Toward an Afrofuturist Body Politic
By Christian Keeve | Faculty Advisor: Dr. Michelle Wright | African American Studies | NURJ 2015-16 "Best Senior Theses" Issue | Published: May 2016
The Black speculative body is one whose agency, construction, presentation, and function are undergoing a constant set of tensions and paradoxes of power and possibility. This project aims to trace the body politics threading through the Afrofuturist imagination, interrogating them for implications of cultural history and embodied possibility. To do this, I use an interdisciplinary approach that threads scholarship around superheroics, Modernity, Afrofuturism and geography with an eye towards critical visual studies and cultural histories. In this thesis, the figure of the superhero is contextualized, analyzed, and deconstructed as a cultural artifact with significant influences on the approach to posthumanism in the Western psyche. Concurrent engagement with Afrofuturist and postcolonial thought presents a critique of what superhumanism has made possible and re-examines possibility itself. Following this, scholarship around critical geographies, posthumanism, and racializing assemblages is used to flesh out notions of body possibility in the face of modernity. Along the way, I use Afrofuturist and superheroic scholarship to critique the liberal humanist notion of the self, opening up space for alternative constructions of the human and interpretations of embodiment. Concluding with a critique and negotiation of posthumanism for othered bodies, the android, the electric, and the freakish are used to frame the Black speculative super-body as an essential site of queer reimagining and cultural reclamation.
In order to form an analytical framework around speculation, power, and humanity, this project turns to one of the most influential and ubiquitous contemporary cultural forces actively questioning the physicality and capability of the body: the superheroic genre. In a broad sense, the superheroic figure can be said to be a pop cultural force mediating the understanding of self and future, as well as today performing the cultural labor of reshaping and expanding how we envision human ability and identity in a post-industrial age (Rosenberg and Coogan 2013). The pervasiveness of the superheroic figure through so many facets of cultural thought brought notions of trans- and post- humanity into the mainstream, as well as reoriented ideas of human possibility in the popular psyche (Reynolds 2013).
Much of the cultural history surrounding the superhero genre can be summarized by shifts in Post/Modernism. The early twentieth century rise of Modernity saw rapid industrial growth, a shift from the rural to the urban, global war, and scientific relativity and uncertainty. It identifies technology as an encroaching evil, with machines increasing in size and ability, as well as the world becoming more ambivalent and humanity less sure of itself (Wright 2014). In “Superheroes and the Modern(ist) Age,” Alex Boney positions early superheroes as a response to the resultant anxieties over nebulous nature of abstractions like truth, justice, and morality, thus becoming embodiments of these abstractions, gifted with transcendence of and control over modern forces in the name of hammering out instability and uncertainty. The postmodern critiques modernist categories and moral abstractions as subjective, claiming that social order as constructed and inherently unnatural; the resultant take on superheroism is usually a locus of ambiguity and uncertainty. The work of defining modernist abstractions of righteousness and justice is given up as futile, and instead the superheroic figure itself is questioned.
In addition to historical and cultural context, this project seeks to foreground the importance of analyzing the superhero as visual artifact. Superheroic activity is primarily performative and iconographic, carried by factors of the fantasy, eclectism, and symbolism unique to the genre (Bukatman 2009). Symmetry, color, and design are carefully crafted and imprinted onto each super-body, producing a powerful marker in how that figure stands in relation to morality, justice, and power. Visual analysis frames the superhero as a symbol of hyper-ability that is reified as the hyper-physical body, allowing the superhero to simultaneously control and embody particular forces, technologies, and values (Jennings 2013).
While the superhero milieu claims to be driven by social justice, it is foundationally built upon a white patriarchal universalism. More often than not, white, male, heteronormative, able-bodied heroes, protagonists, and victors are contrasted with villains, losers, and sidekicks belonging to othered groups. Due to the pervasiveness of the genre, this has resulted in a public dialectic of minority inferiority that gives marginalized readers a sense of incapacity, incompetency, and impossibility (Howard and Jackson 2013). This is compounded when readers of othered communities are denied access to their own stories and their own cultural narratives, and instead forced to accept the West’s fantastical narrative of its own cultural development and their place in relation to it. The work of refuting this is being partially carried out through the cultural reimagining inherent to Afrofuturist creativity.
Black to the Future
The subculture of Afrofuturism can be summarized as a literary and cultural aesthetic that encompasses historical fiction, fantasy, myth, and magical realism, drawing upon Black diasporic cultural contexts to interrogate and critique current conditions of people of color, examining the past and constructing speculative futures. (Jackson and Moody-Freeman 2011; Womack 2013). A discussion of futurity, especially as it relates to the American context, necessitates a look into the “technological sublime,” a phenomenon of the twentieth century popular psyche in which forces of industrialization fused the physical presence of technology with natural landscapes with such speed and ubiquity that it significantly impacted the interpretation of landscape, space, and geography. Addressing the capacity of human subjects to be made and remade in the new scope of technological possibility, the technological sublime became an answer to the aforementioned anxieties of modernity. Notions of powerlessness and incapacity in the face of urbanization and scientific advancement could be assuaged with the possibility of redefining what it means to be human and artificially improving upon what is possible for the human body (Wanzo 2013). The promise of the sublime in regards to bodily possibility is strikingly similar to what one would now theorize as posthumanism, the artificial and deliberate advancement beyond traditional impressions of normal human capability and function (Braithwaite 2011). Consequently, posthumanism has been framed as the answer to much of the theorization surrounding the embodiment of technological forces and the possibility of super-humanity. As Rebecca Wanzo points out, the rise of the technological sublime touches on a set of anxieties surrounding Black bodies, technology, and modern science, often relegating Blackness outside of its space of imagining. Afrofuturist thinkers and creators have addressed this issue in a myriad of ways, opening up critical spaces of being and imagining.
Space is the Place
The rise of urban modernity is a foundational moment not only for the superheroic genre, but also for the foundation of Black politics and culture in the twentieth century; these facets shouldn’t be viewed as a set of cultural parallels, but as a mutually-constitutive dynamic. Black superheroes can be considered a creative and fantastical result of the meeting of these theorizations around modernity, geography, and race; an Afrofuturist solution to the anxieties of urban modernity as they are encountered by Black bodies. Forces of state neglect, police brutality, medical malpractice, the proliferation of food deserts, and many more forms of institutionalized violence have been deployed in heavily racialized ways, throughout the twentieth century, leading some Black artists to deploy strategies of myth-making and wish fulfillment. Many origin stories and major narratives attached to iconic Black heroes have these forces threading through them in eerily realistic forms. For example, Static, known largely due to the popular TV show Static Shock, embodies these anxieties and systems of violence as they were distinctly faced by Black urban youth in the 1990s. In both the comic series and the TV show, genetic mutations that lead to fantastical abilities are caused by exposure to an experimental gas that is released during a gang fight between mostly of working class youth of color. The vast majority of them die, but the ones that survive manifest a variety of physical and genetic changes, with their own sets of complementary abilities. In the TV show, the gas is the property of a scientific corporation stored in the vicinity and explosively released when police open fire. In the comics, it is a method of riot control deployed by the police themselves. Known as the “Big Bang,” the event caused the origins of both the protagonists and the villains in the series, and was itself caused by scientific forays into transhumanism in conjunction with state violence (Static Shock 2000; McDuffie 1993; Carpenter 2009).
By returning to a more strongly metaphorical contextualization of the Black super-body, we can open up a nuanced critique of superheroism, posthumanism, and their utopian tendencies. If we look to Alexander Weheliye’s theorization on racializing assemblages in Habeas Viscus, we can re-work our ideas of humanity, ability, and power into something more closely tied to the flesh; a negotiation of embodiment, subjection, and humanity. Racializing assemblages—a set of sociopolitical processes and sites of subjection acting upon the body—place individuals into categories of human, not quite human, and subhuman. When super-humanity gets mixed in, we end up with a complication that places many othered heroes into superpositions and negotiations along spectrums of human-ness. Static, for one, must be read simultaneously through the Blackness of his skin, the cultural histories and connotations behind his locs, and the superheroic transformation brought about his costume and symbology. His locs and his lightning bolt are both iconic factors in his superheroic visage, but do they cancel each other out are they mutually constitutive through other avenues of possibility? In a similar sense, Static’s arch nemesis, Ebon, is quite literally an inky shadow, formless and infinitely shape-shiftable, who somehow always has unmistakable cornrows running along his head. Is his Blackness read through his racialized embodiment or his literal blackness?
As Weheliye points out, there is no avoidance of racialization and its implications as far as human status. Consequently, posthumanism (and superhumanism) in mainstream scholarship has failed to account for the paradox of (im)possibility that surrounds the figure of the Black superhero. Some posthumanist scholars’ reliance upon the liberal humanist notion of human as a bounded, defined, discrete Man shuts out any other possibilities for the construction of the human and (falsely) assumes a universally accessed human state that must be overcome in order to become something greater, more advanced, and more able. In order to seek a resolution that includes the possibility of the Black superhuman, one must search through the “demonic grounds” of alterity separate from the liberal humanist Man (Weheliye 2014).
This critique is reified in the popular cartoon series Steven Universe, notably through one of the main characters: Garnet. Following the adventures of the eponymous hero, Steven Universe can be considered a postmodern reimagining and interrogation of Superheroic and magical-girl genre cartoons of the late twentieth century. Its world-building follows the Crystal Gems, a rebel group of humanoid, space-faring, magically and technologically empowered living gemstones with a self-defined mission of protecting the Earth and its people from the imperial and colonial aspirations of their own species from the Gem home world. The leader, Garnet, although technically a reified, magical gemstone, bears an uncanny resemblance to a Black woman (Figure 1). In fact, she is voiced by British singer Estelle. Among the Gems’ many abilities is the power to magically fuse their bodies through complimentary, coordinated dance routines, which result in brand new beings with emergent properties, identities, and abilities that are constructed from the personalities and power sets of the individual gems from which they are constructed. In the finale of the first season, it is revealed that Garnet is herself an especially stable fusion of Ruby and Sapphire, two gems so closely engaged in a queer relationship that they exist as one being. The approach to fusion in Steven Universe presents a new and sometimes unsettling transcorporal critique of the body. According to Garnet, she is simultaneously a singular being and the manifestation of multiple individuals; she identifies the fusion state as not merely a body but also “an experience…a conversation.” Garnet is a multiplicity of individual actors and individual forces as well as a dynamic exchange between them. She identifies herself as simultaneously the embodiment of the interiority of her constituent gems in addition to her own emergent and constructively powerful being. She presents an unfamiliar and exciting way of interpreting the body and the self; one that deeply troubles Western reliance on liberal humanism. Notably, she is also the only gem that codes as a Black woman, even though it appears that Blackness is an emergent property that appears in her but not in her constituent parts. Racializing assemblages may very well not exist in this universe, but they are still a factor for the viewership, exemplified by the fervor that many Black people, especially Black women in the Steven Universe fandom, have for Garnet.
The near infinite set of bodily possibilities for superheroic Blackness exemplifies this need for a demonic ground separate from liberal humanism, through which one can theorize the implications of Black bodies that can function in superpositions of more-than-human and less-than-human. In the modern moment, and more strongly with the rise of the postindustrial digital age, this often manifests in an engagement with technological and electric aesthetics. It’s this electric power that is embodied by three of the most iconic Black superheroes: Static, Storm, and Black Lightning, pictured in the top row of Figure 2. These three protagonists came about from different creators and publishers, with Static emerging around fifteen years after the other two, yet all share a strong similarity in color scheme: black and gold, with electric blue (second row). It can be said that their respective creators were in an artistic dialogue, building off of each other over a few decades to create a powerful Black electric aesthetic. This aesthetic pops up in contemporary works like that of Black Kirby and John Jennings: in the third row one sees the Electric Slider, Janelle Monáe / Cindi Mayweather, and Kid Code. They all embody this aesthetic, yet in the latter two, the electric blue becomes a signifier for technological power.
Wielding electromagnetic power within, around, and through the Black body occurs between natural and urban landscapes, bridging these seemingly disparate ecological spaces and their gendered connotations. Electricity, and its metaphorical associations with power, work, and control is necessary for the function of both natural ecologies and urban modernity, reified in the popular psyche. It is this electric aesthetic that fuels the Black Android narrative of Janelle Monáe’s alter ego Cindi Mayweather. Monáe engages in a tradition of Afrofuturist imaginative freedom to build an android mythology around Cindi, who travels through space and time with a collective of musical radicals, becoming the iconic figure of the Archandroid, taking the Superhero-as-modern-myth theorization and placing it far into her own imagined future. She engages with the figure of the Android to craft a commentary on social death for Black, queer, disabled, and othered bodies, collapsing them onto her own form. Her movement and narratives clearly show life and energy, but maintain elements of roboticism, critiquing its associations with lifelessness and non-personhood. The embodiment of the android aesthetic is fundamental to Monáe’s live performances and the radical spaces that she creates.
Monáe reifies this sentiment in the performance and portrayal of disability that she carries out upon her own fictional visage. Disability, both physical and mental, comes about as a result of the bodily non-normativity that is inherent to her robotic alter-ego. What she can and cannot do, can and cannot be, is a point of constant tension in her work, manifesting in themes of malfunction and artificiality. In her 2008 hit Many Moons, she lists off “Plastic sweat, metal skin / Metallic tears, mannequin” as part of a stream of social ills and brief reveries; in the video, as the song climaxes, Cindi Mayweather rises up and explosively glitches. Monáe’s imagined body is a set of seemingly contrasting physical states, the robotic and the biological in fantastic synthesis; a freakish postnormativity.
This freakishness further manifests in Monáe’s poly-temporaneous 2013 single Q.U.E.E.N. In the chorus, Monáe openly questions the freakishness that is imposed upon her performative body (“Am I a freak for getting’ down?”). Afrofuturist Ytasha Womack describes that freakishness as a material, self-sustaining independence that contradicts societal norms for women of color; Monáe’s female bodily autonomy and open use of Black dance forms is interpreted as unsettling (Womack 2013). This brand of freakishness is a legacy of settler colonialism imposed on the Black female body, and Monáe actively deploys futurity to unsettle it. By openly questioning freakishness, she is rejecting the colonial gaze and turning it onto itself by directly addressing the viewer. The museum in which the video takes place is a time-displaced prison of sorts, but the Wondaland troupe uses Black dance forms to disrupt the space and turn it into a postcolonial site of poly-temporality and active engagement across time. This disruption allows Monáe to question and subvert colonial notions of time and distort the Western linear progress narrative. By asserting themselves as culturally bound Black bodies in that time-space, they are reclaiming history and reframing their cultural timeline however they see fit.
This intersection of roboticism and freakishness is a futuristic engagement with colonial logics surrounding and defining the Black female body, resulting in a politic strongly reminiscent of the Divine Feminine Principle, the ecological and technological entering a mutually constructive syncretic state. To see this in action, one can look towards Octavia Butler’s Dawn, which follows Lilith, a Black woman who must negotiate her own humanity in the face of an alien race, the Oankali, who seek to genetically assimilate the stragglers of humanity a couple of centuries after the apocalypse. Dawn addresses the question of how it feels to embody non-normative modalities of the human, critiquing the normative view of the discreteness and boundedness of individual beings. The human, as a concept, is strongly questioned and actively altered on the genetic level. What is commonly defined as human, and what the “human” characters in the novel would define as human is actually subject to the genetic and biological manipulation of the Oankali; the human becomes a constant state of negotiation between individual and the self, as well as individual and community. As the Oankali freely adjust and manipulate Lilith’s body down to the genetic level without her consent, she is relegated to the subhuman category of natural resource and reproductive bio-machine, yet gains superhuman abilities of strength and indestructibility, as well as a physiological porosity with the Oankali space ship and its biomechanics. The human becomes defined by what it is not, and when the other humans exclude Lilith from that self-determination, she becomes stuck with all too familiar colonial logics of freakishness and monstrosity.
The critical deconstruction of traditionally human ways of being allows for re-formations of Black bodies as themselves sites of possibility and critique. The Black speculative body is that which has virtually no choice but to break down the liberal humanist specter of Man through a dynamism and transcorporality that in many instances does away with the need for the mundanity of human-ness. To go beyond the human is a possibility being perpetually reimagined.
There is much to be said about, for, and by those whose bodies are critiqued, celebrated, or denigrated as non-normative; those whose bodies are too much and yet somehow not enough. This project is a celebratory look at the work being done through postcolonial frameworks of imagining and re-imagining, (re)framing Black bodies as sites of possibility, through which future-spaces can be opened and new cultural narratives built. Thanks in large part to decades of cultural production within the superheroic genre and its direct connections back to mythological constructions, ideas of posthumanity, of bodies beyond the human, have become explicitly and implicitly engrained into the Western psyche. Thanks in large part to decades of Afrofuturist cultural production, mainstream speculative work has always been under critique for its gatekeeping of who can enter the realm of the posthuman; of who can be heroes. Conversations in the realm of marginalized bodies seeking their own reflection in the realm of speculative work very frequently rely on tactics of inclusion, representation, and assimilation into a set of subgenres and subcultures that were built upon a white patriarchal universalism and its post-liberal humanist-humanity. As we are opening our own imagined spaces and creating our own imagined bodies, it is essential to look critically at which body types are being prioritized and which modes of body possibility are being left out. Through Black, queer, and disabled imaginative frameworks many creators have carried out the work of (re)building the human, negotiating between the inhuman to superhuman scales of Western Man and eventually dismantling it altogether, forming new spaces of alterity and speculation.
Christian graduated from Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences with a double major in African American Studies and Environmental Science. In the past, they have focused their research efforts into bridging these fields to focus an ecocritical lens on Black literature with an eye towards Futurity. This, and subsequent projects, led to their critical interest in Afrofuturism and the power of the speculative imagination, which, intersected with their analytical attraction to comics and pop culture, resulted in the Electric Peoples Project. Christian was born and raised in South Florida and hopes to pursue a career in scholar-activism. Their research interests include ethnic studies, comic studies, pop culture, Futurism, post-humanism, queer studies, visual arts, and many more. To keep up with their research endeavors, check out electricpeoples.tumblr.com.