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here are several beginnings and entry points to Dear Science: the dedication to loved ones; the epigraph, there is no life that is not geographic by Ruth Wilson Gilmore; and the long list of people that have touched Katherine (like a clinical error, perhaps?—unintended but there), whose impact can be found in exciting indelible traces. There is a lot to be said about these beginnings, but today I’ll begin with the first chapter of Dear Science and its title, Curiosities (my heart makes my head swim). It is a captivating title and a bewitching beginning.
When I first read the title, I didn’t pay attention to where “my heart makes my head swim” came from (I don’t always read footnotes right away). But it stuck with me. Maybe its impact had something to do with an interview I had just heard with Kazuo Ishiguro that also stuck with me. In this interview, Ishiguro (2021) describes how his protagonist, a butler (in The Remains of the Day ), failed to have insight into his oppression because he lacked a connection to his heart. We don’t often think of failing to see the truth—especially as it relates to systemic oppression—to be a problem of the heart. The butler’s heart was too cold to make his head swim. A head that doesn’t swim is a head that’s sleeping or not noticing that it might be drowning. This is what came to my head when I opened that first chapter of Dear Science. When I went back to the chapter Curiosities to think about what I wanted to say about it, I clued in (because I had finally read the footnote) that the line “my heart makes my head swim” is from Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1967)—a text I have easily read about 10 times—found in the chapter, “The Fact of Blackness,” which I have surely read more than 20 times. Indeed, this unsuspecting line which is on page 140 appears on the same page of a paragraph that has long haunted me because Fanon here is at his most despairing, seemingly hopeless. This paragraph, which is the last paragraph of “The Fact of Blackness,” begins with what it means to be “a toy in the white man’s hands” ends with the line “I began to weep.” At some point, I stopped inferring hopelessness to this chapter and started to suggest to my students to read “The Fact of Blackness” as a long poetic lament on how blackness is positioned under white supremacy. “The Fact of Blackness”—the chapter most widely read in Black Skin, White Masks—tells the story of blackness through Fanon’s heart because his heart aches and its making his head swim. In other words, Fanon’s intellectual genius pours out of his affective reality. But not only that, it pours out unabashedly. What Fanon’s method does I believe is persuade Katherine to know and write about black life by being connected to everything all at once: heart, head, science, philosophy, poetry, psychoanalysis and so on. And like Fanon, Katherine does not really talk about the heart; rather, embedded in the intellectual meanderings of the pages of Dear Science is Katherine’s heart.
Dear Science is like no other scholarly book. So many of the chapter titles have enigmatic subtitles sequestered in parentheses. I found this to be tantalizing hint—maybe an elaboration of the book’s method. Subtitles are often not memorable. They offer context, justification and description to the more alluring or cryptic title. But in Dear Science, the “subtitles” are riddles and have no clear or obvious relationship to the title. There is much that Katherine wants to tell us about method in Dear Science and her unconventional chapter titles offer a clue about what’s at the heart of it which in my assessment is the creative rebellious path of meaning-making where black life and knowledge is concerned.
So why does Katherine argue for a rebellious method? That is because black life has been made possible through invention. And invention, grounded in black liberation, is fundamentally rebellious or defiant. It refuses the terms of existence and looks for other ways of living and of knowing. It takes a rebellious method to know black life, or black “livingness,” as she puts it, and a rebellious method to make a relationship to it. Black method, she writes “is precise, detailed, coded, long, and forever” (McKittrick, 2021: 5). While these words sound like they belong to a tried and orthodox system of analytical habits and empirical evidence, this is a method that is not against science but against how science has been uncritically employed to produce knowledge, such as biocentric racial knowledge. Such strategies objectify data by “assuming black objecthood” and black knowability (McKittrick, 2021: 49). But as Katherine eloquently claims, “the liberatory task is not to measure and assess the unfree—and seek consolation in naming violence.” Rather, science has a far more interesting relationship to black studies. She writes, “I am especially interested in how black life and livingness are tied to creative, intellectual, physiological and neurological labor” (McKittrick, 2021: 50).
Black method is interdisciplinary. It involves “the difficult work of thinking and learning across many sites, and thus coming to know, generously, varying and shifting worlds and ideas” (McKittrick, 2021: 5). To think and learn across sites demands invention for the work of producing stories that help undo the wrongness of the world. Katherine is however clear, undoing wrong must resist describing or indulging in what is wrong. Description, she says over and over again, reproduces black objecthood even when its intended as an anti-oppression strategy. This is a strategy embedded in a teleological vision of freedom from unfreedom. But liberation doesn’t work that way. It is more than being against something, it is also about finding a way of knowing that can speak to the possibility of something otherwise. Dear Science’s method is founded on the principles of storytelling (we are after all a storytelling species, says Sylvia Wynter). Stories according to Katherine have many components: they are collaborative, they make place, and the telling is a way of life and way of being. For this reason, story “is a strategic lesson in and for black life” (McKittrick, 2021: 8). But does this mean that black life is metaphorical? Not exactly. Katherine asks her reader to think about what it would mean “to sit with metaphor” (McKittrick, 2021: 10). To sit with metaphor is to be moved, to decode, to reach for understanding (not fix and solve). When we sit with metaphor, we are open to “unanswerable curiosities” which in turn might inspire creative capacity (McKittrick, 2021: 106). This is different from black people being analyzed as pure metaphor—as objects that stand in for something such as death. For instance, Katherine writes “in some cases, we are metaphorically unliving” (McKittrick, 2021: 10-11). Black life expressed in metaphor is the suggestion that if we listen, we may hear clues about how liberation is lived. The metaphor is in fact black life. To have a relationship to it means to have an “ethical distance” to it because, “the story cannot tell itself without our willingness to imagine what it cannot tell” (McKittrick, 2021: 7, 12).
Dear Science invites us to read it as metaphor especially, as it relates to the book’s composition and the hidden stories scattered in hints and footnotes and blank pages, “the goal is not to find liberation, but to seek it out” (McKittrick, 2021: 47-48). For me this is an invitation to be curious about Dear Science, as I’ve tried to do in my response here. I’ll end with my reflections on Footnotes with its subtitle (books and papers scattered about the floor). If knowledge is so easily gained and so easily lost or scattered, how do we trace how we come to know things when “memory is dishonest” (McKittrick, 2021: 15). It is not easy. Katherine is perhaps asking us to sit with the uneasy. We don’t often think about citation practice as method. But Dear Science, in devoting a chapter to footnotes, and enacting some rather interesting ones in this very chapter, might want us to pause and reflect on our uses and abuses of citation practices. It is a challenging chapter demanding that we become curious about “what we do with books and ideas” (McKittrick, 2021: 15). There is so much to say about this fascinating chapter (the critique of Sara Ahmad, not being afraid of what Derrida may have surreptitiously taught us, truth telling by way of head swimming footnotes, and creative meanderings) but ultimately this is a chapter about how to generously share knowledge and refuse the practice of dehumanization when you take in knowledge.
Dear Science is not straightforward. It embodies a queer method that provides us with some clues to think about how “to be black is to live through scientific racism” (McKittrick, 2021: 186), all the while knowing that black livingness is the “radicalization of desire” (McKittrick, 2021: 166; Wynter, n.d.: 817): unmappable, has unclear temporal conditions and is not discoverable. In some ways, it is a simple message but an uneasy task.
Dina Georgis is Associate Professor in the Women & Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. Her work is situated in the fields of postcolonial and sexuality studies. She authored, The Better Story: Queer Affects from the Middle East.