2018-2019 HTDTWT Seminar Hypatia Vourloumis: Xenogenesis: Critical Theory and Science Fiction - from month to month


Seminar 2 December

"There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another." (Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”)

"Who put us in a race and for what purpose are we racing?" (Rammellzee)

For our second seminar we are reading Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred. A genre-defying work of historical fiction Kindred tells the story of Dana, a struggling writer living in California in 1976, who finds herself traveling back in time and space to antebellum Maryland in the 1800’s. Through a close reading of this novel alongside texts including Saidiya Hartman’s introduction to Scenes of Subjection, and scholarly articles engaging with Butler’s critiques of the limitations of realist forms, genre classifications, and ‘objective history’ and archiving, we will discuss questions of experience, the flesh, and time – the enfleshment and transfiguration of history and the present. Dana finds herself fighting for survival in 1800’s and this fight is also the condition of possibility of her existence in 1976 as she has traveled back through her own genealogical time to an ancestral past. Trapped in limbo, a limbo of constant back and forth between her present and past which will determine her present and future Dana will emerge back in her own time at the end of the novel alive yet fully scathed and physically amputated by a literal and metaphorical grave pull.   

In his essay ‘History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas’ Wilson Harris writes of the Black Atlantic diaspora’s embodied memories of being in limbo, the contortions and cramped state of an ancestral journey, the traversing of the Middle Passage. For Harris, the Caribbean dance limbo, and I would argue here Butler’s novel, perform ‘the renascence of a new corpus of sensibility,’ a ‘re-assembly which issue[d] from a state of cramp to articulate a new growth’ and ‘the necessity for a new kind of drama, novel and poem … a creative phenomenon of the first importance in the imagination of a people violated by economic fates.’ (Harris, 1999: 158-159). As John Akomfrah’s afro-futuristic film ‘The Last Angel of History’ (which we watched in our last seminar) suggests the Atlantic slave trade was experienced as a form of alien abduction and this entails, as figured in the danced limbo as Harris argues, as well as in Kindred, the wrestling with the sense of a “phantom limb,” a memory of the part of oneself that has been amputated by way of violent contact, the sensation of a missing part still felt present through its absence (Harris 1999, 157). Thus, one can posit that Kindred echoes Saidiya Hartman’s argument that slavery and its ongoing aftermath emits a tragic and brutalizing continuity in antebellum and postbellum constitutions of racial subjugation. 

If Hartman’s revisionist project, which dismantles any simple temporal and ontological binary between ‘slavery’ and ‘freedom,’ dares to (citing Edouard Glissant) ‘abandon the absurd catalogue of official history’ and points to the ‘ethical necessity of historical fiction’ (13-14) Kindred’s time travel likewise re-envisions and critiques the documentation and transmission of barbarism in official histories and archival presents and also troubles any sweeping notion of ‘cyborg feminism’ (Donna Haraway) that refuses to acknowledge and address the fleshed past, present and future of specific socio-economic-cultural histories, experiences and aftermaths. 


Required reading: 

Butler, Octavia. Kindred. 1979. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003. 

Crossley, Robert. “Critical Essay.” In Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003. 265―84.

Hartman, Saidiya. “Introduction.” In Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. Oxford University Press, 1997. 3-14.

Okajima, Kei. “History and the Flesh Embraced: Time Travel, Slavery, and the Question of Roots in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” (unpublished article).

Vint, Sherryl. “Only by Experience: Embodiment and the Limitations of Realism in Neo-Slave Narratives.” Science Fiction Studies Vol. 34, no. 2, Afrofuturism (2007): 241-261.


Additional readings:

Harris, Wilson. Selected Essays of Wilson Harris: The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination. Edited by Andrew Bundy. London: Routledge, 1999.

Doyle, Jennifer. “Carrie Mae Weems’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995-1996).” In Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art. Duke University Press, 2013: 112-125.


Seminar 1 November 

For the first session of the seminar Xenogenesis: Critical Theory and Science Fiction we will read three different pieces of writing: José Esteban Muñoz’s essay ‘Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts,’ Carl Freedman’s introduction to his book Critical Theory and Science Fiction, and Samuel R. Delany’s ParaDoxa interview in the collection of essays Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and The Politics of the Paraliterary. These three texts can be read together to think through questions of definition and genre; the hierarchies of academic rigor, evidence and knowledge production; and queer methodology, ephemera and content. How can Freedman’s strenuous efforts to legitimize science fiction as an academic object of study speak to Muñoz’s critique of institutional systems, archives and sanctions? How do queer acts of and as minoritarian knowledge production speak to Delany’s queer thoughts on the paraliterary? We will analyze these three essays in conversation with one another in order to contest, reread and rewrite the protocols of critical reading and writing. 


Muñoz, José Esteban. ”Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts,.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 8, no. 2 (1996): 5–16. http://liu.xplorex.com/sites/liu/files/Publications/MunozEphemera.pdf

Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Delany, Samuel R. “The ParaDoxa Interview: Inside and Outside the Canon.” In Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and The Politics of the Paraliterary. 186–217. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

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