Non-Binary Blackness: After the End of the World with Samuel R. Delany

11.1 / All the World’s End

Non-Binary Blackness: After the End of the World with Samuel R. Delany

By Tavia Nyong’o November 21, 2019

“After the end of the world” is an Afrofuturist catchphrase that alerts us to a sense of blackness that is, or should be, immanent in any discussions of our current dystopian moment. In her recent work of criticism, Queer Times, Black Futures, scholar of Afrofuturism Kara Keeling reminds us that the origins of the phrase—which reads in full: “It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?”—is from the 1974 Sun Ra film Space is the Place, sung by the inimitable June Tyson. Keeling notes that while it is “a refrain sung and shouted in a voice that we recognize today as feminine, if not female,” it is a refrain that “asserts another temporality and [set of] coordinates, which exist within, but are incommensurate with, those taken as the dominant logics of existence of a world (only one) characterized by statistical predictability, control, temporal continuity, and coherence.”1 Like Keeling, I have long been fascinated by modes of Black being and becoming that linger in the wake, underground, or in outer space. This fascination motivates the turn by so many artists to speculative genres of creative expression, even as that turn begs a series of questions as to what exactly we aim to accomplish. When we attune ourselves to the frequency of a voice asserting a different time and place, are we seeking to take up permanent residence in those other worlds?

One amongst several possible answers to that question certainly involves a world “after” the regime of gender that has long dominated the heteropatriarchal West. That voice might be inviting us to imagine that “the future is female” as a popular T-shirt slogan has it. And yet, that slogan remains binary in ways we might usefully question (especially from a trans* perspective). Keeling draws upon the critical energies of Octavia Butler, Gilles Deleuze, and Gilbert Simondon (among others) to develop an account of what she calls “transindividuation”: a trans* mode of becoming that evades the liberal individual (binary) subject, while leaving itself open for the emergence of singularities. Although Keeling doesn’t make this move herself, I align this notion of transindividuation with a gender non-binary imaginary, or at least an imaginary in which the process of “gendering” and “engendering,” as Keeling puts it, is held open in outcome.2 A reading of the speculative acts of race and gender that occur in sci-fi maestro Samuel R. Delany’s opus Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a novel that belongs in any canon of Afrofuturist fiction, is productive here. Delany helps me thicken my grasp of Keeling’s analysis of queer times and Black futures and moves me toward what I will heuristically call non-binary blackness: a blackness that asserts another temporality than that which is enforced within straight time.

Pulp fiction cover of Samuel R. Delany’s, Triton (1976). Photo: Tavia Nyong’o.

In my recent book Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life, I took up another novel by Delany in a chapter concerned with Black literary precursors to contemporary transgender and queer identities. My aim was to contest the way the cultural politics of our moment tend to prefer the most current terminology in such a way as to repress important genealogies of subjectivity. I argued that Delany’s fiction from the 60s, while lacking our contemporary vocabulary of LGBTIA and non-binary, nevertheless explored the queering of gender and sexual norms. I did so, however, not simply by asserting that contemporary terms had antecedents, but by showing both repetition and difference in contemporary dilemmas of representation, and how Black life exceeds the identitarian terms that seek to define it. Given his career-long obsession with language, desire, difference, and identity, the work of Delany is a perfect locus for this conversation about the powers of speculation. Alongside other germinal Black speculative fiction writers like Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson, Delany has used the fabulative powers of fiction to imagine non-linear histories and futures for sex and gender. 

Non-binary blackness, as I am imagining it here, is blackness conceived outside of the binary into which anti-blackness recurrently places it. It is blackness thought outside the static settler colonial triad of black, red, and white—a blackness that is therefore able to become something as yet unknown and perhaps not fully knowable. At the same time, grounding the politics of non-binary gender in such mundane matters of enfleshment as sex acts and bathroom use, remind us how we experience the oppressive norm in our quotidian life. Even as we cannot pinpoint blackness in representation, we still feel its effects in our world, including our world of gendered and sexed embodiment. Such a concept of blackness will not satisfy the skeptical. So long as we live in an anti-black world, as some would have it, the power of blackness will consist in ontological negation. However, non-binary blackness intends to speculate upon the very ontohistorical grounds that such discourses of negation rely upon; that is to say, it queries the pessimistic conviction that blackness is lack. While conceding that non-binary blackness is not a social reality we can yet point to or identify with, it is worth approaching as a thought experiment, a speculative fiction that we can use to read the figuration of race, gender, and the human after the end of the world.

We can see an early outline of such a vision in the contours of Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a speculative fiction that draws extensively from the genre of “space opera.” It is set in a universe long after the migration of humanity from earth into a far-flung federation of 6,000 habitable worlds, filled with aliens and hybrids. Furthering the juxtaposition to more familiar mainstream space opera, Stars in My Pocket appeared in 1984, right when the genre was first proving a commercial behemoth for Hollywood (with the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises). However, Stars in My Pocket, as a Black postmodernist text, evades every opportunity to conform to the dictates of genre convention. Instead, it uses the set-up of a human species that has discovered interstellar travel as an occasion to meditate on the endurance of structures of oppression, and also those of transgressive desire. It uses the form of the novel to innovate and experiment with language, producing a writerly text that frequently challenges genre expectations of readerly adventure fiction. This is a deliberate strategy and part of the novel’s deconstruction of gender binaries. It also bespeaks Delany’s continued and conscious investments in rhetorics of race, especially as they unfold across the familiar science fictional topos of the alien encounter. Alien/human conviviality, diplomacy, and commingling abound in Stars in My Pocket, and these aspects of the novel also benefit from a reading in terms of a non-binary blackness.

One of the postmodernist conceits of Stars in My Pocket concerns its use of gender, which varies greatly across the immense array of species living on more than 6,000 worlds linked together by an internet-like information service called General Information (GI). Delany gives his imagination free rein as he constructs these worlds. Some planets have four or five poles, some orbit around two stars, some are not planets but space stations cobbled together from asteroids. So, we should expect sex and gender usage would not be stuck to an earthbound binary either. At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to the planet Rhyonon—“a world apart”—where gendered language resembles the crudest form of our own sexist terminology, and which has refused integration into the GI while perpetuating a form of “voluntary” enslavement. The planet Velm, by contrast, is far more advanced and adheres to a sort of interplanetary diplomatic standard in which all beings are referred to with female pronouns. Male pronouns are typically only used to indicate the object of desire, regardless of sex, in a manner that seems to fulfill, if speculatively, Sylvia Wynter’s call to correct the “overrepresentation of Man.” 

How might such a scenario lend insight into what I’m calling non-binary blackness (a blackness that, by the way, follows some Afrofuturist tenets in conveying both the Blackness of Black people and the blackness of space)? Stars in My Pocket concerns two protagonists, Rat Korga and Marq Dyeth. Korga is an enslaved worker on Rhyonon who is rescued by representatives of the GI (who are known as the Web) after the planet succumbs sudden, suspicious destruction, leaving Korga its last human survivor. Although their race is not foregrounded, both are represented as either physically dark or as coming from a Black lineage. Marq Dyeth comes from Velm and, as an Industrial Diplomat, has occasion to travel widely across the federation. Part of the plot of the novel concerns the Web disclosing to both Dyeth and Korga that they are, to a high degree of certainty, a romantic pair uniquely suited for each other. This literally star-crossed love affair provides Delany occasion for one of his well-known meditations on the inscrutable mechanics of desire, but I want to bring our attention to another aspect of the story, occurring before their meeting. This earlier moment concerns Korga’s response to the world-shattering event of Rhyonon’s destruction and the Web’s “rebuilding” him from the biologically modified enslavement that he had been conditioned into.

Pulp fiction cover of Samuel R. Delany, Driftglass (1971). Photo: Tavia Nyong’o.

Reawakened after rescue and rehabilitation, Korga exclaims “I had a world. But it is as true to say I never had a world. You have given me…possibility of a world. What world will you give me?”3 Part of the answer the novel offers is: a world filled with information, including the spatial coordinates to your heart’s desire. And yet there is a lingering, a hesistancy or pausing I sense in this moment, as Korga is positioned between slavery and freedom, what was and what will be.

As Delany remakes Korga and his world, he inscribes the matter of gender, and possibilities for conceptualizing it otherwise, as another evasion of binary structures. Throughout the novel Delany utilizes intricate (and invented) gender conventions, set up as part of his thought experiment. Characters’ bodies do not always map onto how they are referred to by others, and this is not just done as a misgendering but through a proliferation of engendering norms. We are thus invited to read beyond the gender binary. The effect of this literary conceit—in which gay male characters Korga and Dyeth are consistently referred to as “she” and “her”—undoubtedly varies from reader to reader and opens up the prospects of a gender system outside the binary. The perfect “match” might be something both more than and less than an identity assigned at birth, and the information that language carries might do something other than reproduce, in some static way, the hegemonic norm. Insofar as Delany’s fictions recognize worldbuilding to be a more or less oppressive and exclusionary process, and Stars in My Pocket warns against the very romance it narrates, fracturing that hegemonic norm holds upon the prospects for thought experiments outside binary race, gender, and sexuality. Elsewhere in his fiction, Delany is perfectly capable of depicting mundane Black and white characters who do not confound the racial binary, but here there seems a deliberate intention to do so, not in order to obfuscate the historical afterlives of slavery, but to intensify their resonances in deep space.

Rat Korga and Marc Dyeth are in some rough sense “Black men,” but they are not just cisgender gay men, even though that is how media or cinematic science fiction might be obliged to depict them. In literary science fiction, by contrast, we have more freedom to hold open a space of becoming, or unbecoming, between genders not least because the symbolic systems used to demarcate sex and gender in the novel are so powerfully mystified. The critic Mark Rifkin defends speculative fiction as a critical method because “It enacts a process of redescription, of conscientious misrepresentation, that can engender alternative ways of conceptualizing and perceiving what is...It works to disrupt and redirect modes of understanding through the reframing conceit of might be.”4 Rifkin draws his emotive phrase—“conscientious misrepresentation”—from Delany’s own critical writings. If non-binary blackness is conscientiously misrepresented in Stars in My Pocket’s fantastic storyline, it is done so with precisely the purpose Rifkin names. Delany does not necessarily make us want to live in one of his speculative worlds, but his speculative worldmaking does make living in this one a little more bearable.

Notes

  1. Kara Keeling, Queer Times, Black Futures (New York: NYU Press, 2019), 53.
  2. She goes on in the same passage to argue that “conceptualizations of ‘race’ and non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality make perceptible alternative organizations of space and time,” suggesting the reversibility of this pattern of becoming. Keeling, 75.
  3. Samuel R. Delany, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (New York: Bantam Books, 1984), 164.
  4. Mark Rifkin, Fictions of Land and Flesh: Blackness, Indigeneity, Speculation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 220.

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