everywhere, every when

This is the text of a presentation I made yesterday at a wonderful Columbia University symposium called Insuetude (still ongoing), which is bringing media archaeologists together with stones-and-bones archaeologists. I started my talk with a bit of film, as a way of time-traveling to the middle of my theme, in part for the pleasure of taking a jarring step back out. Please watch the first 90 seconds or so of The Last Angel of History, a brilliant 1996 documentary by John Akomfrah. You can catch it in this clip. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Now—what would it mean to take an explicitly antiracist approach to the digitization of cultural heritage? To its technological recovery? To its presentation, not as static content to be received, but as active technology to be used? What would it mean to create an actively antiracist digital library?

Let us first understand the construction of libraries in general, along with their embedded activities of remediation and digital stewardship, as exercises in spatial and temporal prospect. This is work that requires practitioners and builders to develop a geospatially expansive imagination, and to see their charge as having as much to do with things speculative as with retrospect—as much, that is, with scrying for possible, yet-unrealized futures as with reflecting documented, material pasts. If we agree that our collective network of libraries, archives, and museums should be made for prospect—with spatial scope and (as C.P. Snow wrote of the community of scientists) holding “the future in their bones”—then taking up the design problem of an antiracist digital library, particularly in this country, means addressing one fundamental question.

Where and when do black lives matter?

Sofia Samatar, author of “A Stranger in Olondria.”

Here we have the clearest statement I’ve yet seen, about the two vital cultural and aesthetic movements I want to discuss today. One read on Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism is that they mark the emergence in contemporary thought of hopeful and positive expressions of diaspora, a reclaiming, in some sense, of black peoples’ agency in their continuing, historically enforced dispersion, away from hearth and home and throughout time and space. In Afropolitanism, the diasporic imagination extends all over the world, including into elite Western circles—past barriers of continents, countries, and especially class. In the sci-fi realms of Afrofuturism, black ownership over the Diaspora goes beyond all that. It reaches into future worlds—it extends to the stars.

Why am I talking about this, here? Why am I talking about things—I want to admit up-front—that are outside my own personal experience and scholarly expertise, and at Columbia, where your own Dean Alondra Nelson is a towering figure in academic Afrofuturism? Beyond that I’m trying to take this reminder more seriously in all my work:


—it’s because I recognize I am all too typical of the people building digital cultural heritage infrastructure in North America, much of Europe, and across the Anglophone world. I’m painfully typical of the practitioner community designing what some of our American funders have begun calling a “national digital platform,” and I’m painfully typical of the researchers and administrators who theorize and support it. There’s a pervasive whiteness in librarianship—a profession, by our last, imperfect measure, 88% white—that is unbearable, paralytic, oppressive. And yet we’re working at a moment of great opportunity, when technologies and practices are truly beginning to align for the creation of coherent, interconnected, sustainable digital archives and 21st-century knowledge infrastructure.

What is it that we want to build? What is it that we can build, from that perspective and position—and for and with whom? I want to suggest that, within activist movements like Black Lives Matter and cultural and aesthetic programs like Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism, rests a potentially liberating and—for digital libraries—maybe altogether new kind of community-based agency. We can ignore that agency and replicate colonial archival configurations and normative knowledge structures of the past. Or we can take it seriously and step back a bit, so that the people who rightly possess and articulate it may better direct us all—on their own terms—in systems-building for digital stewardship and the work of memory institutions. (And lest I seem too far afield, agency & ontology are two broad themes of this afternoon’s panel.)

Here’s British Jazz saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings:

“Since we did the album, a lot has been said about Afrofuturism… I think I first heard [the word in] John Akomfrah’s documentary The Last Angel of History… I watched it and I thought, ‘What does it mean to me?’ I went to a lecture by [music critic and theorist] Kodwo Eshun… [who] was talking about Afrofuturism as being a way of poeticising the past. That you recontextualise it, and mould it in a way that gives you a power over history. I like that sentiment. It’s essentially this Sun Ra philosophy that I’m really into: the fact that communities that have agency [are] able to form their own philosophical structures.”

Communities that have agency are able to form their own philosophical structures. This is surely the most crucial concept taking hold in digital cultural heritage work today: the conviction that “subaltern” groups must be able to use archival and library systems to express their independent theories of the world as it is, and as it could or should be—and to build whatever they need for the world to come. It’s exemplified in content-management tools focused on indigenous intellectual property, like Mukurtu, or on place-based multi-vocality, like the new Mbira platform from Michigan State (projects notably led by anthropologists and archaeologists). It’s inherent in the shift in the digital library community, from near-total reliance on vendor-provided “solutions” to a willingness to invest in open source, community-built platforms and to foster a complex set of interrelations among developers and their partners and publics. It’s also, I think, the latent digital cultural heritage systems affordance most in need of design experimentation and intellectual and material support right now: how to express the vital presence or historical lack of agency; how to enable or re-enable it on the part of the people whose belongings have become your “collections;” how to design for agency in a way that helps communities use their own digitized and born-digital materials in the creation of autonomous, living and breathing philosophical infrastructure.

And this is one reason I’ve become so interested in performance-based philosophies that you might at first glance mistake for so-called identity politics or for entertainment. But another reason I bring ideas from Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism here for your consideration—to the archaeologists and media archaeologists of this symposium—is that as I began learning about them, I saw in both movements a particularly materialized imagination.

It’s no coincidence that the Data Thief of The Last Angel of History is an archaeologist—that he’s looking for a place to dig. By seeking and reconstituting lost material traces, he will crack future-oriented codes. He’ll make a usable past, in the same way that scratch artists transformed the vinyl archive—the recordings spinning on their turntables—into revolutionary new music. It’s no coincidence that Rasheedah Phillips identifies her “Black Quantum Futurism” with an “African space-time consciousness” that is less subjective than history because it centers on the objects of material culture: “ways in which we ‘time travel, simply by touching and interacting with everyday objects… artifacts of memory and meaning, storing up energy… which is neither created nor destroyed in the larger universe.” No coincidence, too, that Kodwo Eshun’s great essay “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism” is punctuated with interludes like this:

“Imagine a team of African archaeologists from the future—some silicon, some carbon, some wet, some dry—excavating a site, a museum from their past: a museum whose ruined documents and leaking discs are identifiable as belonging to our present, the early twenty-first century. Sifting patiently through the rubble, our archaeologists from the United States of Africa… would be struck by how much Afrodiasporic subjectivity in the twentieth century constituted itself through the cultural project of recovery… Imagine them reconstructing the conceptual framework of our cultural moment from those fragments.”

Let’s look at two such conceptual frameworks. Afropolitanism appears, in part, as an urbane, international (largely European) kind of scenester culture, perhaps hottest in the mid- to late-2000s when Taiye Selasi laid out its attractive vision in an essay called “Bye-Bye Babar.” The label spoke to young, well educated, and upwardly mobile professionals either born in Africa or who could claim recent—perhaps ambivalent or nostalgic, but clear—parental or familial ties to the continent. As Selasi puts it, Afropolitanism was born “between the 1988 release of [Eddie Murphy’s] Coming to America and the 2001 crowning of a Nigerian Miss World, [when] the general image of young Africans in the West transmorphed from goofy to gorgeous.” Think Iman. Think Barak Obama, who performed Afropolitanism in Dreams from My Father.

Finnish-Nigerian journalist Minna Salami traces the concept through her award-winning “Ms.Afropolitan” blog, highlighting its relation not just to spaces (the global+local, or what she calls “glocal”), but to synthetic speculation: Afropolitanism is a “modern-day oracle [she writes] whose algorithmic mediums (literature, theory, folktales, art, myth, fashion etc.) serve to reduce the discord and asymmetry of separation between Africans themselves as well as between Africans and the rest of the world.”  So you see the movement itself, alongside its expressive media, being figured as an algorithmic, speculative technology—an oracle—performing a spatial version of what information scientist and speculative thinker Kari Kraus calls “conjectural criticism.” It’s code to be executed, run.

The Afropolitan concept was initially widely embraced, but has been more recently critiqued (by Emma Dabiri, Binyavanga Wainaina, Stephanie Bosch Santana, and others) for having succumbed to Western commodity culture and hipsterism—for creating, in its love for textiles, art objects, food, and fashionable places to see and be seen (as Dabiri puts it) an “Instagram-friendly Africa… the latest manifestation of planetary commerce in blackness.” The critics’ problem is almost entirely that Afropolitanism, like libraries and museums in their colonial roots, finds fullest expression in the acquisition and exhibition of stuff.

On the other side of our equation, in Afrofuturism, an undeniable, flamboyant materiality and focus on embodiment remains celebrated—is frankly where it’s at. Perhaps, when it comes to the materialist critique, the Afrofuturist aesthetic is given a pass by virtue of its obvious connection to advanced and imaginary, otherworldly technologies.

Afrofuturism, as an intellectual, artistic, and literary practice, dates to the mid-20th century, with earlier roots in speculative fiction by W.E.B. Du Bois and others. It takes its name from a passage in a 1994 Flame Wars essay by cyber-culture critic Mark Dery, entitled “Black to the Future.” Dery not only coined the word, but helped crystallize the concept of Afrofuturism into one electrifying question: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?”

He got at this question by conducting a set of interviews with pioneering sci-fi authors and intellectuals (Samuel R. Delaney, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose), who reflected on their own work, on that of Octavia Butler (even then the grande dame of the field), and on the highly problematic visions of white writers of black futures, like Robert Heinlein and William Gibson. But the piece spoke, too, to the elaborate costumes and sets and performances and films and photoshoots of Afrofuturism’s first musical practitioners, possessed of that so-called “black secret technology”—and that is where much pop-culture understanding of the movement inheres.

We’re talking here about jazz musician Sun Ra and his salvific Arkestra (still touring years after his death); about George Clinton’s stage-craft flying saucer ex machina, the P-Funk Mothership (summoned by singing “Swing low, sweet chariot,” and recently acquired by the Smithsonian for the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture). We’re talking about the techno beats that were only one piece of the “aquatic assault programming” of Drexciya; about the mechazoid, typographic “Gothic Futurism” of New York graffiti and hip-hop artist Rammellzee. And, closer to the present, we see Afrofuturism in more quietly-costumed but no less fully fleshed, futuristic black bodies: the exploited and up-for-auction androids of “electric lady” Janelle Monáe. Afrofuturism is exuberantly self-possessed, and expressed through its relationship to sonic and material culture, but it never loses sight of its roots in trauma, pain, violence, enslavement, and loss.

I’ll take just a moment to describe the most famous Afrofuturist musician, Sun Ra, and set his work—for contrast and similarity, and to get at some core themes—alongside techno/electro duo, Drexciya. Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914 and a conscientious objector from World War II, from the 1950s on, Sun Ra wove mythologizing strands of Egyptology, Rosicrucianism, numerology, Gnosticism, and more, into an otherworldly musical mission and absolute (as improv actors say) “commitment to the bit.” Ra’s performance conceit—rarely dropped in interviews or casual conversation—was that he had returned to Earth from a brief abduction to Saturn, reborn as an angel or what Eshun, in More Brilliant Than the Sun, calls an “African-American alien musician:” a savior figure, on a mission to teleport his people—physically, through jazz—to a new and better world.

“That would be where the altered destiny would come in.”

Ra projected such peace and hopefulness that it slightly obscures the fact that the ideas driving him and Drexciya are one and the same. Afrofuturism’s roots in pain and violence are easier to see in projects like theirs. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, the anonymous members of this Detroit-based group produced alienating, deliberately mind-melting, liquid techno music, delivered in underwater concept albums centering around the dwellers of a kind of militaristic Black Atlantis. That people originated—horrifically and triumphantly, in Drexciya’s mythology—from the mutant offspring of “disruptive” pregnant women who had been thrown overboard from slave-ships in the Middle Passage: murdered black babies who breathed water and lived.

You can see in both Sun Ra and Drexciya how an idea of alienation rests at the heart of the work, along with a re-claiming of that alienation just like the re-claiming of Diaspora I spoke about before. To listeners accustomed to the space invaders of mainstream science fiction, this music offered a different philosophy. It was, as Mark Sinker wrote in The Wire in 1992, that “the ships landed long ago: they already laid waste whole societies, abducted and genetically altered swathes of citizenry, imposed without surcease their values.” It’s a startling notion, whether you are of the race of pale, extra-terrestrial predators or now-mutant, evolved prey. And therefore, black or white, if in the past you’ve trained your eyes to the skies for aliens, to quote Eshun again, know this: “They have been here all along and they are you. You are the alien you’re looking for.”

I’m conscious this has been broad-brush and reductive, but I’ve now given you the fastest look at these two brands of world-building I could manage—just glancing at their orientations toward conceptual reclamation and technological re-use, their relations to art and artifact, and their spatial and temporal scope. What is the digital library, the modern museum, the usable archive that Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism demand? I’m grappling toward one answer in this talk, conscious that there are voices in critical race studies far more authoritative than mine. But I think movements like Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism call on us to build networked, inter-institutional, future-oriented cultural heritage systems: systems that seek to transcend their colonial pasts, even while recognizing that the thought-patterns of knowledge workers, the inherited ontological structures of our archives, and the material expressions of the culture they contain or link to are inescapably shaped by those pasts.

Inescapably? How can we work against inevitability? Maybe (and this is by no means a novel observation) by seeking ways to extend and hand off agency—contextual and descriptive authority, selection and collections-building authority, etc.—to communities of users from historically disenfranchised groups: not just to de-center already-dominant narratives, but to step away from white mediation and change where storytelling power sits:

“The unbearable whiteness & patriarchy of traditional archives demand that new archives for black lives emerge and sustain themselves as spaces and sites for trauma, transcendence, and transformation.” —Jarrett M. Drake.

Our institutions clearly have to become more intersectional, both in the aggregate (as federations of libraries and archives) and in terms of their internal staffing and structure. They should be built by more diverse and inclusive teams, sure; but even more, people of color and people from traditionally disenfranchised and underrepresented groups must lead them.

But I also wonder what would happen if we attempted to decolonize our cultural heritage systems through organizational schemes, interfaces, and embedded services that recognize and celebrate autonomy—that divest the center from authority—and through which external communities could gain more independent ability to direct resources. I don’t know concretely what I mean by this yet, but it is the core design problem of agency I was talking about before. Direct those resources where? Toward any locus communities of users identify—perhaps even toward places that our shared algorithmic discovery systems, if made more open and, crucially, designed to shun surveillance, could help them foster and define—places where emergent, alternative philosophical structures, like Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism, serve as a beacon of power and imagination.

I have a few more questions, as I wrap things up. I wonder if we could better support the kind of materialized imagination we see in movements like these, by offering platforms for digital cultural heritage that more obviously grapple with their own materiality. Could that help us reactivate the objects they give access to, demonstrate that they’re not just “content” but rather—hearkening back to the Last Angel of History—technologies? That, even if seemingly defunct or merely about playback, the contents of our archives are actually here to be excavated, decoded, set spinning, made into hypotheses? (Again, I think of the transformation of vinyl archives, phonograph records, into scratchadelia.)

Digital libraries are so inescapably material that they hurt. They are products of human, physical labor: we see black fingers on the white pages of our Google Books. Media archaeologists (some in this room) produce effective scholarship on the human and environmental impact of the minerals we mine for our slick devices; on the consequences of our taste for rapid obsolescence; on the heat and toxicity of the server rooms we call “clouds.” And there are embodied, affective impacts of all these realizations. We hear more open discussion of mental health aspects of librarianship, of climate science, and of other fields with future-orientation. I’ve done work myself on the vertigo involved in facing extinction as the core business of philology, particularly in the context of the Anthropocene.

So, at the same time that we’re designing with greater appreciation for embodiment, affect, and materiality, I think movements like these remind us that we also need platforms that engage with the ephemeral: with social media for “documenting the now;” with sonic culture (perhaps adopting techniques from archaeoacoustics (which is what I actually thought I’d be writing on when I started this project); with work to support and recover endangered languages; and with programs creating records of last resort, addressing “culture under threat”—work often performed in the face of terrible human suffering based in prejudice: genocide, refugee crises, war.

Above all, I suspect the hallmark of a digital library or museum that’s not just not-racist, but instead actively working against pervasive structures of racism in our society, is that it’s organized to promote the design of speculative futures—in as unmediated a way as possible, and by all its users. The digital phase-shift happening in libraries now is an opportunity to make reparations for past sins and to co-create archives that can move us forward from contemporary horrors.

This means librarians, archivists, and museum workers have to answer affirmatively the core question of Afrofuturism: “Can a people whose past has been deliberately erased imagine alternative futures?” And our digital cultural heritage systems, in their spatial scope and past-and-futures prospect, must offer one clear answer to the question of where and when black lives matter.

Everywhere. Every when.

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