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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Janelle Monae: Sci Fi Queen Yet Uncrowned

Last week I rambled for a bit about Janelle Monae and the epic science fiction story that she's weaving across multiple albums and videos, and discussed some of the ways in which this particular project has succeeded where other concept albums, in particular, fall short. To recap, Monae's story follow the android Cindi Mayweather, on the run from Droid Control after falling in love with the human Anthony Greendown. She becomes a symbol of resistance for the oppressed droids and eventually becomes the Archandroid, a savior-figure destined to... well, we're not quite sure what she's destined to do yet, because we've got at least one more album to go before the story is complete.

I'm surprised at the lack of attention Monae's gotten in geek circles. I've been surprised, too, at the lack of attention from folks interested in social justice, despite the complex commentaries on race, gender, and queer sexuality present within her works. She's gotten a little bit of geek press, and a bit more queer press, but much of the recurring interest I see in her work comes from folks who are already interested in the particular subgenre in which she's arguably working: Afrofuturism.

I can't speak too much to the significance of Afrofuturism or its history, as I am in many ways very peripheral to the whole thing and haven't done the minimum requisite reading that'd make me comfortable talking in more detail, but the basic idea is to blend African and African-American experiences and traditions with the tropes and ideas of science fiction, often in order to reimagine current and future conditions and sometimes in order to challenge white supremacist beliefs. This is, at least, my broad understanding of what isn't exactly a unified movement but a broader cluster of particular interests within the realm of science fiction.

What I do feel reasonable saying is that some of the most exciting work happening in sci fi and fantasy spheres is coming not just from Afrofuturism but from wide ranges of voices that we just haven't heard a whole lot from in the US sci fi/fantasy scene: women, people of color, queer folk, &c. So, it's worth considering Monae's work as a case study for the possible reasons why some of this work is being frustratingly ignored, or at least under-covered in comparison to, say, the latest giant blockbuster franchise.

Possibility 1: Bias or Prejudice

The most obvious reason we could cite is, of course, that geek culture is kinda stuck in a white straight cismale rut. I mean, is this even an argument I have to make at this point or can I just assume you folx have a good sense of what's going on in geek culture right now? I just don't think it's particularly outrageous to suggest that Monae doesn't get the same play as the latest Marvel whatever because geek culture as a whole is pretty prejudiced.

Like, remember when Donald Glover said he'd like to play Spider-Man? Remember how people reacted? That was fuckin' ridiculous.

Anyway I don't think with that shit going on on a regular basis, comics industry professionals mouthing off left and right about the menace of Occupy Wall Street or the menace of Feminism, or David Goyer doing all of the above plus sharing his fucked up sex fantasies about She-Hulk (remember when that happened a few weeks back? Man fuck that guy), I just really don't think this is a ludicrous claim. The rot seems to be pretty much present at every level and I'm still just as firmly committed to a posture of outraged disgust towards geek culture as I was a while back when I wrote a whole article on the total failure of the scene.

I mean, I'm not gonna accuse the author of the review of Electric Lady from last week of being racist or sexist or homophobic but like I said then, complaining about the merger of Monae's Cindi Mayweather persona and her own personal biography as an ambiguously queer black woman growing up in an America that's arguably more gouged through with canyons of race and class disparity than the America of 50 years ago is largely missing the plot. Her work is significant and interesting because of that identity slippage.

And I think the choice of words in that article--"uncomfortable"--reveals unwittingly the feeling present through the silent parts of geek culture that may not explode in paroxysms of racist, sexist, and homophobic rage whenever anyone dares to intrude on their supremacist fantasies... but that quietly through their silence, through their discomfort, through their resistance to the 21st Century social order, give strength to the howling, spoiled princelings of the digital age.

To someone that draws their identity from outmoded conceptions of gender and sexuality, Monae's genderqueer persona and her unstated, ambiguous sexual desire (Monae isn't out by any stretch of the imagination, but if she's happy accepting the desire of queer female fans and is happy singing about romantic and erotic relationships with women, I'm happy to accept her as a queer cultural touchstone!) is probably "uncomfortable." To people unused to thinking about Sally Ride, Monae's use of Ride as a touchstone is probably a little "uncomfortable." She's working with a repertoire that's maybe not familiar to geeks, and if there's one things geeks hate, it's not being smarter than everyone else in the god damn room, so, again, I don't think it's unreasonable to posit discomfort and the bias it represents as a possible reason for Monae's lack of attention in geek circles.

Possibility 2: Genre Divisions

My local library, the one closest to my house here in Pennsylvania, doesn't have any books by Octavia Butler.

Now. In fairness. Pennsylvania is a shitty state for libraries. I couldn't find, via a quick search, more recent statistics, but back in 1994 we ranked 49th in the nation for local support of public libraries and my contacts on the inside (and my personal experience of living in a disgustingly wealthy school district with an unforgivably ostentatious high school that nevertheless has a tiny, cramped little public library) tell me shit hasn't gotten much better since then. Having a partner with a library science degree gives one a bit of a closer perspective on the whole thing.

But still, though Pennsylvania might be worse than most, let's talk about the absence of Octavia Butler from my local library, because I think it demonstrates an important barrier to entry for artists like Monae: distribution and attention paid to small-name members of smaller speculative fiction subgenres.

Butler is a pretty big name in discussions of afro-futurism as a genre and of black female science fiction authors for whom race and gender are a major component of their work. Samuel Delany gets similar attention as an experimental science fiction author interested in race and sexuality and language. My local library has nothing by either of them. I wasn't even really that cognizant of them until recently and, since I did most of my speculative fiction reading in my teenage years, I haven't caught up on their books yet, because, well, I simply didn't know they existed.

Let's return briefly to the library. They do have a number of stories by Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, so that's something at least. But their number of catalogue entries are a scant fraction of the entries of someone like Stephen King or Ray Bradbury.

The representation in the library, then, is maybe roughly proportional to the market share these authors and the genres and subgenres they are a part of as far as cultural capital is concerned, and that cultural capital seems related to questions of race, gender, and sexuality. Spec fic subgenres that are largely helmed by straight white men--Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Cosmic Horror--seem to maintain a proportionally larger market share than genres like Afrofuturism or feminist revisionist fantasy do.

While I think much of this is a reflection of the biases I described before, I think there's an element here of folks being turned away by other unfamiliar frames of reference. Even something as brilliant as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which I am obviously a big fan of, is fundamentally drawing upon narrative tropes that a lot of spec fic readers are unfamiliar with (in the case of Clarke's novel, traditional fairy stories and Regency-era romance novels). The existing biases simply are compounded by the different frames of reference that these authors are, at long last, able to explore with greater freedom than they may have in the past.

I'm not sure who to really pin blame on for this particular problem. There seems to be something cyclical going on here--particular genres attract writers that are interested in writing about ideas not present in mainstream spec fic or its more popular subsidiaries, geeks as a whole stay away from those subgenres because they're strange and unfamiliar and "uncomfortable," those genres develop less cultural capital and receive less representation in libraries and bookstores, and so folks otherwise inclined to check out these new subgenres don't have access to them, and through it all there's minimal coverage, which sort of makes this whole damn article a bit of a circular analysis, doesn't it? It's very frustrating.

I think there's some hope in the proliferation of strange subcultures on places like Tumblr, though. I'm way more in touch with the afrofuturist "scene" if such a thing exists than I was a few years back in part because I can easily follow folks on there who are specifically interested in that subculture. I'm honestly very in favor of certain manifestations of what people might call "hipsterism." The endless search for more obscure material, in particular, strikes me as a great way of counteracting the ghettoization of certain subgenres... at least if it's done in a spirit of spreading and sharing rather than hoarding intellectual status symbols. Part of the reason Monae's work is so intriguing to me is because she's doing stuff that I'm just not used to seeing. It's the same reason I found Lady Gaga's work interesting, really. There's exciting work being done on the fringes, where the rules aren't as well established and the points of reference are different. We owe it to ourselves to rethink whether the frontier of speculative fiction is really genres founded and largely developed by the same old guard.

Possibility 3: Medium Segregation

Of course, the above section makes sense if you're discussing genres within single media--i.e. afrofuturism as compared to steampunk in literature or afrofuturism as compared to dystopian science fiction in music. But what about cross-media analysis? Why is it that when we talk about the artistic canon (and boy do geeks ever love to debate the canon!) the conversation is so often about great fantasy literature, great sci fi movies, great superhero comics?

Now, obviously each medium has its differences. As a comics theorist, I know this perhaps more than most people, if only because comics as a medium is still poorly understood academically and in need of more detailed structural analysis. Each medium has its own vocabulary, and making cross-media comparisons can run into trouble because of these stark divisions in the ways stories are told.

However, the practical upshot of this seems to be that genres are divided in their analysis by medium, despite the fact that genres, too, share a particular vocabulary that is often usefully understood in the context of the merger of that vocabulary with the vocabulary of the medium in which they operate. The result is a fractured field of analysis that fails to recognize the way in which artists pull from a variety of influences in their creative process not bound by genre OR medium! If part of the problem with Afrofuturism as a whole and its lack of recognition comes from trepidation about the unfamiliar genre frames of reference that lead Monae to write tributes to other black women who inspired her to sing, the other side of that coin is the unfamiliarity of analyzing a concept album as a significant experiment in science fiction on par with a novel or film.

I'm at the point where I'm ready to declare this one of the greatest intellectual afflictions of critics today! I just absolutely cannot fathom how an otherwise intelligent critic could be devoted to art and literature and cinema and yet deride videogames, or how a critic could dismiss all anime "except Miyazaki." Like... to not include Bastion among a list of great fantasy stories, or to ignore Cowboy Bebop as one of the greatest works of science fiction of all time, is just incomprehensible to me.

And yet, such media segregation is widespread! It's no wonder, if critics cannot make a leap from live action cinema to Japanese animation, that Monae has received so little acclaim as a remarkable science fiction author. When her next album comes out, I guarantee that it will appear on no Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year list! The obsessive devotion to medium specificity makes such a thing impossible.

I can't help but feel that this, most of all, reveals the frustratingly retrograde state of criticism in the realm of speculative fiction, both professional and casual. Every single problem I've discussed can be solved or alleviated if people would stop being so exasperatingly unimaginative and timid of the unfamiliar. It wouldn't be as frustrating in the realm of realistic literary fiction because that stuff's all about not having imagination--"write what you know" and all that. (I'm joking. Mostly. Sort of. Kinda.) But in a realm that literally is all about imagining possibilities people still can't seem to get past surface weirdness to give the truly new and innovative a chance.

I mean for Sweet Heavenly Fucking Christ's Sake, we're getting another fucking Batman movie soon and people will not shut up about it! We rebooted Spider-Man and got another pastyass straight white boy! Even the god damn actor suggested that Peter Parker should be bicurious but are we ever gonna see that on screen? HELL no. Even the familiar has to be whitewashed and sanitized for consumption, so all the Hobbits in Hobbiton have to be white despite the fact that such casting decisions contradicts Tolkien's own bloody writing.

The thing about Monae's work is that it's not just underrepresented culturally, it's symbolic of a wider underrepresentation and dearth of creativity in the whole field of speculative fiction. It's a hologram: her work is a fragment that contains the whole problem of bloodymindedness and unimaginative reactionary bullshit that plagues geekdom. Social unfamiliarity is wedded to genre unfamiliarity is wedded to medium unfamiliarity, and all have their root in people's unwillingness to embrace the actual frontier rather than, and I know I'm going to be slaughtering the proverbial sacred cow here, someone like George RR Martin, whose central innovation seems to be the same innovation that Moore and Gibbons brought to superhero comics 34 years ago. Or make Drizzt Do'Urden or the X-Men superstars for the social metaphors in their stories while ignoring stories about, like, actual black humans and prejudice.

It's not that I'm dead set against the core canon of speculative fiction, I just want to see more willingness on the part of consumers and critics to push the envelope and promote the innovative, particularly those like Monae who are not just innovative but virtuoso! Break down analytical boundaries, compare stuff that you got no right comparing, break down notional boundaries, apply alien analytical methodologies to pop culture, do...


Do what I've been telling you to do for years now, basically, from the moment I first posted that article on science fiction and theme in Lady Gaga's video for Bad Romance.

Find an Ivory Tower.

Dare to storm it.

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1 comment:

  1. Noice. Not a very critical comment, but my gut reaction. I've always disliked the short memory many genre enthusiasts seem to have regarding the back matter of their chosen mediums. Books, comics, music and films that weren't smash hits just become forgotten. This always seems to hurt artists who aren't straight white cisdudes the most as well.


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