Image: Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen. 1975. MoMA, New York.
In the documentary Hypernormalisation (2016), Adam Curtis raises the issue of art’s depoliticization in the late 1970s. He aregues that artists, or at least the radical ones Curtis was interested in, mostly from the Anglosphere, turned away from collective forms of action and tried to change society from within using their art. It was all related to exhaustion after the hyperpolitical 1960s and early 1970s and the momentous transformations they allowed, including the Civil Rights movement and the Event of 1968. Despite that, the artists felt their efforts were going nowhere. As artists retreated into themselves, Curtis argues, neoliberalism took hold of the political economy and the overall culture created fantasies to be able to deal with an increasingly complex world. Putting it simply: the culture moved faster than the artists.
The result for art was an overall sense of self-satisfaction, as if the act itself was enough, and the old wounds were left to fester. The purulence of the Reagan/Thatcher/Washington consensus years went on and gave birth to a new kind of surveillance capitalism we are now enjoying. Contradictions upon contradictions became too heavy to bear, however. Never something to be relied on, neoliberalism’s moral authority all but collapsed in the space between 2008 and 2020 (global financial crisis, destructive financial austerity, and finally, the rise of neo-fascism in the Western world). But something else seems to have become reinvigorated in the Western world, and it’s politicized art with a temporal and utopian inspiration. It stands in opposition to the notion that the death of utopia had canceled any other future beyond capitalism, as many commercialized apocalyptic and dystopian visions since the 1980s have show, exuding a sense of hopelessness that emerges from neoliberalism. Socially conscious futurisms offer the inverse.
As these notes will show later on, politically-charged artistic practice continued expanding in the margins of the world where the dark utopia of neoliberalism only represented a continuation of everyday dystopia in places long afflicted by the ravages of colonialism and Western imperialism. The current moment in the West, which had been fermenting for some time, at least since 1999’s protests against the WTO meeting, gained momentum following the 2008 financial crisis (Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring), has put politics again at the center of social speculation. In this sense, the disillusionment in the West offers hope for change.
HBO recently broadcast to acclaim the six-part series White Lotus, about a week of vacation in Hawaii in the lives of White wealthy Americans. In the manner of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s criticism from within (The Great Gatsby), the series shows how privilege can be self-reinforcing and destructive to those around it and how money engenders mechanics of class and hierarchy. It stands as one example of mainstreaming of radical ideas. Redemption lies in radical action (criminal expropriation) and abandoning technology toward a new sociability and nature contemplation (a teenaged son of a wealthy family embraces the traditional ways of Hawaiian natives and discovers the beauty of nature after his electronics are washed out to sea and amid his alienation due to sibling rivalry).
Another example of the the transition from radical art to radical action stands at hear of Mijke de Jong’s Stop Acting Now (2016). A collaboration with Dutch-Flemish artist collective Wunderbaum, the mockumentary depicts the group’s actors finishing their latest politically-charged project with attempts to change the world on a personal level. The actors turn to local efforts, innovative companies and community organizing, all with a strong sense of anticipation for a better future. The devil is in the details, however, and the vicissitudes of human interactions (anger, greed, competition) get in the way of utopian action and show the wide difference between well-intentioned idealism and actualization.
Theatre provides important ways of thinking about politics and aesthetics, as understood from the theorizations of Bertolt Brecht and his v-effekt. Brecht believed that inducing alienation in audiences by repeatedly breaking the illusion of mimesis would help them see the intersections of complex socio-historic trends and personal action. Both v-effekt and the “estrangement” posited by Darko Suvin in his influential explanation of science fictionality derive from Viktor Shklovsky’s theory of ostranenie (“making it strange,” or defamiliarization). Estrangement is both the deferred meaning crucial to creation nudging the audience to see the world in new ways. In the 1960s and 1970s, Augusto Boal in Brazil took the Brechtian proposition one step further with the Theatre of the Oppressed, directly engaging art practice in emancipatory action to turn spectators into “spect-actors.” He sought to raise awareness of the political by making audiences “know the body” — both the individual and collective one; making the body expressive and, crucially for contemporary futurism movements, using the theatre as both language and discourse.
Considering how art can create positive feedback loops with cultural movements, the role of science fiction in this emergent culture (in the manner identified by Raymond Williams when differentiating structures of feeling) is one of “fictioning” as a speculative blank space while the communities of readers and writers, the mass cultural genre side of science fiction, becomes a social technology when repurposed for activist ends. Undoubtedly, social activists had long been developing networked forms of intelligence while working toward emancipation goals. These networks seem to be blending into the science-fictional ones, albeit not without significant collective effort, as the travails of puppygate show.
How can we reverse engineer these processes to better understand them? Breaking down the linearity between Futurism in the early 20th century and today’s Accelerationist movement is one way. Futurism called for the glorification of technology and velocity before the First World War and had a considerable impact worldwide. Futurism became eponymous with a sense of modernity and novelty, as well as the instrumentalization of technology in culture and politics. Russian artists embraced it during the Soviet Revolution until political realities deemed them too disturbing to the rising new order. In Latin America, José Carlos Mariátegui (Peru, 1894-1930) was heavily influenced by Italian Futurism and Antonio Gramsci when he sought to apply Indigenous communities to a new form of progress. In Brazil and Argentina, it inspired nationalistic artistic movements that problematized Latin America’s search for differentiation from Europe and for forging a native culture from transculturality. Italian Futurism later devolved into an ancillary arm of fascism, losing its impulse amid the more negative aspects of its genesis, mainly the cult of violence and a deeply misogynistic nature.
Accelerationism, for its part, emerged from the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) that formed at the University of Warwick in the 1990s. Soaked in the triumphant moment of Western capitalism following the Soviet Union’s collapse, it also glorified technology and modernity, seeking to embrace it in combination with an infections jouissance that was equal parts satire of academic self-importance and serious innovative theorization. Among its concepts was hyperstition, or the notion of ideas that impose themselves into the culture and shape it, operating within a scrambled temporality in which imaginations of the future influence the present. Akin to the idea of meme coined by Richard Dawkins (not unlike today’s memes of internet culture but grounded on evolutionary theory), hyperstition is best exemplified by art practices that use techniques of speculative fiction. Fictioning of myth-science, as Goldsmiths College’s Simon O’Sullivan puts it, seems to be in full swing these days with the global spread of Afrofuturism and the growing clout of Indigenous Futurism in visual arts, literature, and fashion.
Like Italian Futurism before it, these movements emerge through manifestoes and acts of self-assertion. Thus, for example, one might announce the creation of a particular type of Futurism or seek to identify them. Of course, all of this is valid in the game, and these intervention techniques are akin to those employed by SF to define its boundaries. But if futurist actions are boundary objects of their existence, then what makes such fictioning practices real? I therefore argue that a critical mass of participants and cultural importance is what makes these futurisms real. As much as one would like to intervene in culture, and they are certainly free to do so, a simple action can be a part but not the endgame of any futurism. If there are not many people adopting the hyperstitional notion posited by a futurism, it only retains a spectral existence. Still, if adopted by a sufficiently large number of people, it enacts fiction into reality through collaborative practice.
Also like its Italian ancestor before it, Accelerationism embodies the old idea of technology as pharmakon. Technology can liberate or oppress; humankind’s relationship with technics is both creative and destructive; moreover, members of the same fertile movement that emerged from the CCRU lately turned to reactionary right-wing politics, all in the desire to enact enough of an acceleration that would destroy capitalism. Conversely, Brazilian Afrofuturists and Canadian Indigenous futurists have reached enough critical mass that their effect on the cultural imagination to enact a kind of change that defies co-optation and represents more than just destruction or surrender to technology. For the first time, neoliberalism may have found an opponent that does not let itself be assimilated but instead assimilates and changes the very essence of that which wants to domesticate its power, in the same way that it turns Western science and technology on itself.
Yuk Hui’s proposal of technodiversity might offer a way out of this duality, but its density and broad arch require a deeper discussion. In essence, Hui’s project is to transcend the dominant cosmotechnic of capitalism and Western technology. Through the emergence of non-Eurocentric forms of doing things, to put it simply, we may escape the cancelation of the future. By forcefully occupying spaces previously denied, the actual futurisms described above represent one step forward.
One day in February, CoFutures artistic fellow Ingri Fiksdal set out to rehearse her choreography in Grønland, an immigrant neighborhood of Oslo. Inspired by Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Binti, it featured octopus-like movements by a dancer wearing a costume made from Norwegian outerwear. The Vaterland square of Grønland is known in the city as the meeting point of small-time drug dealers. To call it degraded is a matter of perspective. Still, Grønland and particularly other places where foreigners congregate indeed are places that straddle the borders of Norwegian otherization and the country’s uneasy acceptance of difference.
As the dancer moved around the park on a typically overcast Oslo day, it drew the attention of loiterers, drug dealers, and passers-by alike. Some started questioning: Is she sick? Is she having drug issues? One of them soon came up to ask questions. A spark of interest had been lit. Suddenly, the unspoken barriers that separate convivence in Norwegian public spaces and the Grønland zona franca had been transformed. I cite this as an example of the transcendentally transformative role that futuring can play. Futuring goes beyond genre conventions even as it drinks from its sources and uses its time-tested strategies; it is about imagination and innovation.
Naturalization, defamiliarization, and “diegetic estrangement” can be considered some of the basic strategies behind SF, as defined by Simon Spiegel. But Fictions of the Flesh, and some futurists works focused on social change and political activism, for their part, represent strategies for transformation that expand the conception of utopianism. They challenge the status quo and propose new ways of imagining; they are radical “futuring.” But what are the mechanisms behind such futuring? Based on the work above, we propose a few signposts:
The work must address social, environmental, economic, or technological problems;
It must defamiliarize or cause estrangement even as it proposes solutions for problems;
The artifact can also employ diegetic strategies common in comedy or drama;
The result uses imagination for purposes that go beyond narrative and genre creation;
Therefore, the Africanfuturist and Afrofuturist impulse of using SF to highlight and transform race identity issues is one example of how genre conventions and strategies can transcend the reinvention of formulas and move into futuring. Building upon the considerations of Stuart Hall (1983), it can be posited that these cultural artifacts, their dissemination and reception, and their impact on society are examples of what he deemed cultures of survival. But while these cultural forms are fertile ground for new subjectivities, Hall argued, they still require social and political practices “to articulate them to particular political positions.” Like the spontaneous youth cultures he studied early in his career, these radically utopian futurisms work for “resistance, for opposition, for negotiation, for the kinds of upheavals you find in rebellion in revolution, and, perhaps even more important, for counterhegemonic formations.” Hall indeed believed that such cultures had a utopian role – “they are required for the construction of new kinds of societies.”
Watch the full 26 minute video of the performance here
Hall, Stuart. Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical history. Duke University Press. 2016. pp. 187- 189 Spiegel, Simon. “Things Made Strange: On the Concept of ‘Estrangement’ in Science Fiction Theory.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 35, no. 3, 2008, pp. 369–385.
A short-lived but popular collaboration between Frank Miller and Dave Gibbon titled Give me liberty raises the question of what Afrofuturism is. The four-part miniseries depicts the epic life of Martha Washington, a Black girl from the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing project in Chicago. She is born just as fictional president Erwin Rexall wins his first term in 1996. The series saw publication during the presidency of George H. W. Bush (1989-1993), a rare occasion when one of the USA’s two parties managed to win a third term. Indeed, the post-Reagan America that was emerging triumphant from a decade of neoliberalism and following the collapse of the Soviet Union had an incumbent flavor. In the story, Rexall repeals the 22nd amendment that blocks re-election and then keeps winning them. But his victories come at a steep cost for the nation: every inaugural parade features an increasingly repressive cadre of security forces surrounding the presidential motorcade.
Life in Cabrini-Green is a microcosm of the American carceral state for Blacks that was enhanced during the Reagan years. The housing project is more of a jail than a home, with apartments that resemble prison cells and sleeping rooms filled with bunk beds. These conditions are no stranger to the immigrant families currently being detained at the border with Mexico either in the Trump or Biden administrations. After the police murder her father during a protest over harsh conditions at the housing project, and her self-defense killing of a bully who assassinated the only teacher who recognized her talents and tried to help her, Martha is institutionalized. But budget cuts enacted by President Rexall’s neoliberal policies close the hospital, and Martha is left homeless.
Mirroring the actual USA, the act of joining the armed forces in this dystopian version is one of the few economic opportunities afforded to minority youth from low-income backgrounds. Renamed PAX, the American army is still busy fighting a variety of wars around the world. Martha soon joins and is shipped to the Amazon Forest, the newest flashpoint of America’s never-ending war on something. PAX forces are fighting to protect the rainforest from cattle ranchers bent on destroying it to make room for more grazing land. The enemy consists of burger chains, and at this point, the dystopia verges on the satirical.
Meanwhile, the USA appears poised to fragment into a thousand different factions amid its growing contradictions. Threats turn to action, and soon America is mired in a Second Civil War, split among such factions as the beef-oriented Texan Republic and an autonomous indigenous territory in the Southwest, a European-style confederacy in New England, an anarcho-capitalist Manhattan at war with Brooklyn, and a biopolitical breakaway region in the Pacific Northwest ruled by a maniacal Surgeon General. Martha proves to be an almost superhuman soldier who plays a pivotal role in the emerging war. Despite this, she stays oppressed by an Italian-America officer who takes credit for her exploits. Nevertheless, Martha always survives whatever abuse is thrown at her. In a bildungsroman of sorts, she persists until maturity gives her enough agency to turn the tables on the world that seeks to nullify her.
Give me liberty is at its most sophisticated when dealing with political and ecological overtones, and surprisingly prophetic too, especially in light of the events of 2020 and early 2021. Miller imagined an ever-chaotic America rapidly spiraling out of control, unlike the managed decline attempted by President Barack Obama and now brought back by his VP. It also serves the usual dose of action scenes and gore for a teenage audience. But for CoFutures, we can dispense with the fighting and stick with the complex subtext of this graphic novel and ask: is this Afrofuturism? Does Give me liberty offer an empowering message, reconstitute the meaning of the past by proposing a better future, or expose the infrastructures of racial oppression? There is a fair amount of exposure in this work, but the result is mildly empowering at best. At one point, Martha and her Native American lover find themselves in an ecotopia of sorts hidden from the dystopian and disintegrating America. Modeled after Ernest Callenbach’s eponymous work from 1975, it ends up serving as yet another backdrop to the internecine clashes driving the narrative. The imaginative universe is subdued by violence as entertainment, resulting in an engaging but philosophically and ethically restrained work. As the story progresses, technology starts breaking down and Miller seems bent on vilifying the unionized workers who keep the imperial gears working. The leap of imagination only goes so far.
After 1998 and despite good sales, the character only returned in less inspired new installments and re-issues. The series’ title is key to understanding it, as it refers to a famous 1775 speech by American revolution leader Patrick Henry (Give me liberty, or give me death!). Martha herself shares the name of George Washington’s wife. At its heart, the series is more about the breakdown of the USA than Afrofuturism, and cannot escape dystopia. The last installment, published in 2007, features the death of Martha Washington in 2095. At the ripe age of 100, she has achieved almost saintly status, but the political situation has deteriorated beyond repair. We never understand precisely what is pursuing the freedom fighters amid the ruins in this decontextualized epilogue to Martha’s epic. In the end, there is only more death.
Often, knowing what you shouldn’t be looking for can be as valuable as the opposite. The HBO series Raised by Wolves provides the perfect example, as the Ridley Scott-SF-industrial-complex keeps churning out ideas inspired by his earlier, more innovative works. The newest progeny, a dystopian tale of humans raised by androids, religious strife, and colonization, is rife for a CoFutures picking apart.
Spoiler alerts are damned: In the 22nd century, Earth was destroyed by war between believers and non-believers. Humanity is spreading out in search of new worlds, presumably to also obliterate them with war and attrition like the home planet. An atheist scientist reprograms a highly advanced war android know as Necromancer to become an artificial mother to six mechanically assisted embryos, who are sent to the Earth-like world Kepler-22b in an impossibly small interstellar ship. Conveniently enough for our analysis, the producers picked South Africa as the primary shooting location. The Mithraic, a stand-in for Jesuits or the Templars, soon follow with their spaceship.
One wonders how such a technologically advanced civilization could not somewhat get along before destroying itself. Plausibility gets lost in the sophisticated art direction and careful acting of the series. We get plenty of androids splattering milk-like substances in place of blood and the usual trope of artificial intelligence going rogue due to human interference or reprogramming.
Acting and interpersonal relationships are the series’ strongest points. The nuclear family representing the last hope of human civilization serves as the backdrop for a compelling web of relationships, motivations, and responses that drives the narrative. But Raised by Wolves also has a clear colonialist mindset, one that researchers of science fiction indeed are acquainted with thanks to such authors as John Rieder.
Colonialism somewhat updated, let us be clear: the strong White android mother gets aided by a Black “service model” android. Meanwhile, the Mithraic androids are primarily black; the believers’ clothing and iconography strongly resemble Christianity. Following unexpected developments, they are reduced to a roving gang blinded by a superstitious faith, no more different than Cristopher Columbus or Hernán Cortéz rampaging through “virgin” lands. The challenges of surviving in an unforgiving, desert-like world of utter darkness after leaving a declining, war-torn homeland fit neatly with the overall context driving European colonialism and mass migration to the New World.
This aesthetically well-crafted series is problematic when viewed through the lens CoFutures is developing. This research project seeks to go beyond genre studies and understand how future fictions can help find solutions for the present. As a futuring strategy, Raised by Wolves does not help us with that mission precisely because it fails to offer a redeeming or innovative vision of the future. Enjoying a slick space melodrama is fun, but looking under its hood to understand how the engine works can be one strategy to understand that not all SF is futuring, and not all futuring is SF.
One could even argue that it is not science-fictional despite its use of conventions, given how little innovative it is. Humanity is destined to replay endlessly the same cycles of destruction and exploitation, so it goes because the future has been canceled, and one can only return to the past. From the opening sequence, in which a nursery rhyme juxtaposes scenes of nuclear explosions and post-apocalyptic landscapes that keep proving Susan Sontag’s thesis in “The Imagination of Disaster,” to the moral ambiguity of its characters, especially its terrifyingly nurturing Mother, Raised by Wolves may be in tune with its time, but not with the future.