Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. New episodes come out every other Friday.
Ramzi Fawaz: Hello everybody. Thank you for joining us today. I am thrilled to be meeting up with some of my favorite luminary minds to talk to you about this extraordinary book by Darieck Scott. I want to just start by thanking Robin Pierce and Marc Abizeid of the Othering and Belonging Institute for helping us organize this event. Everybody who’s organized a Zoom event knows it’s far more complicated than you could ever imagine. We’re grateful for this space and this technology.
Just to give people a little picture of what’s going to happen today, I’m going to give an introduction to everybody that’s on the panel and I’m going to celebrate and lift up Darieck Scott and his contributions. Darieck is going to do a short reading from the book. We’ll have a panel discussion between all of us, and then we’ll open it out into Q and A. I want to encourage the audience, since we can’t see you, to feel free to drop comments and questions throughout the discussion. There will be a moment when we’ll start to try to collect some of those questions and answer them for you, as best as we can. Thank you again for joining us.
To give you a little introduction of myself, and then I’ll speak about each of our amazing panelists. I’m a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I’m the author of two books, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics and more recently, Queer Forms, which is forthcoming from NYU Press, this fall. I had the great pleasure of working with Darieck on co-editing a special issue of American Literature titled Queer About Comics, which we were very fortunate to win the Best Special Issue of the Year Award from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals in 2019.
Rebecca Wanzo is professor and chair of the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She’s the author of The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling and more recently, The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging, which examines how Black cartoonists have used racialized caricatures to criticize constructions of a ideal citizenship, as well as the alienation of African Americans from such imaginaries. A beautiful, award-winning book. She is published in numerous academic venues, such as American Literature, Camera Obscura, and Signs, and also writes essays for media outlets like CNN, the LA Review of Books and Huffington Post.
Jonathan Gray is associate professor of English at John Jay College [of Criminal Justice] CUNY and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Civil Rights in the White Literary Imagination and is currently working on the book project Illustrating The Race: Representing Blackness In American Comics, which traces depictions of African Americans in comics from 1966 to the present, by investigating how the twin notions of illustration, the creative act of depiction on the one hand and the political act of bringing forth for public consideration on the other, function in these texts. Professor Gray co-edited the essay collection Disability in Graphic Novels for Palgrave Macmillan and formally served as the founding editor of The Journal of Comics and Culture.
Michael Mark Cohen is an associate teaching professor in the American studies and African American studies programs at UC Berkeley. He is the author of The Conspiracy of Capital: Law, Violence, and American Popular Radicalism in the Age of Monopoly, which is a cultural history of popular anticapitalist movements, conspiracy laws and political violence in the United States during the age of monopoly. He is also the creator of the website, Cartooning Capitalism, which hosts the work of Arthur Henry Young, the most widely recognized and beloved cartoonist of the golden age of American radicalism.
I think it’s fair to say that we have an incredible brain trust here of comics, scholars, and cultural study scholars. Now, to our main event. Darieck Scott is professor in the department of the African American studies at UC Berkeley and the author of the newly published, Keeping It Unreal: Black Queer Fantasy and Superhero Comics, which we’re really excited to celebrate with you today. In a moment, I’m going to say a few words about this brilliant book.
Professor Scott is also the author of Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination, which examines representations and theorization of the relation between Blackness, objection and queer masculinity. A book that is so counterintuitive, innovative and shocking in its arguments, it totally transforms my graduate students.
Alongside his highly original scholarship, he is also the author of the novels, Hex and Traitor To The Race and the editor of Best Black Gay Erotica. His fiction has appeared in the anthologies Freedom In This Village, Black Like Us, Giant Steps, among others, as well as in the erotica collections, Flesh and The Word and Inside Him. He has published essays in Callaloo, GQ and the collection Gay Travels, among many other venues.
Before we get started, I want to say a couple of words about Keeping It Unreal. Keeping It Unreal is many things. It is a loving journey through Black radical imagination, an invitation into the creative life world of the author and his complex and rich attachments to the superhero genre and a study of the formal affordances of the comics medium for articulating Black presence and agency.
But perhaps most of all, it is an impassioned plea for the value of fantasizing, not as an escape from our shared world, but as a deep commitment to its transformation into something better: a place where human difference is no longer a source of suffering, but a wellspring of creative possibility. In the past decade, scholarship on Black speculation and utopia has exploded, most notably with the expansive study of Afrofuturism. Keeping It Unreal honors this tradition, but it breaks new ground by conceding fantasy, not merely as a genre, an object of study, but a state of being or cognitive practice grounded in the human capacity for imagination.
It takes the study of Black fantasy into the realm of existential experience, which is Darieck’s, his great skill, for thinking about Black fantasy as a mode living. In keeping with his magisterial and innovative oeuvre, these are counterintuitive claims that he makes in the book that can only come from a generous mind, one open to the possibilities others shut out, one demanding rethink what it means to be free. One that requires an unflinching look at forms of objection as lived experiences that can vitalize complex responses and unexpected avenues of survival. Ultimately, Keeping It Unreal gives us meaningful hope for a different future. Neither, by merely recuperating a genealogy of Black speculative fictions, nor adding to the interminable and painful list of Black historical trauma, but by reminding us that we still have the power of invention in our grasp in the present.
Thank you all for joining us. I’m really excited to get this conversation going, but first Darieck is going to read for us from the book.
Darieck Scott: Thank you, Ramzi. I loved hearing your reading of my book and I appreciate that gloss on it. Also, I’m going to give warm thanks to Rebecca, Jonathan and Michael for participating in this panel with me and celebrating my book today. Talking with you guys and reading your work over the years about comic books has enriched my understanding and contributed to my getting this book done. So thank you. Thanks also to Robin Pierce and the Othering and Belonging Institute for putting this event together. Thank you all for attending.
I’m going to read a short excerpt from the introduction to the book. This is just a little piece of what I’m discussing in the beginning.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s provocative story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, is probably most often read as a discomforting riddle about the morality of utilitarianism. Omelas is a fantasy city or country where everyone lives happily. Unfortunately, this universal happiness depends upon the lifelong misery of one child. The causal relationship between the child’s unhappiness and everyone else’s commonplace ecstasy is never explained in the story, but arguably it’s all the more convincingly realistic for its lack of explanation. Truly, we expect happiness to be bought by someone’s misery. No explanation needed an assumption, an assumption Le Guin cleverly begins to expose. But what gets me excited about the story is the challenge it throws down to our imagination.
Describing Omelas, Le Guin’s narrator says, “As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police and the bomb. Yet, I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. They were not less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick him, join him. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight. To embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold. We can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.”
Le Guin’s narrator’s claim about the treason of art is too harsh if I take it up and make it into a critique of African Americanist scholarship and intellectual endeavor, but it’s not wholly inapt, certainly regarding what we canonize and teach under the rubric African American literature, the description has a ring of truth. For a literature defined by the near unanimity of its voices, agitating, analyzing, narrating, and narrativizing political projects of emancipation and anti-racism, too great in attention to delight and joy and happiness seems a political betrayal. For us, only the description of the grave injustices of anti-Blackness, of torture, murder, intimidation, enslavement, rape, dispossession is political, is exigent and is real.
Yes, of course we can recognize and take seriously representational and analytical strategies of humor and satire, descriptions of resistant cultural practices, locations of temporary marronage, but who is described without irony or shame? A Black happy person. In the light of harsh realities, who has the time, who has the right? I’m so accustomed to investigating, if not exactly praising despair, pain and evil, that if a description of Black happiness appeared somewhere, I probably missed it or didn’t pay attention to it.
If it appeared somewhere, it was a challenge to the very conception of Black literature. What it is, how it must be structured to be recognized as Black literature, its justification and use, its distinction from mere luxury. So, it didn’t count. The happiness Le Guin’s treasonous artist cannot summon the intellect or interest to engage is for the Black writer, a foolishness we often can’t afford to indulge. Black fantasy, as I’m thinking about it then, might be aimed at snatching luxury wear, as best as we can see at any rate, there is none. It might be indulgent, foolish, frivolous, merely escapist, naively utopian, in some way wrong, inattentive to the real, defiant of the realist. Fantasy is generally understood on balance to be above all a misperception, straying from accurate perception, and also therefore a misstep on the pathway to the correction of a problem, which obviously has to be accurately perceived in order to be solved.
I’m interested in this book in a reconstruction of the account of fantasy in its relationship to Blackness. I want to think of how fantasy engages and yet side steps the real problem that we think it poorly addresses. Viewed properly, my investigation is not a fantasy-esque critique of the real, though fantasy does offer such critiques. My investigation, my fantasy about fantasy, is a fantasy as a mode of living and fantasy as a transformation of living and being. The argument here is for fantasy as world-making.
Now, it would be more than reasonable to consider this proposition by looking at it from a sociological slant, by surveying the vast, intricate and complex virtual worlds of fan communities organized around particular works of fantasy in literature, film, comic books, etc., and the networks of participants in Cosplay and video games and the universes of ancillary text production in the myriad kinds of fan fiction and slash fiction.
But my interest is in thinking of my chain of overlapping co-constitutive objects, which are fantasy, Black fantasy, queer fantasy, Black queer fantasy. I want to think about these chiefly as philosophical enterprises. In this, I depend upon a definition of philosophy that I like, that of novelist Charles Johnson, whose novels Faith and The Good Thing and Oxherding Tale are at least in part assays of Black philosophical fiction. Black fiction, that concerns itself with what Johnson identifies as the central questions of philosophical traditions. These questions are: What does freedom or happiness really mean? What does it look like to be free/happy? How does one become free/happy. For Johnson, philosophy is a guide to living. Likewise, I look to Black fantasy as a guide of sorts, one best understood for me by recurrence to spatial metaphors.
Black queer fantasy, for me, charts the road to, and/or sites in a habitable imaginary. I hate the world as it is. And I’m always looking and wishing for other worlds to go to. You might wonder if I’m advocating for what I’m going to call fantasy acts, instead of what we tend to think of as action. Not at all. Fantasy acts do not require secession from other kinds of acts.
Though, it is worth pausing to consider the differences between the results of fantasy acts and the results of other kinds of action. If an action does not result with sufficient proximity to count as an effect, following a cause in one, someone injuring or killing someone else or depriving them of liberty, or two someone stealing from someone else resources for living or prospering, or three rescuing someone or yourself from a particular instance of being killed or maimed or deprived of liberty or stolen from, then how do we measure the consequences of an action?
How do we become assured of its existence as distinct from the existence of other mental constructs, like fantasies? If a Million March on Washington is the result or the activity measurable as distinct from fantasy once it becomes, as it must, a memory, write-ups in a dozen newspapers, plans for later meanings and dreams of coalition, digital photographs on so many smartphone hard drives.
You might also wonder if this elaborate attempt to take fantasy seriously as an intellectual and political tool is like clinging to a plank of driftwood in the middle of a storm at sea, desperate. Yes, it is desperate, but desperation is not disqualifying. It’s the other name of necessity and the alias of invention, or perhaps invention’s twin, with necessity and desperation co-parenting his radical imagination.
The ultimate project of Keeping It Unreal, which must reach beyond the book’s end, for its achievement can’t be encompassed in this book or any single book alone, is to cite whether and how Black fantasy can begin to undertake a description of ludicrous, unreal things like Black happiness, how Black fantasy might re-twist the twisted significations of Blackness such that Black and happy is at least not a clearly oxymoronic conjunction. Thank you.
Ramzi Fawaz: Thank you. It’s exciting to see people already responding so beautifully in the comments about how inspiring it is to think about Black happiness and joy. I have a handful of questions for the panel, but I’m not ultimately hitched to any of these things. So, I’m happy for the conversation to move in any direction.
I want to start with something really broad. I think one of the most immediate features to me about Keeping It Unreal is that it is a surprising text. Every time I’ve taught it, every time I’ve reread it in the last year, I’m continually surprised by the moves and the turns of thought and argumentation. I think everybody in this room, we’ve all studied some of the most ideological, conservative and painful parts of the use of comics as a medium. We’ve also studied some of its most imaginative and surprising parts. I wanted to throw it to the panelists, what were elements of the argument that surprised you the most, or that forced you to rethink things that you had had held onto in your own thought and writing?
Jonathan Gray: I mean, I have to say that one of the things that struck me was the extent to which our social realities are consensual. I think that the idea of consent matched nicely, Darieck, onto your political use of fantasy. I mean, because in this country, what we have now is half the country consents, for example, that queer people should be full citizens like everyone else and Black people and women should all have the same rights as everyone else, but the other half of the country does not consent to this.
That it’s the lack of consent that begins to structure how we must imagine our way out of … It structures our fantasies. Our fantasies of justice and of abundance and of more, simply because we cannot come to a sort of lasting consensus about who we are. This is not directly in the book, but this is where your book led me to think more critically about notions of consent and the role that fiction has in authoring new ways of being together and being with.
Rebecca Wanzo: I mean, one thing that I continue to be interested in, is what happens when you place Black people at the center of any kind of philosophical, conceptual framework. Here, it’s Black people, but also Black queer subjects, but not exclusively. To think about how that then reorients what we understand about genre and medium. Your intro was just so just breathtakingly beautiful. One of my favorite moves is how you recast our canonical superhero narratives, or not all superhero narratives, but some that we cast to superheroes like Harry Potter and things, and this other kind of version that has a sort of cultural specificity. How do we deal with this question of fantasy in relationship to the radical or not?
I was really struck by what you said, Ramzi, about this in terms of thinking about the Black radical imagination. One of the things I was sort of wondering about is, does fantasy always have to be radical to do something wholly otherwise? Does it have to be radical politics? Can it be actually something wholly otherwise, even if it is not something you understand as radical? What is it that we are trying to get with this idea of the radical?
Sometimes the pleasure of fantasy is not something that’s regressive or conventional, or inhabiting spaces where that are not necessarily made for one, but just something other that maybe this idea of the radical political can’t capture. I do think that your book gets at this. There’s some kind of effective space in the fantastic and a Black fantastic that’s trying to inhabit something wholly other that is not constrained by the ideological configurations or binaries around progressive or not.
Darieck Scott: That actually was such an important part of the book for me, was to think about fantasy as not having to be vouch saved by its connection to some sort of utopian imagination, as much as I love that about fantasy. That is one of the key ways in which it can act in the world. But I was interested in that kind of engagement you have with say a superhero comic that is by no means radical in its conception or depiction, or really pretty much anything that’s happening in it, but a way that you can be engaged with it, that as you say, has a kind of effective space that does something. It does something that I think we can grant, or we can recognize having political valence of some kind. It does something in terms of a transformation, just even in the moment, quite ephemeral, though it may be, of yourself through imagination, which then also can have some, again, ephemeral, perhaps, not very traceable effects in the way that you live or how you think about things and what you do or on what kinds of things, as Jonathan was saying, you consent to or don’t consent to. Michael, I interrupted you.
Michael Mark Cohen: No, no. This is your show. But I just would want to build on the two previous statements. One, I do want to stick to the or think about the radical possibilities of fantasy. I think it is necessary. I think left wing comics as they are entirely to dower and explicitly educational in their purposes and resist the temptation to fantasize about what possible futures might be. And in this left-wing comics really do, and in this I’m thinking socialist, communist, anarchist comics, do really adhere to Marx’s prohibition against what he describes as writing recipes for the cook shops of the future. But in reading your book, that’s exactly what I would like to find. I would love to see people openly fantasizing about what the fully luxury automated communism might in fact look like. At the same time, I take Rebecca’s point very seriously about what possibilities are opened by putting Black subjects at the center of any critical analysis.
And I think that transforms our understanding in deeply meaningful ways that your book is hugely suggestive of and to just leap from what is present in the book to off the page, I think of, especially the passage you just read, Darieck, about the possibility and necessity and impossibility of Black happiness. And to think about what has happened recently in Oakland, where the first Karen attack or what we knew of it as a Barbecue Becky of a white woman who called the cops on a bunch of African American men and women trying to have a barbecue at Lake Merritt, which not only created an online sensation, but has since then moved on to what we now know of as an East Bay institution of the Black Joy Parade in which Black folks show up without any larger political project, but to simply express pleasure and joy in public.
And there’s really not much of a way in which such an event could be seen as anything other than radical, as inherently political in these kinds of ways. I think it need not be contained by a political expression, but it yet is at the same time, a utopian fantasy of what if Black bodies could occupy space in public in freedom. And in that I see expressions both in the comics that you write about and in the world around us, the ways in which we think of history as necessity and the need then to build a space or a realm of freedom within that realm of necessity. And in that I think your book really offers us a way of exhorting all of us to fantasize, to indulge that not just desire, but indeed radical political necessity.
Ramzi Fawaz: I want to actually draw some of those threads together because part of what I love about this book is that I actually think that you reinvent the meaning of radicalism and you separate it from the question of a specific politics, left, right, progressive, etc., and radicalism becomes the practice of invention. To be radical is to break with what is happening.
You say on 24, “But the fundamental tool of fantasy is thought, a different thought, perhaps thought freed from what it has been constrained to know as real, may find some leverage for conducting the magic trick for a different set of results if it is accompanied by the transformative powers of a repetition. In fantasy, we may detect reality’s future shapes as well as its present habitability.” And then you have this line that my students were just so taken with the other day, “In this sense then, fantasy is real and exists in the same manner as consciousness and love are and do. Indeed both consciousness and love might easily be said to meet up as it were a fantasy.”
And I think part of what I love about the way you always think, I think of you as a Black existentialist in some ways, is that you’re saying at some level, separate from any ideological matrix, the literal brain matter’s capacity to invent, to recombine all of these things that already exist in the world into new formations, creates the possibility for some kind of resistance that we do not know in advance what it will turn out. One version of it might be that left communism and one version might be something else. And I think that you commit yourself to that uncertainty, to the idea that what is really radical is not always knowing in advance what the fantasy will bring, even if you have motives behind it.
And I find that to be an amazing rejoinder to certain contemporary social justice-oriented politics that want a more progressive, more open-ended, more anti-racist world that are also obsessed with knowing in advance, what anti-racism looks like or what anti-sexism looks like and is very keen on telling everybody what the rules are.
And my thing is but part of radical fantasizing is about the breaking of the rules and the invention of new ones. And that’s something that I always find really exciting. What Rebecca was referring to, of course, in the book is how you have this set of lists of stories from fantasies that are inventions. And then you’re like, but also religion is an invention and also the state is an invention, and they’re just different kinds of invention. And what if we just decided that we would take charge and invent something else? And I find that so compelling.
Rebecca Wanzo: I want to push back just a little …
Ramzi Fawaz: Yeah.
Rebecca Wanzo: … Just to say, and this reminds me, Ramzi has this really beautiful, beautiful moment in The New Mutants where he talks about this moment, this famous moment in Fantastic Four where they lead to T’Challa to this new future. And it’s a really beautiful utopian reading, but I resist it in all kinds of conceptual ways because one of the things, I guess I did take from this book and I guess I want to just have a conversation about is that the shift, and Jonathan and I were having an exchange briefly in thinking about how this book was in conversation with Michael Gillespie’s film “Blackness,” there is this tendency, understandably because it is a lot of what Black art does and art that is not Black, but is referring to Black people, which is also an interesting question so to think about this, but where it must be seen in relationship to the radical.
It must be seen in relation to the revolutionary. It must be seen in relationship to a kind of politics that can bring us somewhere else and so I’m always interested in what is foreclosed sometimes by that reading in terms of what kinds of effective spaces people inhabit. In terms of the passage you read, what if the move towards this new real, this is the real, is about an articulation of a quotidian, that to call radical capitulates to the idea that the kinds of spaces people effectively conceptually inhabit has to be so excessively other than it’s radical political imagination. Do you know what I’m saying? I was thinking about, I don’t know if you’ve seen the Netflix film See You Yesterday. It was this Black time travel film with this young Black girl that came out a few years ago.
And I remember talking about with Kenny Trujillo who has really thoughtful things to say about the idea of Black horror and Black fantasy and a number of other people who felt like what was interesting about it is initially you think it’s this conventional, Black girl genius gets her time travel story, like Back to the Future. And they have all these references, like Michael J. Fox is the teacher at the beginning, and she’s reading Kindred and all these things, but the nature of the real, the nature of death to Black teenage boys and all these things, there’s a disruption to the possibility of the generic pleasures of the film. The way in which it’s working with the real, forecloses pleasure, I think, in certain ways that we expected. I guess I’m always interested in what happens when we’re trying to have a vocabulary that doesn’t always go towards this idea of radical politics. And I feel like this book helps me think about that.
Ramzi Fawaz: Well, this actually speaks to the question I wanted to ask next. The question I had written down is, What do you make of the ways in which Darieck side steps or pushes back just in the way that, Rebecca, that you’re pushing back against the tendency to always have to read the positive, good of fantasy as its radicalism, as opposed to any number of other effects that it can have.
I think that Darieck also pushes back against the tendency to see fantasy as a site of identification — that the reason we love fantasy is because I get to see myself as Black Panther. I get to see myself as Storm. And Darieck says, actually the power of these fantasies is their disruption, often of identification, the shattering outward of all these possibilities.
And I think it speaks to what you were saying, Rebecca, that in some ways, doing something other than identification also opens up all these other pleasures that are quotidian for different viewers that may have nothing to do with seeing themselves in these texts. And so, I would be interested to hear people think through a little bit what you thought of Darieck’s approach to identification or what you think of in terms of just fantasy broadly and that concept?
Jonathan Gray: I guess I have a similar moment to Darieck’s moment where my deep and abiding affection for the X-Men is precisely because of the presence, the sustained presence, importantly, of Storm. And it’s just like, so here is this Black person, Black woman, that I don’t necessarily identify with, but her presence suggests that I am safe or welcome in this space. And actually, that’s one of the places that identification is tricky because, and you make a note of it, Darieck, and you move on rather quickly from the idea that Marvel and DC, these superhero publishers, were trying to bring in this new Black middle class and trying to attract this broader audience.
And so, including Nubia, including Storm, including the Falcon, etc., etc., is a way to signal to a certain audience, and I am one of them and so are you, that you have a place in this narrative. But Ramzi, to your point, I’m always struck by Nicolas Coppola and the choice he makes when he wants to take on a stage name so that nepotism is not quite so obvious. He identifies very strongly with Luke Cage. And here’s this wealthy child of a dynastic family who is identifying with Luke Cage, the ex-con. And so, he becomes Nick Cage. And so there are always these sorts of moments where that kind of identification is surprising or sort of contrapuntal.
Darieck Scott: I think just to respond to a few things that we’ve been talking about just now. I think I wanted, in this book, to try to give an account of forms of response and engagement with reality that actually are quotidian, but that we put under the label of fantasy. Now, there’s a way where, of course, especially when we talk about fantasy in an academic context, we can often shade over into talking about the radical aspects of it or reading it radically. But when I was trying to think about even how I engage with the character Nubia, especially engage with the character Nubia from the first time that I saw her with the… Oh, actually, maybe Mark, if you could show that picture of Wonder Woman. Yes, exactly. That one. Where she’s wearing the leopard skin outfit that she never wears any place else luckily, because it’s so ridiculously offensive and yet also fabulous in its own weird way.
The response that I had to that was one, not really identification, although partly some kind of identification, some sort of sense of aspiration of being like her, but more probably thinking about her as being some protector of mine when I was 7 or 8 years old and I saw that. But also that there’s nothing particularly radical about the figure, even placing a Black woman in the center of the frame as Wonder Woman’s Black, trans sister, who has all the powers of Wonder Woman, who essentially is the Black Wonder Woman. I don’t really even know what kind of radical politics you really get out of that, but what I wanted to get to was it sparked something in my imagination, which makes me attentive to something that isn’t really present in the world as it is, and makes me do something within myself that I wanted to give an account of, that probably has very quotidian effects.
That is its effects, insofar as they have there are effects that are in the world or something that would just be happening, that nobody would be able to know that somehow results from my absolute undying and continual love of Nubia. But I was really interested in trying to look at that. And for me, one of the best lines is not my line, but a line from The Wiz where Evillene says, “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news.” And I like that because that’s about, we have our horribly anti-Black world, we have all the things happening that we have happening and they demand our attention.
But if I’m inhabiting Evillene there, what I’m thinking is, “But I’m going to pay attention to something else that I’m choosing here.” And that is quotidian, but I think extremely important to claim that attention to something quite inventive perhaps or something, whatever it is, that is not necessarily fully engulfed by the narratives of and the continual wily reinventions of anti-Blackness.
Ramzi Fawaz: Actually, with that in mind, I’m happy to talk more about identification if people wanted to say something, but maybe we can roll it into the other question I wanted to ask, I think usually it’s easy to start with comics with well, why comics, but I want to flip it and say, what does this book do for Black studies? I think that this book has a really, really interesting relationship that is oblique to Black studies that is both deeply within that tradition and also lovingly moving to the side of some of its most powerful contemporary currents.
And I’ve often said to you in conversation, your work reminds me so much of the work of Stephen Best, your own colleague, and of Jennifer Nash, people who are both working within and against certain movements within the field. And I’d really be interested because almost everybody in this room, I’m the exception actually, works either in Black studies or very much related to the history of race and racialization. I’d be interested to see how people thought of this book’s place in that tradition and its engagement with that thought, which is so prominent and important right now in our conversations.
Michael Mark Cohen: I think Rebecca has named it to begin with. In this question of it deploys a Black studies methodology or Black study methodology of simply putting Black subjects, Black readers, Black identifications at the center of the narrative, and particularly in a genre, an industry that has, as Darieck also chronicles throughout the book, that has historically marginalized both Black characters and Black creators. And so it recenters them in a necessary way. And I think that’s a fundamental element of any Black studies’ methodology.
At the same time, reasserting the role of fantasy in that regard, I think is, I prefer to see it as a necessary dramatic innovation that is being presented to us rather than something that is oblique or marginal within Black studies. I think it is drawing something, taking upon itself to innovate in a way that I think Darieck is uniquely capable of doing of both drawing the queer, Black comic book depictions and representations to the center of this story, but also to build off of this larger question of fantasy.
I think that I take the phrase, the passage that really moved me about how where Darieck writes about, “In finding ways to use fantasy, we also take notice of how fantasies use us to build the prisons of our reality.” And to build off of, I think in another really moving paragraph for me from the very beginning, he writes, “What if there were no racism or anti-Blackness or sexism or misogyny or homophobia or classism or ableism or transphobia or any of the horribly effective ways the modern world is found to create disposable people?”
And I think that phrase, incredibly moving as it, is the power of what Black study is capable of doing and saying that we can take this previously marginalized understanding, move it into the center of our consciousness, our awareness, our politics, our scholarship, and allow Black study to actually do what it is meant to do, which is to figure out how to free everyone, to think about what freedom looks like for all of us.
Rebecca Wanzo: Yeah. And in some ways it goes back to the identification question, I think, at the heart of it. And I was thinking of this in terms of comics, that one thing I think with McLeod is, as much as I admire understanding comics, his idea of what prompts identification is this neutral figure is just not right. It doesn’t help us think about how rest of us engage with comics.
But I think that foundational to Black studies is often the question of what happens when we see ourselves and all the ways in which we have to think about that question. We can go back from early African American photography to data portraits and to voice and all these other contexts. And that there are a whole bunch of scripts about what seeing ourselves mean both in academic discourse and now popular discourse about people saying “I feel seen.”
And then I think that there’s a pressing urgency in both recognizing the very genealogies of that in ways that sometimes are just not historicized the way that they could, but also the simplified versions of what it means for Black people to be present. And our bodies present don’t always mean what people think it means. That it can mean a whole bunch of different things. And there’s actually more possibility than what sometimes feels like an increasingly essentialist framing about Black aesthetic possibility in the present, even with all this really extraordinary creative production and as well as people imagining various kinds of political possibilities or ways of being and relating to each other in the world. I think that the book helps us, again, push as a mode of philosophy and ontology about thinking about fantasy as helping us understand the question of Black ontology and what it means to be and be present both in representation in the world and habitous is essential.
Jonathan Gray: Yeah. And just to come back to something that maybe I wasn’t as clear on as I’ll try to be now. Your evocation of Fanon is what led me to then think about Moten. And so when I was referencing before consent, I was thinking, especially about the trilogy consent not to be a single being and because you do such a good job of talking about the ways that Blackness is pushed to the margin, but Moten does such a good job of demonstrating how Black people are always flipping that script and always wind up repositioned at the center by the very act of trying to move us to the margins.
And so I thought that you gave a different point of view, a different valance on that, through your presentation, throughout a fantasy as this mode of resistance, but this quotidian mode of resistance. Yeah. And so this willingness to consent to be many things at the same time, to be Black and queer and a geek and a nerd and radical and all of these things and how your apprehension, you, Darieck, your apprehension of Nubia shifts and shifts and shifts and shifts as you access all of the yous that you are. There is an interesting thing that you open up through your approach.
Darieck Scott: Thank you. I think that describes really nicely exactly what my attachment to Nubia has been, that morphing thing as I look at it differently, as I move through my life. It just is a different way that it lands or becomes or facilitates something, some sort of transformation for me.
I wanted to go back to what Rebecca was saying about the desire to or the push for representation that allows you to say, “I feel seen,” which I both applaud and, on the other hand, I also recognize that isn’t necessarily the way that I approach art and maybe I don’t approach art of any kind that, I mean, that is to say comic books to literature, to film, all these things. Maybe I don’t approach with the desire to be seen because I became inculcated in a way of reading and of approaching where I wasn’t seen.
Nubia wasn’t seeing me. Luke Cage wasn’t seeing me. Storm wasn’t seeing me. I love them, but they weren’t seeing me that wasn’t me being represented in those unreal worlds of comic books. I always think of it for me as like springboards. They were some kind of presence and in a particular and interesting way, that because it was comic books and it was unreal, allowed me to think about all kinds of ways of the world being different, of the world not being what the real world is, but also of myself being different.
That’s why, I mean, I think I spent a lot of time in the book talking about how there’s been a long discourse about the way that comics are about identification, that I’m looking at it too. I want to see a Black Spider-Man because it’s going to make me feel, as a Black child, that I’ll have the powers of Spider-Man and I’ll be able to have a power fantasy the same way as a white boy could because he sees Peter Parker, and that’s all fine. It’s just not necessarily what my experience was. And it’s also not necessarily for me what is most interesting about what superhero comics, for example, can do. And I think there’s something about it that there’s a strain of the response from outside of comics to comics that always is about identification.
When Fredric Wertham is saying, “These things are dangerous. These kids are looking at these things and they’re modeling delinquency, and then they’re modeling homosexuality and they’re identifying with these characters.” I think all of that, it’s a strange way of actually, thinking about how comics are really operating for people. Are you really identifying with the characters? They’re so unreal. Is that real? Is it really the process of identification or is there something more nuanced than identification itself going on? And I was trying to track that more nuanced process whereby the character and whatever they’re doing, and the story becomes a springboard to imagination rather than a point of fixation as to possibilities.
Rebecca Wanzo: I mean, maybe one way of thinking about it, I was thinking what you were talking is to try to rework a Black common sense of reception or consumption, right? There’s a Black common sense that goes on right now. I think about what representation means that I think we have to just continually push back against.
Ramzi Fawaz: I want to cosign that because I think Darieck knows all too well. That’s basically all of my work has now been about unraveling that idea, that’s what we’re really looking for is identification. Tell me Darieck, if I’m off, but I actually think what your work does is it shifts us from the question of identification to the question of effective impact, right? You were talking about the aesthetic. What does it mean to encounter a character, a work of art and to be moved deeply, right? To be actually impacted by this thing, which is a very old question, right? In the history of literary and cultural analysis. This takes us back to the beginning, the origins and the roots of the question of beauty and aesthetic impact and feeling states.
And I think part of what you’re saying is that the way we feel, the way we are impacted is deeply, deeply shaped, of course, by racialization, by gender and sexuality, but not only, and not always, and maybe not even primarily, right? And there’s a way in which sometimes… I love the way Jonathan was talking about your reading. You kind of do this kaleidoscopic vertiginous thing where you’ll take Nubia and then this image of this character kept impacting me in one way and then another, and then another, and then another and enfolding itself into my experience.
And I do find, to speak to Rebecca’s point, when I teach students today. And I say, “Well, what else is happening to you when you’re looking at this thing?” They actually feel quite freed when they don’t have to just look for representations of themselves. They start like something opens out for them. And they’re like, “Oh, I’m a sensate body that is capable of feeling many things about the cultural objects I’m encountering.”
So, the reason I have this long comment is because I actually think that is how your writing works. You write as a scholar and a cultural critic and your writing is sensuous. And it invokes in the reader the feeling of being moved. Your sentences are very moving. So that’s kind of another question I would ask is, what is the aesthetic experience for people of actually reading Darieck’s way of writing about fantasy, which I think is very distinct and unique?
Michael Mark Cohen: Yeah. I agree with that completely Ramzi. I mean, it’s extraordinarily well-written. It’s a beautiful book. The sentences have this kind of circular rhythm to them that always moved forward while circling back and circling back. There’s something really quite distinctly beautiful about it. I think there’s a tremendous amount of autobiography in all of this. I have to imagine that many of us who are here, those of you who are out in Zoomland are here watching this because you know Darieck as a friend or as a scholar, but for those of you who don’t, in reading this book, you genuinely get to know the author.
I mean, we get his heroic origin story of this 7-year-old Darieck Scott on a U.S. Army base in Germany buying his first comic book. And we get these really quite intense stories about you engaging with your father about his fascination with comic books and the like. But I also think that we get in here what to my mind is just both very deeply personal distinctly Darieck, but also quite transformative methodology of writing as an act of revenge. I love the methodology presented in this book as an act of revenge against Trump and his rising tie to fascist stupidity. And I found that to be both present in each and every sentence, but also transformatively illuminating.
Darieck Scott: Yeah. I thought you would appreciate that, Michael.
Michael Mark Cohen: Yeah, I loved it.
Rebecca Wanzo: I mean, it’s funny. There’s a convention with comic studies writing that we all have to have an apology, about why we’re writing something about comics. Right? I think what’s interesting here is that you’re giving this long sort of origin story, which we sometimes were called to feel this. I had a version of it and I just took it out. It’s like, “I refuse. I refuse to do it.” But maybe the rules should be now. If you can’t write this as beautifully as Darieck Scott, let’s skip the origin story of comics and just get right to it.
Darieck Scott: I actually wanted to ping back a little bit, we were talking about identification. Also, I just wanted to say that my sort of approach to that question of identification and responses to art and what you’re asking, Ramzi, about my looking at effective responses as opposed to identification.
It really goes back to when I was a graduate student and reading the work of Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julien. They wrote this long essay where one of the things that just stuck out for me, and this is probably, I don’t know, 1990 or something like that, or ’89 even, where they said, “We were often looking at Black representation as though it was political representation. It’s like you’re electing a member to the House of Representatives or the Parliament.” That kind of representation isn’t the representation that art can do or even should do. And that’s the way I’ve always kind of looked at it. I mean, that kind of named what I was already doing in some ways as a responder to art that involves Black people or that is Black art. And it certainly guided me in terms of my own critical methodology going forward.
Michael Mark Cohen: Yeah. Just briefly, I think we do see, in this work, an example. I think it’s come up in a few comments already of a kind of writing about the engagement with art that has to go on without guarantees as Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy would say, that just because you are this kind of body, seeing a similar kind of body in a comic book page, that should structure or guarantee the ways in which you engage that or receive that.
And that this, what Darieck offers us, is a kind of writing that it goes on without guarantees, right? And one that is, in this case, explicitly queer, that we can queer our readings, because that is a way of both escaping a certain predetermined set of guarantees that a structure, but in particular, the marketplace of serialized literature, right? That we often think about these kind of identities are presented in a top town way saying, “Well, how many comic books can we sell to Black people? How many comic books can we sell to this audience or that audience?” And I think that in evading all of that, you give us an example of what it is to write, to think, to feel without guarantees.
Ramzi Fawaz: That’s so beautifully said, that feels very true to me. I’m going to ask, we still have a little bit more time for us to talk, but I actually really want to take the questions of the audience. So I’m going to ask the one question I’m supposed to ask, why comics, right? That’s the other thing we always have to do is, why are comics such a privileged site for doing this kind of work? Why do any of us in this room or in this chat, right? Why do we care about comics? A question far too vast to answer fully in this kind of forum. But I think for our audience members who may not be comics people, I always think it’s kind of good to rehash that set of questions.
Rebecca Wanzo: Can I just say, why not and move on?
Michael Mark Cohen: Because we love them.
Ramzi Fawaz: Wait, I guess the way I want to ask, I’m not asking it in the sense of why the value of comics, right? Which I take as a given, but what it is that you find so incredibly compelling about the medium as a place for doing the kind of work that you do?
Darieck Scott: Well, my answer to that is I think what I probably try to spend the entire book doing or tracing, which is that it’s compelling for me because it requires me just to read the comic, requires me to engage in an active process of imagination, which is then not only useful for me in the real world, but also pleasurable and important and vital for me as part of my own inner life is to have that kind of imagination.
For those who are not in the comic studies world, it’s just a fundamental thing. You’re looking at a page, whether it’s on the digital or paper, and there are panels and there are static drawings, and then you’ve got to go to the next panel. So, you’ve got to imagine movement between them. You’ve got to imagine connection between them. It’s just a very basic aspect of comics, whether they’re superhero or anything else. And that active imagination, that’s partly textual, partly visual, partly all these other things that it’s sort of bringing together, that’s what’s compelling about. It’s the form and the content somehow that both seem to latch into my imagination and brought about my writing of this book.
Jonathan Gray: I’m going to borrow from Darieck and say as an act of revenge, right? The things that I did growing up, play basketball, read comic books, listen to hip-hop music. My aching knees mean that I can’t play basketball anymore, but I still am able to find profound amounts of meaning, political meaning, but also to find profound amounts of joy in listening to music and reading comics. Right? This transcendence that people would want to associate with opera and all other things, I mean, I never experienced that, but I did experience that listening to Illmatic, I did experience that reading Chris Claremont’s X-Men or some version of that.
And so, I never really understood. Darieck talked about the graduate school. I was always translating experiences or mediating them through hip-hop and through comics as a way to make sense of the kind of artistic claims or epistological claims that people were making. And so, it’s like, “Wait a minute, then why am I writing about Ralph Ellison? Why not just write about Kyle Baker?” Right? If I’m making those sort of conceptual moves in my head anyway, then let’s just spend the time doing that.
Rebecca Wanzo: Well, I’ll say, I mean, I’m probably a little more promiscuous with the number of genres can give me pleasure in all kinds of ways. But what I would say is that to all these points, the form and content issue, I think is really important. And I think I’ll just also double down in a disciplinary way about how the lack of attentiveness to comics means there are a whole bunch of things that were conceptually we’re not understanding, right?
Right now, I’m working on something where I’m thinking about African American artists, whose early work was as cartoonists, and the ways in which the connection between the art world and comics and cartoon art. We’re losing history in terms of what’s not archived, but also just really understanding these links. I think obviously, in terms of literary studies, to conceptually understand what it means to position African American comics and cartoon art in relationship to African American literature, but also in relationship to broader histories of Black visual culture is really important.
There are various contexts, obviously in history, how important comics and cartoon art, specifically, and editorial cartoons and various things are often just used as illustrations in ways that don’t take editorial cartoonists seriously as thinkers and theorizes of the state. Right? And how important that has been historically? And particularly, the number of Black cartoonists for whom that has been true from comic strip creators to editorial cartoonist is really important.
So, the variety of different disciplines that I think really need to engage with the form. I mean, I think there’s an interesting slippage in your book between saying all of comics when you’re very much talking about superhero comics and cartoons. It is interesting about the different genre makes, which I do think there’s a deep difference in terms of what the generic forms do. But that’s my reason. I think that there are things we don’t know and understand unless we really take the medium seriously.
Michael Mark Cohen: Yeah. I agree with that entirely and then Rebecca’s research in the field of early 20th century Black cartoonists is really hugely important. I would also just add, I think it’s probably obvious, but it’s worth stating, is that superheroes are ubiquitous now. Our mass culture is just completely saturated with them. There’s far more comic book movies out there than I have the time to watch in TV series. And I mean, they just have completely taken over our popular culture and there’s this very lengthy genealogy of these characters that needs to be excavated, that needs to be dug up and worked through quite critically. I think Darieck points the way in his writing about Luke Cage and Blade and Black Panther in general. It’s one of those realities that the ubiquity of superhero movies belies their kinds of origins.
I think it’s always worth remembering the ways in which Superman and Green Lantern and others in their origins, the golden age era were the products of working class writers for working class audiences in the midst of the great depression. And Superman began his career fighting weapons manufacturers and unscrupulous advertisers. And the Green Lantern actually intervenes in a taxi cab strike in the late 1930s.
And today, the Cold War deformed all of that. And neoliberalism continues to twist it even more so that our preferred superheroes now are not the kind of altruistic visionaries, but the neoliberal douchebags like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne. There has to be a pushback or at least a critical examination of that, which has gone from admittedly a kind of marginal cultural expression to completely dominating the arch capitalist center of our popular culture.
Ramzi Fawaz: I want to actually respond to that and both agree and disagree because I think that is right, up to a point. But I mean, Darieck and I talk about this all the time, what I’m about to say. What I think is interesting is that the resurgence of the superhero as a fetish of American popular culture, initially was very much a reaction to 9/11 and to the rise of the security state and the desire to circulate these images of national protectors, which is why the first movies are really like Captain America, Iron Man, etc.
Now, I think what happened, by sheer historical accident, is that as these mass social movements around racial social justice, gender social justice resurge in the U.S., people began to remember that the superhero is fundamentally about distinction. Superheroes are all different from one another. They’re this endless proliferation of different kinds of bodies with different powers.
So, now what’s happened is a shift, where the neoliberal, as you were putting it, douchebag model is being replaced by the multiverse model, which is all about the endless proliferation of differentiation. That’s also still wrapped up deeply in capitalism, right? Because it’s about producing as much TV shit content and movie content as you can to sell. But one of its great virtues is that it is addressing the problem of human plurality, that people are fundamentally different from one another.
So, Darieck and I had been talking the other night. I’m obsessed with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and I’m writing about it now. And when I teach that to my students, they’re like, “This is the most amazing commentary on the problem of diversity.” Because it’s not about representational diversity, it’s about plurality, right? It is about the fundamental fact that human beings are already diverse.
You don’t need to simply insert marginal identities. If you look at the fact that human beings are incredibly complex and heterogeneous, what if you started there? And so I do think the best parts of the superhero are also being brought into this new wave. And I say all of this to just say, for me, the reason I love comics is because they’re so multiplicious. Most mediums, novels, movies can do some of what comics do, of course, like mediums borrow from each other, but comics kind of concatenate so many different elements. They heighten the idea that media are about multiplying kind of different variables. And I find that really, really compelling. So, I feel more sympathetic to the contemporary shift in superhero storytelling than the earlier part.
Jonathan Gray: Ramzi, what’s interesting about that, too, is that I guess evidence for your claim is all the online complaining about the diversity/plurality, right? Which is like, “Oh, my God, they’ve gone too far.” So yes, I think that speaks precisely to the kind of plurality that you’re celebrating.
Ramzi Fawaz: And actually, it’s interesting, somebody in the chat said, “But one of the taglines of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is, ‘You’re like me,'” to bring us back to how identification does and doesn’t work. And one thing I would say is, I think actually part of the genius of the movie is it’s always about you’re like me, but not exactly me. Anyone could inhabit the figure of Spider-Man and every person would do it in a distinct way that is never fully commensurate with anybody else. There’s a mutual recognition moment. And whenever the spider people need each other in the movie, there’s a brief moment of coming together, like, “We’re the same.” And then, there’s deep splitting again.
And I love that. That, to me, is what politics is about, right? It’s about the coming together and the splitting apart. And that’s what is compelling to me about that movie, among many other things. So I think this is a great time to shift to questions for the audience that I already have a list of them. Jonathan was reminding us that another tagline is “Anyone can wear the mask,” which is so beautiful.
I’m just going to go through some of the ones that we have listed already. And I love Juana Maria Rodriguez sending my heart to you. And she asked at the beginning, she said, “I love the turn to fantasy. And I hope we might say more about the connection to sexual fantasy and the exploration of other modes of erotic and social relations.” And, of course, the last chapter of Darieck’s book is very much about this. So, I would throw this out to everyone, but I’d love to hear Derek start on that question.
Darieck Scott: Well, I’m wondering what Juana is asking about specifically in terms of whether comics provide a kind of, again, springboards for imaginations of different forms of sexual practice or being or not, or whether… I’m not sure exactly what she’s thinking about in that question. I guess when I was thinking about the significance of sexual fantasy in superhero comics, which is a genre of comics, that, of course, is not really about sex in a explicit way, but always has a kind of implicit sexualization of the body being the way that things would be depicted all kinds of elements to it, which lend themselves to some sort of sexualization. I was really interested in kind of taking that element, which remains actively suppressed, right? So, it’s not even just that, “Oh, this comic is for kids and we’re not going to talk about sex.”
It’s that… It’s what I mentioned before, Fredric Wertham and the advent of the Comics Code Authority, the comics that were being… with no margin at all, actually, which were being read by everybody, which had sells of millions upon millions per month during world war II, and immediately after. That those comics were according to Wertham. And those who went along with them were some sort of covert initiation of readers into BDSM practices and to being gay and everything else.
And I was interested in that, because I think there is something about even these comics that really aren’t particularly depicting these things in any explicit way, that can allow for a springboard of imagination of sexual difference, and that people read them that way, that’s… queer readers have been doing that before… There was a way where Wertham was right, about some aspect of it and wrong in other ways wrong in terms of the homophobia. Right? Perhaps in actually identifying that there is a sort of queer reading you are allowed or facilitated to have of superhero comics. And then I, in the book, I talk about erotic cartoonists who actually just take that up and take it to its logical conclusion where it’s just all about the sex actually. But so, that’s my response.
Rebecca Wanzo: I mean, with Wertham, I mean it’s… I mean, Wonder Woman, it’s just straight up… It’s hard to go through an issue where she’s not tied up or someone else happens in the early Wonder… It’s like, it’s just bondage, bondage everywhere. And when I showed to my students, like, they can’t unsee it really, but, so, not wrong about polyamory and bondage in Wonder Woman. But I mean, I do think there is something interesting, because again, I was thinking of the genre difference and I just happened to be teaching. My favorite thing is monsters this week. And I also brought in a whole bunch of women’s comics from the 1970s and early ’80s and other early comics like Tits and Clits and how my students read them because they just really… And also like some French comics like Ah ! Nana, who only had only nine issues before, I think it was the incest issue that did it in and then they forbid it.
But that’s much more radical like this idea that what we see in terms of representation inevitably becomes more radical or more explicit as time goes on. And they’re looking at these comics and they’re going, “What? This was, like, what year, what year was this?” And that there was even, as these are comics that are very concerned about Americana and everyday. So, they’re both, they’re comics that are explicitly about being as part of the underground comics movement, as being transgressive. But at the same time, they’re very much concerned about, like, the Americana that is everyday, right? So, these things are working together at the same time, right? In the feminist and gay comics of the period.
And I mean, I think it’s interesting to go through. I mean, you go to, like, what Spike Trotman is doing or some other like erotic comics that you might see right now. I’ve been trying to sort of work through, like, How do we understand this genealogy? Is there one, do people see such connections or do we see also… like my favorite thing is monsters to identification point, the points of identification is everything from high art to The Wolfman to horror films, right?
Like, so it’s a book that, it’s a graphic novel that deeply complicates your common sense ideas of identification and sexual fantasy. Right? So, there’s just such a long genealogy of that in comics that I think plays out in such really intriguing ways.
Ramzi Fawaz: And I would just quickly add, I think to draw one’s question specifically to the chapter that you write, that you write about Darieck, that you have this amazing moment where you just say like, “Oh, the simple ability” excuse me, if I’m scandalizing anybody, “of being able to draw internal ejaculation in gay male sex,” is this, like, incredibly fantastical moment, something that, like, cinematic apparatus cannot do. Like, you can’t have a camera small enough to like go in and show you that. And it wouldn’t visually make sense.
And I think there is a way in which, because of that conceit Darieck and I always talk about, that anything can be drawn could be believed, in comics. There is a way in which comics, like, really lend themselves to the exploration of sexual fantasy because of the expansive possibilities of being able to draw out every different, like imagined scenario, that you can conceive of.
So, we have another question from earlier, John Martin made a comment that I think is actually really interesting and unusual said, “Victor LaValle has suggested that horror, for him, isn’t just about defeating the monster, but about defeating real life, which is often worse than the monster. Is this also a form of joy?” Which feels very much like what the whole book is about.
Darieck Scott: I would totally agree with that. Yeah. I didn’t know Victor LaValle had said that, but that to me is … I mean, and it pertains to what’s come up a couple times. Revenge is also form of joy in a certain way. So, yeah, I think I agree with that.
Jonathan Gray: Yeah. I would just say that the ending of Get Out where you have the police cruiser pull up with the lights on and that feeling in the pit of your stomach, that, “Oh, my God, he’s gone through all of this. And now this redneck cop is going to…” and it’s his best friend. Like, that’s the moment, that’s, like, a profound moment of joy, which is precisely like that the monster’s been defeated, but you’ve also defeated this carceral reality because the person in the police cruiser is actually your ally. So, that’s another sort of clear example of that evocation of joy past defeating the monster.
Michael Mark Cohen: Yeah. I mean, quickly, it just makes me think of something like Lovecraft Country, too, where it’s like, there may be monsters in the woods, but there’s no monster bigger than a southern sheriff.
Ramzi Fawaz: You know, I was actually going to say I’ve taught Lovecraft Country a couple times now and it’s so mind boggling to my students. And one thing I’m just amazed by is the revenge fantasy. It has extraordinary images of Black violence towards white bodies. Right? It has a huge amount of violence towards Black bodies as well, because it’s trying to … Its realism is to set you in like the history of segregation, but it’s also like, it is this amazing fantasy of Black people, like literally beating white people to death with bats in certain scenes. Right? Like it’s really, it’s quite extraordinary. And I think, it gives you all different kinds of joy, right? Like the joy of that revenge.
And then, for me, like the most incredible, one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen on TV is the Hippolyta’s episode, episode seven, in which there’s the joy of this Black woman being able to travel back and forth through every time period to become anything and everything. Right? And I think I’m just pontificating, I love the example of Lovecraft Country.
Rebecca Wanzo: But I might turn it back to Victor.
Ramzi Fawaz: Yeah.
Rebecca Wanzo: And, and Victor’s… You were teaching the show, I guess, not the novel, but Victor’s fantastic take on Lovecraft, The Ballad of Black Tom, which has… I mean, the thing I was thinking about this while I’m saying this because between that and Destroyer, right? Which is, like, take on Black Frankenstein or change … He always sort of, there’s, like, he can do the revenge fantasy, but then there’s like this undercutting, like you were joyous about something that happens, but then it’s mournful. So, it’s very complicated, like this sort of effective… Like, I think he sort of redefines what joy looks like in the real, honestly, it’s like, it is a kind of complicated Black joy, I would say at the end of his text and Ballad of Black Tom, I think is … ’cause there was this set of things and there was this good podcast with him and John Jennings and Kinitra Brooks talking about Lovecraft Country and like attachments to Lovecraft and what it means for Black people to sort of want to rework it.
And I guess, Spike Lee’s still getting ready to do a Lovecraft film. Is that right? I think he is. So, there’s like … So, even things that you’re not supposed to be attached to, like people will take it and that they rework it and there’s still like, there’s a pleasure attachment people have, of a Black reworking of these things that are, can be horrible racist imaginaries.
Ramzi Fawaz: And just, to quickly to respond to that, that’s the thing I find fascinating about the TV show is that it is so deeply ambivalent and split. It’s like, in order to have a lot of the Black fantasy that happens in that show, other things have to be shut out, like the alliance between Black women and white women. The, like, the lesbian alliance has to disappear. You know, the possibility that queer men might be central to the story like their entire history has to disappear. So, I think that the show is actually quite ambivalent. It says, like, to have one kind of Black fantasy, other possible connections have to be lost. And I think you’re right. I mean, I think it’s a very ambivalent, so …
So let’s take one last question. And then maybe we could just do a quick wrap-up if people have final comments on the panel. Earlier, when we were talking about when Rebecca was really pushing us to think about why it is that we always have to attach the label of radical to fantasy in order for it to be meaningful, Tigers Eye said, “What if the habitable imaginary is the more mundane one, could this make other realities more possible through such fantasy?” And I think that’s kind of a broad question. I think we were already addressing it earlier, but maybe we could just comment one more time on the question of the mundane, the quotidian.
Darieck Scott: I guess for me, there are a number of different inflections to answering that question. So, one of them, for me, is that I was trying to, in the book, propose that the necessity of there being a line that one could draw between a fantasy and the appearance of what we call the real, beyond one’s own mind or beyond the collective minds of those who are fantasizing it together about, say, a particular comic book or a film or whatever. That I was feeling like I didn’t want to need to make sure that’s the kind of transformation of looking at, in order to say that fantasy’s important that I was trying to think about some other kind of work that’s being done, that it’s harder to track. But I try to put it under that term of it’s a transformation of being, because I was using Leo Bersani’s way of thinking about fantasy as being like memory in the brain and that the memory is derealized being, and fantasy is unrealized being.
And so, there’s something that happens in being is what I was trying to think of as what fantasy does. And that in and of itself is going to be, it’s mundane and it’s quotidian because it actually, isn’t a transformation of the world and like that, or not a transformation of the world, even by a long sort of process of building a revolution the way the Fanon says that’s sort of internal revolution, but it’s something that I thought was important to give an account of. So that, I guess that’s one way I would, I would think about answering that question.
Ramzi Fawaz: Well, maybe towards wrapping up to a conclusion, I would love to just ask everybody, just generally, what does fantasy mean to you now? At the end of this conversation, at the end of looking at Darieck’s book, like where does fantasy sit for you in your thought process as a scholar, as a reader of these texts? Like what does the term now mean?
Rebecca Wanzo: I mean, I guess just a follow up maybe in thinking about that question. I’m teaching a class in feminist and career media studies this semester, and one thing is we go through various forms of, genres and media that have been dismissed because of largely sort of identity specific responses, you know, romance novels and comics and melodrama and all these sort of like, bad effective forms, but then people say, “Oh, but here are the ways in which they’re political,” and this sort of divide between like the fantasy and the real.
I mean, I feel that I am often trying to push people to think about the ways about what fantasy is not like this idea of fantasy as always escapism is problematic. Obviously. Even though I often think of this line with Octavia Butler and I think is parable towns, like what’s the sort of, what’s wrong with escapee or like if it has you, it has you, and you have sort of no choice, but to go there, like it’s a… that there’s people in variety of things that we consume or just inhabit the every day we think about things that are not tactile and real in certain ways, right.
And yet, we may be watching things that have been made or reading things that have been made like there’s … So these things are real, but not real in the ways in which people are sort of conceptualizing them. And yet, Black people also are … There’s all this fantasy attached, all these things that are unreal attached to Blackness, right? So, we’re just constantly negotiating realm of the fantasy that sort of shapes our every day. And so, I think that’s what I try to get people to think about in terms of how we conceptualize, what fantasy actually is in our lives is not something that just sort of out there and that people go to and should need to come back, but we’re constantly negotiating it, the good and the bad and the ambivalent and the everything.
Jonathan Gray: I mean, when I’m teaching, I’m always trying to communicate to people that fantasy is closer than we want to admit and to make a reference to our former president. I mean, it’s incredible that people are living this consensual fantasy, that, that person was a great statesman. Right? And, had answers and was … It’s just, like, what … I feel like, “oh God, I don’t have to ever make that argument again.” Right? The argument that fantasy is just over there, it’s like, no fantasy is right here. Right. And that, if you want to understand, how to change the world, in part, you have to understand how to change fantasy.
So, I used to talk about, the persistence in fantasy, like fantasy, like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and such, of like white male protagonists. It’s like, why do these forms always have to reinscribe a sort of white masculinity when that’s not necessarily reality, but now it’s like, “Oh no, the fantasy is the Republican party.” And so, for me, like we’re living alongside an interesting consensual fantasy, right. So, it’s just right there. And if we want to like make a more just world, we have to be able to recognize and address what’s going on with that fantasy.
Michael Mark Cohen: Yeah. I think that’s really quite beautifully put, I would, in a certain sense, I think reading Darieck’s book has led me to think in many ways about the relationship between thinking about fantasy and the terms set out in this text and the sort of older models of what we would’ve called for lack of a better term or explicitly called, ideology. Right? And the traditional sort of Marxist understanding of ideology is, it’s an imaginary relationship to reality or an imaginary relationship to real contradictions. And one of the things that I think Jonathan points out quite well is that increasingly that imaginary relationship is not to a kind of set of real contradictions, but distill other fantasies and other delusions, right? That QAnon, or just what it is to be a Trumpian member of the Republican party, is not to have an imaginary relationship to reality, but an imaginary relationship to a set, a whole other regime of fantasies.
So, in a certain sense, ideology has lost its mourning to anything meaningfully understood as reality or political consensus or anything of the kind. And this is I think what we have to understand as the coming of fascism of a world in which the reality as we know it is being smashed by the simple, the profound power of fantasy to just obscure, deny and deflect anything that the rest of us might recognize as reality. And I’m putting this, these are the really negative terms of it. And I think Darieck offers us something that is far more hopeful, far more possible.
And so, in that sense, I not only come away with it with a critique of the kind of fascist ideology that, or fascist fantasy that swims around us, but the need for us to fantasize on our own terms, that fantasy, for all of us becomes increasingly a necessity. And that a future of any vision of social change has to be animated by a vision of a future society. And while that might have previously been best understood is having the right ideology or good politics, I think increasingly thanks to Darieck, we can think of it as an imperative or a call to fantasize.
Ramzi Fawaz: That’s so beautifully said all of those comments, we are at time, but Darieck, I wanted to be able to give you the last word before we wrap up. It’s been so wonderful to meet with everybody here in this space.
Darieck Scott: I just want to thank all of you as panelists. I loved your comments. They’re all so incisive and beautiful and thought provoking for me. So thank you for engaging with my work and for having such thoughtful responses to it.
Ramzi Fawaz: Thank you everybody for joining us. This was wonderful. And we’ll see you in all other venues.
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