History 1995). To be more precise, science fiction is neither forward-looking nor utopian. Rather, in William Gibson’s phrase, science fiction is a means
through which to preprogram the present. Looking back at the genre, it becomes apparent that science fiction was never concerned with the future, but rather with engineering feedback between its
preferred future and its becoming present.

“Hollywood’s 1990s love for sci-tech fictions, from The Truman Show to The Matrix, from Men in Black to Minority Report, can therefore be seen as product-placed visions of the reality-producing power of computer networks, which in turn contribute to an explosion in the technologies they hymn. As New Economy ideas take hold, virtual futures generate capital. A subtle oscillation between prediction and control is being engineered in which successful or powerful descriptions of the future have an increasing ability to draw us towards them, to command us to make them flesh.

“Science fiction is now a research and development department within a futures industry that dreams of the prediction and control of tomorrow. Corporate business seeks to manage the unknown through decisions based on scenarios, while civil society responds to future shock through habits formatted by science fiction. Science fiction operates through the power of falsification, the drive to rewrite reality, and the will to deny plausibility, while the scenario operates through the control and prediction of plausible alternative tomorrows.”

Text: Kodwo Eshun, Further Considerations of Afrofuturism, The New Centennial Review, Volume 3, Number 2, Summer 2003, pp. 287-302.

Pic: Simone Leigh, “Herero Dress 1904,” 2011 (porcelain, graphite and epoxy), via Art Recognition Culture

Total: $219

“Both on and off screen, food literally ‘places’ us in the world, both through its materiality and its meanings. In its materiality, food forces attention to the body; in its many psychological and social meanings, food preferences and the rituals of eating help reveal the shadings of gender, class, ethnicity, power, and community. For food not only shapes our bodies, but it structures our lives, fashioning daily rituals and helping mark significant rites of passage. Food connects us to others  both directly, through shared meals, and culturally, through shared ‘tastes.’ Parley Anne Boswell (1990) notes that food is a staple of film properties in nearly all genres. ‘Audiences respond to food, to eating, to dining scenes because we all understand something about food  we all eat’. Mary Anne Schofield argues that food in literature ‘articulates in concrete terms what is often vague, internal, abstract’. Depictions of meals in films serve as shorthand that often allows audiences to better understand individual characters through their relationship to food and characters’ relationships with others in interactions taking place over food…”

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“The less the world of the future resembles our own present, the more that food seems deployed as a bridge, not simply to the present but to an even more distant past. This seems particularly true of films in which environmental crises have reconfigured the world. In a bleak setting, familiar foods take on the role of ‘comfort foods’ quite literally  and offer a means of clinging to a former world. The opening sequence of Soylent Green (1973) offers a visual history of earth’s collapse, beginning with a slow black and white photographic montage of pastoral scenes and then speeding forward into an increasingly urbanized and industrialized landscape  in which technology ultimately transforms cities into waste heaps of detritus. Of all the films discussed in this essay, Soylent Green is most explicitly about food. Food not only figures into several lengthy scenes, but it is central to the anxieties about the future at the heart of the film. In an early scene, the film’s protagonist, an investigator named Thorn (Charlton Heston), visits a black market grocery store  where a single stalk of celery and two small apples are rung up for a total of $219. And then a cut of beef is revealed  so exotic and fantastical that no price is ever named. We understand immediately that only the very privileged can afford such luxuries, and then only rarely. The mass of humanity subsists on a mysterious diet of soylent green. When Thorn and his partner Sol (Edward G. Robinson) sit down to their dinner of salad (ironically flavorless-looking iceberg lettuce and a small, pale tomato) and beef stew, the older man reveals that it has been years since he’s tasted anything like it; Thorn admits these flavors are all new to him. Yet both men revel in the sensory experience and seem to derive equal pleasure from the flavors  for one, familiar, for the other, exotic  they taste. For Sol, this meal operates much like Proust’s madeleine, evoking another world, another time. Yet Thorn’s response reminds us that nostalgia need not be grounded in memory. An imagined past is every bit as powerful as a remembered one…”

Text: Jean P. Retzinger (2008): Speculative Visions and Imaginary Meals, Cultural Studies, 22:3-4, 369-390.
Pic: Soylent Green [1973], Dir: Richard Fleischer.

Saturated In Neon

“Can there be a science fiction photography? This is not a question critics working in the field of the fantastic have ever asked, as far as I’m aware, even though the conception of the visual cultures of sf has been continually expanding, through comics, cinema, animation, and computer gaming. There has been some attention paid to painterly modes of fantasy, the kitsch art of the sf pulps, and the vernacular modes of futuristic architecture (from New York skyscrapers to streamline deco to space age design) , but I have found virtually no commentary on the relations of sf and photography…

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“The most science fictional of […] photographers, in my view, is the British artist Dan Holdsworth. Holdsworth openly deploys the traditional iconography of the sublime. The World in Itself is a series of images of the glacial landscapes of Iceland, territories of ice and rock that are aeons older than the first human settlements on Iceland and which come closest to alien landscapes on earth. Holdsworth has talked about these landscapes in the same sort of multi-temporal terms I’ve been outlining here: these images, he suggests, explore “the nature of the archaic in contemporary society and how that manifests itself” . But more typically, Holdsworth investigates the frontiers where the natural and the technological force a reconfiguring of the sublime. In one of the images for A Machine for Living, Holdsworth invokes the classic iconography of the sublime cliff, but replaces the lone Caspar David Friedrich figure at the summit with an electricity pylon, the power lines containing the chasm beneath. Elsewhere, in a series called At the Edge of Space, Holdsworth explored the strange territories of the European Space Station in French Guyana. He has also documented closed scientific environments that are baffled against the intrusion of sound and abolish echo. His most emblematic series, though, are the images he takes at night of human developments on the edges of cities. A Machine for Living includes night-time images of the empty networks of car-parks and roadways, saturated in neon. Megalith, an iconic Holdsworth image, is a long night-time exposure of a motorway advertising gantry – yet the title suggests some gnomic object of an advanced civilisation from a tale by Arthur C. Clarke. It stands over the terrain like a Wellsian tripod. Holdsworth never works inside cities, but at the suburban edges where develop- ments run into older, natural landscapes and create odd hybrid territories which feel deeply uncanny. He never photographs human beings in these images, and it is as if, at night, and through the magic of long exposures that reveal more than the unaided human eye, these new terrains reveal their truly alien nature.

“Given Holdsworth’s 1998 series Autopia, night scenes of empty motorway architectures, it is unsurprising to find critics reaching for J. G. Ballard’s title, Myths of the Near Future, when trying to explain the weirdness of these images. “The transformative mechanism of the camera allows Holdsworth to project those imprints into the near future, to the edges of our aspiration and into our unconscious ‘inner space”‘ . Ballard’s iconography is full of striking images of future ruins, rusting space technologies, and poisoned nuclear test grounds. Angus Carlyle has argued that Holdsworth is using the iconography of the sublime to photograph a second nature, places that are “dizzying grey zones [where] uncertainty opens up, the ideas of nature and culture find themselves suddenly stuck by provisionalising apostrophes” (43). We might also reach for Bruno La tour’s language of tangled objects or provisional assemblages to describe this sublime second nature.”

Text: Roger Luckhurst, “Contemporary Photography and the Technological Sublime, or, Can There Be a Science Fiction Photography?” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. Pocatello: 2008. Vol. 19, Iss. 2; pg. 181.

Image: Dan Holdsworth, Autopia 01, 1996. C-type print, 121×101 cm

The Scale of Logic

“In its secularized form, the uncanny becomes a matter of design. Artists employ its tricks. Audiences laugh and enjoy rather than tremble or cower. In the modern uncanny, optics and identity point us to issues of anamorphosis, psychological rivalry, and the variations on themes of the fantastic to play out an architecture that connects mythic thinking to modern conceptualism. The modern secular uncanny can in fact give us insight into the workings of the more mysterious pre-modern uncanny, which can be credited with architecture’s most potent forces. After all, the heimlich relates directly to the home and the unheimlich to homelessness. Alfred Hitchcock’s crafty application of these two features are invaluable for architectural discourse and critical theory.

“Sigmund Freud’s original essay begins with an etymological consideration of the words heimlich and unheimlich. Curiously, the word heimlich (homey) is itself “uncanny,” for it contains within its own philological past the seeds of the idea of the uncanny, in itself an important clue. The steps from the homely to the uncanny have to do with hiding things. In the sense that “hidden away” can be a part of coziness, it at first belongs to the security that can be offered by the home: concealment from the eyes of strangers. Later, however, the uncanny comes to specialize on this theme, emphasizing “something that ought to have remained a secret” but is nonetheless discovered; something that was “there all the time” but once brought to light becomes harmful or, at the very least, scary.

“In returning E. T. A. Hoffman’s short story, “The Sandman,” we find not only the two themes that Freud cites as key to the uncanny — optics and identity crisis — but the structure of the story pre-figures many Hitchcock themes and characterizations. Like Nathanael, Hitchcock heroes are often fugitives from justice who must find the “evil father” to avoid punishment of the “good father.” Like Olimpia/Claire, Hitchcock heroines often begin as “constructs” (Rear Window, The 39 Steps, Notorious) but end up by saving the day. And, like “The Sandman” in general, Hitchcock crams in references to looking, looking-like, and literal optics (Young and Innocent, Rear Window). The reversed physics of the “inside frame” (point of view of the wrongly accused) involves both the issue of identity dysfunction and the visual practices of disguise, concealment, and surveillance. The structural relationships that organize these themes force us to look at larger issues.

“Optics and identity taken together produce an “anamorphic” condition, where imagery directly challenges identity by destabilizing the point of view or demanding a circuitous path to find a special “angle” on the truth — a point from which everything will be made clear. This quest becomes a literal journey across a landscape. At the scale of logic we find a succinct miniaturization of this “truth-seeking movement,” what Jacques Lacan called the “master signifier.” Ordinarily, a signifier does not lead directly to meaning but, rather, to other signifiers, as in the example of a dictionary. So, what “locks in” meanings that gain ideological and imaginative force? Lacan argues that it cannot be any relationship to the facts of reality, which could be checked and found wanting. Rather, truly compelling meanings are formed when the signifier has a “structural” and “self-referential” relationship with itself — and forces reality to conform to it!”

Text: Kunze, “Reworking the Idea of the Architectural Uncanny: Hitchcock’s North by Northwest”, Reworking the Idea of the Architectural Uncanny.

Image: Inception, Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2010.

Swathed In Patterns

“For it is possible to recognize the dominance in the unconscious mind of a ‘compulsion to repeat’ proceeding from the instinctual impulses and probably inherent in the very nature of the instincts — a compulsion powerful enough to overrule the pleasure principle, lending to certain aspects of the mind their daemonic character, and still very clearly expressed in the impulses of small children; a compulsion, too, which is responsible for a part of the course taken by the analyses of neurotic patients. All these considerations prepare us for the discovery that whatever reminds us of this inner ‘compulsion to repeat’ is perceived as uncanny.” – Freud

“Kubrick swathes his film in repeated numerical patterns. Wendy swings the bat at Jack 42 times. Tony says “Redrum” 42 times. Danny looks up and sees the door of room 237 at exactly :42 minutes into the movie and Wendy finds Jack’s novel at exactly 1:42, her fingers stopping at line 21 in the typewriter.

“Danny and Wendy watch “The Summer of 42” at exactly 1:21 minutes and the scene used by Kubrick is exactly :24 minutes into that movie. Likewise, “Redrum” is written on the door 2 separate times, combining a total of 24 lipstick strokes. The timecode in the last scene (2:21), corresponds to 21 pictures on the wall, the middle of which says 1921, a date which itself adds up to 24. Wendy also reveals 21 (or is it 12?) pages of Jack’s book and the staircase she lures him up is comprised of 42 steps.

“Similarly, Danny says “REDRUM!” 42 times (in Tony’s voice) and Wendy tugs at the pantry latch 24 times. The use of 42, 24, 21 and 12 in a movie already filled with doublings and mirrors seems odd and uncanny and this is exactly the intention Kubrick hoped to create.

“There are many people who document all these weird occurrences, but perhapsthey succumb to what Freud calls the “childish superstitious mentality”, ascribing “mystical meanings”  to the Uncanny in the hope of reasserting order, of resolving the mysteries of the film.

“But as Freud says, it is the “compulsion to repress and repeat” coupled with an “inability to be rational and reject the superstitious” which is horrific, and not Kubrick’s semiotic fabric, which aims instead to symbolically reinforce Freud’s themes…”

Text: Kubrick Corner: The Uncanny.

Image: This Is Uncanny: Number-play in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.: “In The Shining, Stanley Kubrick makes extensive use of number play, employing the same visual mirroring and doubling motif throughout the film. Specifically, there are several repetitions of the numbers 42, 24, 21, and 12. With the aid of some handy visual aids, here’s what we mean… In Room 237, the product of 2, 3 and 7 is 42. The sum of 2, 3 and 7 is 12.”