Plexus Nexus: Samuel R. Delany’s Pataphysics
By Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky
”Lift up your hearts, you good dancers, high! higher! And do not forget the good laughter!”
— Friedrich Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra
This exhibition isn’t about Afrofuturism. If it was, my artwork would be in it. Instead, what it presents is an essay on objects that dip in and out of the conceptual realm that the obliquely referential term “future” is all about – with an askance towards the perpetual possibility of what Afrofuturism could be. So it’s a bit of a contradiction, but that’s kind of the point. When the curators asked me to interview Samuel R. Delany aka Chip, I said “sure!” and called him up. He was in. No problem. And that’s where this dialog and the exhibition overlap. In our era of 140 character tweets and infinite updates on Facebook, Youtube, Vine, Instagram, and Google+, getting a chance to catch up with Chip is to be treasured and absorbed slowly.
Chip Delany represents so many of the themes of what could be “Afrofuturist” – but it’s his beard that really embodies what he is up to! His beard is his most distinctive feature: it evokes his deep attention to letting things flow. In Fred Barney Taylor’s 2007 documentary, Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman it’s the most prominent character. He, like his beard, has lived a life that flouts whatever could be called conventional these days. He was married to a woman for twelve years and has a child, but is a gay man; he is an African American who, because of his “light” complexion, is in an ambiguous relationship with the markers that define identity in our proscribed and paradoxical United States – he’s always asked to identify his ethnicity. Whenever this happens, and, yes, it happens alot, he is always hardly bothered by these attempts to figure out who he is. Instead, he laughs with his eyes and thoughtfully strokes his beard. In the course of our dialog for this interview, when we were discussing his take on ethnicity, he wrote this after reading the material above:
Really like the introduction. The only point I’d take exception to is
when you talk about people asking me my ethnicity, which, yes, as
you say, they do a lot. But I never laugh and let it hang. I say straight up,
front and center: “I’m black–African American.” And if they press it,
which they often do, I say, “Both my parents were African-American
and so am I.”
Really, I have no patience with “bi-racialism” or any bullshit
of that sort. At the very least, that should be limited to people who
come from interacial parents–and even then. My daughter, whose
mother is white, self-identifies as black and was the treasurer of the
Black Students’ Union at Kenyon. And I won’t revise that, not until
both the laws and the history of this country are majorly different
from what they are and have been for three hundred years. That’s what
both her parents taught her to do, and she’s now a 39 year old doctor,
and still does it.
* * *
I can’t think of someone whose laughter is more life affirming and genuine. It is something to be treasured when heard. In fact, the whole Afrofuturist exhibit could be an exploration of the sound forms of Delany. That would be pretty cool.
I like to think that Samuel R. Delany is a proto-myth of some of the more dynamic archetypes of the American unconscious but first and foremost you have to listen to his writing to really understand where he is coming from. He’s written somewhere in the number of over 40 books, and has been one of the most influential writers of the late 20th and early 21st century. An example: In 1974 his book Dhalgren left the keys of his typewriter and went on to become a distillation of a draft of a book he had been reworking for years. He published it with Frederik Pohl at Bantam Books, and went on to change the literary world forever. Dhalgren is the story of “the Kid,” an amnesiac who wanders through Bellona, a riot wracked shell of a city in the American Midwest that’s isolated from the world after some kind of rift in the fabric of space and time, like the United States after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Bellona is a city like New York in Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel Warriors (you know the film…) populated by a menagerie of drifters old and young, male and female, black and white, a famous poet, a slumming astronaut, warring gangs, and holographic phantasmal creatures. In Dhalgren the reader is almost certain that the novel takes place in a world where, much like JG Ballard’s ouevre, characters are confronted with an apocalyptic reality that instead of disturbing the uniquely coherent quality of how “everyday” life needs to be preserved, instead, are enraptured by the apocalyptic phenomena at hand. An example: There’s a famous (perhaps apocryphal?) story of when moving through Kennedy Airport, Delany and his family flew back to the States just before Christmas Eve in 1974, and saw copies of Dhalgren filling book racks at Kennedy Airport before they reached customs. That’s Bellona. Despite it’s epic length and arcane references, over the next decade, Dhalgren sold more than a million copies and is now called a masterpiece by many critics. One of my other favorite writers, William Gibson, infamously described it as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.”
If there’s one strength his style of writing has, it’s that he is an expert on world-building, and his books like Tales of Nevèrÿon, Nova, Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, Empire, and others all reflect this. For these novels and others he has won one of science fictions most prestigious literary honors – The Nebula Award – 4 times.
The techniques Delany uses often evoke a “droste” effect format (some call it “mise en abime” or “to put in an abyss” in French literary form) allowing him to introduce lots of information through recursion, or what you would call “polyptch” in painting – think of his works as paintings whose canvasses are not only a kind of art, but an altar display. He blends current news seamlessly with history and projects that with panache into the near and sometimes distant future. That’s what makes his work so resonant with our modern hyper saturated world. Octavia Butler once wrote in her essay Positive Obsession that when she began writing science fiction, one of the only black authors she knew of was Samuel Delany (the writings of George Schuyler’s Black No More and Black Empire were out of the pantheon because of his right wing political leanings).
“What good is science fiction to black people?” Butler asked in her essay. “What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing?” One can only say, like the poet Saul Williams once wrote (yes, that’s spoken word, written) – “another world is possible, how do we make it real?” The rest, is the remix.
This is a teaser for the exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The full interview between me and Samuel Delany will be available in the Afrofuturism catalog that accompanies the exhibition in November 2013.