Monday, February 19, 2018
Negative Valences IV: The Transcendental Object of Science Fiction (Race)
Vibranium/Wakanda: this is the novum of Black Panther. As such, it is a movie with geographical and post-colonial sensibilities. This much is obvious.
But it points to a certain territoriality at its heart, one that would, in a less Hollywood-style movie, also have to include dystopian elements like the 'resource curse'. I mean, Avatar didn't shy away from this: that movie was all about conflict associated with places embarrassed by riches.
The indigenous 'problem' is, of course, a question of perspective, and Black Panther takes the critical perspective of the Wakandans. Ok, so what are the Wakandans? They are kind of like black-Swiss or -Canadian, insofar as they tend towards neutrality on the world stage, and offer the world a very specific set of products. Like Canada, an abundance of resources; like Switzerland, advanced precision technologies in high demand.
The Wakandans are not black white people though. They are essentially a proud self-reliant African nation that upsets any easy notion of teleology and progress we might bring to this story.
Cognitively, the 'object' of this movie is race. The latter transcends just about every other aspect of the movie. In this sense Black Panther is very much of a piece with a system to which the genre (speculative, fictional, fantastical) has been enamoured since its inception.
We have, through generations of iterations now, the idea of a 'race' as a 'species', somehow genetically different from the other species/races in some very specifically delineated ways. For Wakandans this is, very specifically, Vibranium.
The materiality of race, then, is explicitly 'nativist' is the very autochthonous sense of being from the soil of a place; it is the blood/territory quantum of equivalence that is the very definition of territoriality and identititarianism.
That is, that of which this movie takes part, is itself part of a larger whole (the genre) that historically defines races in terms of other species, but it does so asymmetrically. The asymmetry at the heart of Black Panther is, I think, what this movie's adorers have latched onto. It has a critical reversal at its heart that has been a long time coming. After all, Marvel's productions tend to be pretty white.
These movies are Lord of the Rings-level fantastical, so we need to keep that in perspective. The battle scenes enlist giant armoured rhinos and spaceships alongside magical spears and spells.
But I think it lends imagination to a 'black' nation; it builds an 'imagined' community through an act of creation, one that, in turn, enables representations of 'blackness' to proceed on an equal footing to all those other 'white' and 'indigenous' productions with which we are now so overly familiar.
As Black Panther sinks in, roots itself in consciousness, and cognitively reifies the idea of Black Marvel, remember what a revelation this movie is for many people, and what popular appeal it has. It is explicitly political, playing on a trope of black power that is only admissible due to its fantasy nature.
Because it is 'just a comic book', society can somehow accept a black power message in its midst, in a way that it cannot, for example, put up with raised (black) fists or football players kneeling.
It is a mixed victory.