Queer Times, Black Futures
New York University Press, 2019
Reviewed by Shukri Bana
In the midst of a poem about a dream that troubles time and space, Bartleby the Scrivener interjects: “I would prefer not to.” So characterizes Kara Keeling’s Queer Times, Black Futures, a text which takes seriously the proposition that another world is possible through an imaginative exploration of works and worlds that imagine and embody Black queer freedom. Her interest in Bartleby, the fictional scrivener in Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scriver,” is best summarized in the first Interregnum, the first of three interruptions of her text, where she writes “Bartleby’s queer formula refuses to reproduce what is.” In this vein, Keeling establishes Queer Times, Black Futures as a text that both refuses the constraints of space and time in what constitutes a Black queer existence.
Keeling begins with a key figure in Afrofuturism, Sun Ra, and his film Space Is the Place (1974). Chapter One opens with an epigraph from Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (via Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks) onthe impossible possibility that the social revolution must draw its poetry from the future and not the past. To get to the future, she uses the exploration of Afrofuturism as articulated by Sun Ra to investigate how conceptualizations of race and non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality make obvious the organization of space and time. This chapter offers one of the first articulations of how Keeling invokes Black futures: “Here and now. In these Black futures.” She continues this investigation of what poetry of the future might offer our times in Chapter Two, “Yet Still: Queer Temporality, Black Political Possibilities, and Poetry from the Future (of Speculative Pasts),” where she analyzes Black queer speculative films. Here, she explores The Watermelon Woman (1996), Looking for Langston (1989), Brother to Brother (2004), and The Aggressives (2005). Keeling focuses her analysis on The Aggressives, an expose style film following the lives of people who identify as female, and rather than “lesbian,” “butch” or “gay woman,” identify with the term “aggressives.” Keeling here is interested in the trajectory of one particular character, “M—,” and critically engages with her own interest as implicated in an “uneven calculus of visibility distribution,” or, the inequalities present in production of academic and creative works and the potential benefits and harms of visibility for the subject. From these films, Keeling implores a relationship to the past (looking for) must also be concerned with liberation (looking after).
After an interlude from Bartleby, Chapter Three begins with an epigraph from John Akomfrah’s “Digitopia and the Spectres of Diaspora,” where Akomfrah argues that those born in his era (around the 1960s) understand “the politics of identity and race as a digital signal.” In this chapter, Keeling most clearly articulates the relationship between Cinema and Media Studies, Black Studies, and Queer Studies. She does this through an investigation of what Akomfrah terms the “digitopia,” a film history which anticipates today’s digital media technologies without being fulfilled by them. She raises issues about the centrality of technology to Black existence, arguing it is fruitful to engage with these technologies as part of the transformation of the cinematic rather than a break. This chapter heavily invokes Heidegger’s technē as a means of “bringing forth.” Technē, defined here, builds from Heidegger’s definition of poēsis, or the arts, as a means of technē, or moving forward. Technē serves as the framework for understanding Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History, which described Blues music as a “Black secret technology.” She argues that within this exploration of Black existence in the digital regime, there is a new Afrofuturist formulation of “being” articulated.
Chapter Four explores Grace Jones’s “Corporate Cannibal” through the framework of repetition in economic discourse from James A. Snead’s “Repetition as a Figure in Black Culture.” Keeling expands the work of Fatima El-Tayeb and Nassim Nicholas Taleb to operationalize how she uses Blackness to argue that Blackness as technology is African and science fiction. In a text concerned with Black futures, Keeling’s theoretical loyalties are not necessarily Afrofuturism, but rather, a hybrid of scholars, both contemporary and traditional philosophers and theorists, including Saidiya Hartman for her investigation of what figures are considered knowable; Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari for heuristics of formulations of “queer” and “Black;” and Martin Heidegger on technē and poēsis.
Keeling analyzes Black artists and their work to explore the relationship between ethics, futures, temporalities, and Blackness. As a book explicitly about American Black works, Keeling addresses the implications of this work in a diasporic context: the only African authors are in the concluding Chapter Five, where she analyzes the work of Wanuri Kahuri’s Pumzi (2009) and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (2010). This leaves space for a larger investigation on the resonances of her work in a non-Western, Afrofuturist cosmology, and perhaps of the potential for diasporic connection with regards to functions of time and space as processes of violence, alienation, and potential sites of radical imaginings of time. With theoretical frameworks ranging across discipline and analysis of material through the framework of film studies, Keeling writes a book for scholars exploring similar questions of representations and time. There are various parts of this text readers might find useful: Keeling’s method of conducting film analysis, her exploration of Bartleby in the context of Black queer futures, and how she expands the theoretical contributions of other scholars. Readers unfamiliar with the guiding philosophical frameworks might find themselves lost in this rich text, though Keeling will lead readers expertly through her explorations.