Dear Science and Other Stories
Duke University Press, 2021
Reviewed by Lindsey Holmes
Dear Science and Other Stories is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is its radical reimagining of interdisciplinarity in an already deeply interdisciplinary field (Black Studies). Starting from the relatively straightforward premise to “center black creatives (poets, musicians, visual artists) and think through how they attend to science in their work,” Dear Science opens up into a sweeping metacritique and loving embrace of Black Studies as it is practiced both within and beyond academic institutions. McKittrick is uncompromising in her call to move beyond readings that reproduce Blackness as abject and deeply reverent in her citational politics which work to uplift the field. Black Studies—and Black people, Black life—are queried, loved, pressed, and rethought in Dear Science. Rethinking occurs through a broad frame of “scientia”—not only what we might recognize as STEM fields but also “knowledge in its most general sense.” This includes, for McKittrick, stories, diasporas, collaborations, algorithms, relational thinking, metaphors, the visual arts, geographies, and Spotify playlists (just to name a few). While the sheer scale of engagement of Dear Science is vast, at its heart, the project not only attends to stories but also how “storytelling signal[s] the fictive work of theory.” Fueled by a desire for stories of Black life and livingness, Dear Science offers its own story “as a way to hold onto the rebellious methodological work of sharing ideas in an unkind world.”
To anyone familiar with McKittrick’s previous work, it comes as no surprise that undergirding this expansive project is the thinking of Sylvia Wynter. McKittrick begins with Wynter’s theorization of homo narrans, the recognition that “we are a ‘storytelling species.’” While Wynter’s thinking inundates every chapter, citational practices themselves are the primary subject of the second chapter. In this chapter, McKittrick takes up the role of citation in constructing knowledge systems and outcomes, highlighting the ways in which “referential beginnings and referential scaffoldings shape conclusions.” McKittrick traces well-known deficiencies in the ways that Black women are cited today, stating that “sometimes referencing signals allusion rather than study,” or, a desire for improving an article’s impact factor rather than investment in the project of Black liberation. Alongside a call for deeper citational practices, McKittrick remaps the geography of the academic page itself in her literal foregrounding of the footnote, usually considered textually and materially marginal. The footnotes in this chapter (and others) slowly pulse and grow, at times overwhelming the page visually and discursively. McKittrick’s play with citation and footnote, especially the way it enacts a praxis of internal counternarrativity foregrounds her call for a deeply relational scholarship. Further in the book, this idea is foundational to the ways we might create “terrain[s] of struggle” to think through “the practice of sharing ideas and how we might and can resist multiscalar injustices.”
Formal experimentation as a feature of liberatory theorizing does not end with the chapter on citation. In “The Smallest Cell Remembers a Sound,” McKittrick begins with the idea that discrete methodologies for each discipline are necessarily yoked to white supremacist logics, renewing her call for methodologies that are “act[s] of disobedience and rebellion.” Here, McKittrick traces a more specific rejoinder to theories that seek to contest sexist-racist-ablest-homophobic epistemologies of Man by (only) describing and accounting for Black harm via subjection and death. McKittrick’s turn to the narrative of Black life enacted by electronic band Drexciya is oppositional to white supremacy yet also rebellious and “scientifically creative.” Artists like Drexciya articulate an Afrofuturism in sonic frequency that remaps epistemologies of the Middle Passage as not [only] a geography of abjection but as sites of “terrible possibilities”—where “black subjectivity is—in the Stuart Hall sense—becoming.”
From here, McKittrick is at pains to state that she is also always “suggesting something else,” and this “something else” is what continues to bloom and shape the formal centers of the book. This “something else” is “the praxis of life…the ongoing physiological and creative application of knowledge and skills that recode life.” Always writing against the fictive biological, McKittrick’s sense of the physiological frequencies of this life also has its foundation in Wynter, with a chapter specifically taking up Wynter’s work on neurobiology and the brain. This chapter is also formally experimental: McKittrick places Wynter in relation to Dionne Brand’s “psychic anticolonial praxis” in A Map to the Door of No Return (2002) and McKittrick’s own collaborative work with her student Yaniya Lee in a way that “plays with and questions the ledger, the archive, and the politics of accounting.” McKittrick’s centering of the personal in professional acts of collaborative work are also worth thinking about as part of a disobedient and rebellious method. In the chapter immediately following, we find McKittrick taking up the register of the auto-theorist as she places the reader beside her, standing in Sylvia Wynter’s literal doorway, catching up and visiting with her friend and colleague. In turning away from normative (and antiblack) ideas of intellectual property, toward “activity-based collaboration,” or “what possibility feels like,” is a move that is intimately dependent on one’s ability to be with and share with others as humans.
There is so much Black life in Dear Science that the project seems to actively resist the intellectual task of review, however one would be remiss not to highlight the series of seven chapters which form a core for the text and whose titles each correspond to a separate visual image. These images form an archive that is disruptive in its (un)textuality and suggestive of a pathway for a new grammar of intertextuality as a central component to life and livingness of Black studies. “Failure” is a part of this too, as the aptly named chapter following the images details a failed attempt by the author to write her own algorithm and the kinds of thinking that came out of that failure. “The Kick Drum is the Fault” is a lovingly made playlist, a collaboration between McKittrick and her friends, colleagues, and family. It is available for listening on Spotify under the title of the book, crystallizing the sum of the project as a literal invitation to new frequencies of Black life and livingness. Like the footnotes, the playlist is a counternarrative, threatening (in a good way) to steal the show from the text itself.
Finally, the closing chapters are no less luminescent and urgent as the first three. In “I got Life / Rebellion Invention Groove” McKittrick theorizes, in a different way, on sonic acts of music-making through the lens of Wynter’s unpublished manuscript Black Metamorphosis. Her final chapter draws more precisely on the theories of Frantz Fanon and Édouard Glissant, presenting only a sense of an ending for this fantastically open-ended project. In these final pages, McKittrick explores the ways she has been called upon to reproduce white masculine cartographies of knowledge through the form of the scholarly encyclopedia entry. McKittrick plays with the list form as a way to query how theories of diaspora (the term she was tasked to catalogue and describe—an impossible task) may silently or unknowingly redeploy undesirable cartographies that foreclose Black life. Instead, McKittrick, beginning and ending with the geographic, returns to her call for a living praxis of Black life, leaving the reader to ponder how “diaspora geography is not the act of making maps; rather, it is the act of sharing ideas about where liberation is and might be.”