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Dear Science is a fiery meditation on “Black livingness” as it emerges in the refusal of anti-Blackness, focusing on how refusal is enacted in order to reveal a set of rebellious aesthetic practices. This bold work makes a set of crisp, linked arguments.
Blackness is produced through anti-Blackness, but anti-Blackness can never fully capture Blackness. A vital autonomy animates Black livingness that always exceeds “Black death and dying.”
The very kernel of Black livingness is the practice of struggle. Following Wynter, and she does, Katherine positions “blackness and black studies as an analytics of invention” (McKittrick, 2021: 2). For Katherine, Black studies is not about impact factor or academic fashion; the gift of black studies is a “sharing [of] ideas about how to struggle” (McKittrick, 2021: 28).
If it is through struggle that Blackness exceeds the dehumanization that also produces it, then it is specifically through refusal that black livingness is born. A transdisciplinary rebelliousness defines black livingness, produced in and through the refusal of black death and dying. As Edna Bonhomme (2021) writes about Katherine’s book, “Black people have always been interdisciplinary. They have done so by making their own way, adopting daring methods and composing narratives that supersede the racial logics trying to shrink them.”
Dear Science does not dwell in the question of what to struggle for or against, but asks questions about the how of struggle. Dear Science is a work of logistics. Katherine builds again on Wynter, who she suggests “methodologizes the unfinished possibilities of collective struggle” (McKittrick, 2021: 41). Methodological rebelliousness is the answer to the book’s central question—how do we enact liberatory ways of being, becoming, desiring, place-making through other ways of knowing?
Katherine focuses on the aesthetics of black rebelliousness. “The work of liberation,” she writes, “recognizes the ongoing labour of aesthetically refusing unfreedom” (McKittrick, 2021: 61). The aesthetic dimensions of refusal are key, because, as Wynter insists, “knowing is feeling is knowing” (McKittrick, 2021: 60). Insofar as this refusal is aesthetic, it takes the form of—and gives rise to—new forms of relation, movement, desire, and spatial practice.
The beauty of the book lies not only in what it argues, but in how it builds these claims. The text itself lists and repeats. It is tricky. Katherine experiments with rhythm and citation. At times longer than text on the main stage, the footnotes invoke conversations, note inspiration, tag disagreements. They play chorus to the text, at times demanding center stage, elsewhere they can lure us into other worlds.
How to Disobey: Methods of Rebellion
At the core of this project then, are disobedient ways of knowing, and key in this is the transgression of disciplines. Katherine writes, “What is meaningful… are the ways in which black people are interdisciplinary actors, continually entangling and disentangling varying narratives and tempos and hues that, together, invent and reinvent knowledge” (McKittrick, 2021: 5). This focus on methodologies for liberation is a refusal of discipline/s, which she sees as “the act of relentless categorization” (McKittrick, 2021: 36). Elsewhere she asserts, “discipline is empire” (McKittrick, 2021: 36).
Discipline is the ordering of life and labor through configurations of space and time and motion. It aims to calibrate singular bodies to a collective order. For both Marx & Foucault, it emerged as a means to manage military life before it travelled to empire’s factories and prisons. Wynter has taught us that the plantation predates the factory as the first site of mass-production, while Simone Browne (2015) traces discipline’s violence to the slave ship. Colonial disciplines emerged alongside colonial discipline, as Epperson (1990) notes, and the two branches of plantation discipline worked to: 1. control bodies in space and time, and 2. order knowledge towards empire.
Discipline is heavy. It is a crushing weight. And yet, perhaps instead of being empire, discipline has served to reproduce it? Can discipline do something else? Do we need rebellious discipline? Walter Rodney thought so. He writes:
In the new society that we expect to build, we will need to understand that we must develop our own commitment to study, to scholarship, to art, to whatever we’re doing, to take it extremely seriously . . . . [We must] confront an old decaying order with a new discipline, with a new mental and intellectual discipline, with new habits of work etc. … Yes, we must have our work ethic and it’s a very important ongoing factor, provided we don’t take ourselves too seriously, or take the system seriously, provided we move towards understanding that we’re working seriously to establish an alternative, as distinct from working seriously to participate in the system. (Rodney, 1990: 4-5)
More recently, Mariame Kaba (2020) has opined, “hope is a discipline. We must practice it daily.”
The main text of Dear Science emphasizes discipline’s refusal, not its remaking. Yet, tucked away in one fantastic footnote (#2 on page 35) is a different diagnosis. First Katherine identifies that her focus in the chapter is “discipline, disciplinarity, disciplined thought, as academic areas of study” (McKittrick, 2021: 35). She continues: “Thus I am not referring to the practice and work of study. In much of black studies this work is very disciplined. It is a practice of rigor, care, monumental effort. This work takes time, and has psychic and economic costs. It is enveloped in long lists of books, extensive notes and songs, and layers of intellectual histories and theories by black and nonblack thinkers (the work, the practice, is disobedient not undisciplined)” (McKittrick, 2021: 35).
This footnote affirms a kind of disobedient discipline that infuses Black methodology. But it remains a footnote and parses the question of disciplines and discipline. What is at stake in a turn to “discipline” that distinguishes it from method?
Rebellious Discipline as Erotic Infrastructure
A focus on rebellious discipline could help us think more about the labor of Black method.
Discipline gets a bad rap. But can we make it a love song? As Rodney writes, the discipline of hard work is the problem only when it is it is oriented towards reproduction of the system. I am a total believer that we can—as Rodney says—“wor[k] seriously to establish an alternative” (Rodney, 1990: 5). We can make “work” a labor of love. Audre Lorde (1984: 55), for example, writes, “Within the celebration of the erotic in all our endeavours, my work becomes a conscious decision—a longed-for bed which I enter gratefully and from which I rise up empowered.”
Rebellious discipline points towards systems of value that refuse a hierarchy of the human.
CLR James (1956) reminds us that every cook can govern. Refusing the colonial division between discipline and disciplines means recognizing the multiple forms and sites of rebellious aesthetic practice, beyond sectors already deemed ‘creative’ by halls of power. Audre Lorde (1984: 58) writes, “And yes, there is a hierarchy. There is a difference between painting a back fence and writing a poem, but only one of quantity. And there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.” Colonial discipline tells us that work cannot be erotic, and colonial aesthetics tells us that the poem is creative and the fence is not. But we know better because we can feel it, and because Audre Lorde told us so.
Rebellious discipline points to the infrastructures assembled to reproduce Black life and livingness.
Discipline produces regimes of labor and knowledge by ordering space, time, and motion. This is also what infrastructure does. Discipline, like infrastructure, as infrastructure, supports the reproduction of life, rebellious life too. That rebellious discipline produces infrastructures that are experimental, makeshift, small, or queer is all the more reason to care for them. Rebellious method requires rebellious material worlds to live and to rest in, to move through. Maybe (Black) method creates (rebellious) discipline that is also (erotic) infrastructure?
I will end this brief offering with my deep gratitude, Dear Katherine, for your gift of Dear Science, and I offer back; a question that emerges out of my own desire:
If footnote #2 on page 35 was a chapter, what kind of story would it tell?
Deborah Cowen is Professor of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. She authored The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade and Military Workfare: The Soldier and Social Citizenship in Canada.