Poetry from Endless futures

review by Nataleah Hunter-Young

Kara Keeling. Queer Times, Black Futures. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2019. 273 pg. 

Artist Cosima said to Frank Ocean in a 2019 interview, “To a lot of artists who are trapped in deals and contracts you’re something of a north star."

Endless was unimaginable to Universal Music Group (UMG). Fans waited four years for Frank Ocean’s second studio album, and on August 19, 2016 they got a 46-minute-long, high contrast black and white experimental visual album with an unmarked tracklist. Released exclusively as a video on Apple Music, Endless had no purchase option. It would be the next day when critics got what they were looking for but under the title Blond(e). Another album, this time sixty minutes long with eighteen tracks plus one unlisted, and widely available to stream and buy. The press would learn in the days to come that Endless marked the end of Ocean’s contractual obligations to Def Jam Records. Blond(e) was his first official release as an independent artist and ushered in for UMG (Def Jam’s parent company) the categorical end to licensing exclusive streaming deals for artists.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

What Ocean had with Def Jam is called a “futures contract.” Def Jam (the buyer) believed that the future would confirm the (money) value they would accrue from Ocean’s (the seller) second album. The label based their calculations of future earnings on present-day metrics like Ocean’s popularity following the release of his mixtape Nostalgia Ultra. This is also called “speculation,” wherein a certain amount of risk is accepted in purchasing a commodity that one expects will become more profitable in the future. These logics rely on (the presumption of) universal belief in their existence. In other words, before the purchase or exchange of goods, both Def Jam and Ocean ostensibly agreed to believe in the (money) value of what was to come. However, Ocean effectively changed the terms of his contract with the label by reimagining that value on his own terms. For Ocean, in the specific case of Endless, “value” did not equal million dollar returns for his label or himself.[2] An album was required, and an album—demonetized albeit valuable in other ways—is what Def Jam got.

I will skip a substantial qualification of the ripples this artistic decision sent through an already fragile industry desperate to maintain a top-heavy finance structure, one long made redundant by the Internet and the mainstreaming of high-quality digital recording equipment. (This is the same industry still haunted by Napster and beside itself in attempts to control the market share lost to burgeoning streaming platforms.) Instead, what I find useful in this example is the errant futurism it flouts in the face of racial capitalism—that is, the example it sets for one’s imagination. It is not an end to what Dionne Brand has called “the calculus of living and dyingthat white supremacy and racial capitalism administer, nor does it represent for me an exit (freedom) from its hold on Ocean or the rest of us.[3] Rather, it’s a bit of poetry—a gateway for imagining non-monetary forms of value. An invitation to consider something else.

Where Ocean imagined freedom from a future designed by UMG, Kara Keeling’s Queer Times, Black Futures (henceforth QTBF) looks, within the realm of the poetic, to expressions of what is beyond the future designed by racial capitalism. Drawing on the work of Audre Lorde and Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Keeling’s wide-ranging project advances poetry as a method, “a way of entering the unknown and carrying back the impossible” (xii). Canvassing the poetic across cinema, digital moving image media, music, literature, and theory, QTBF considers in particular what Afrofuturist and Black queer critical and creative practices can tell us about

“imagination, technology, the future, and liberation…within the context of finance capital’s stances toward (and investments in) the future” (4).

In poetry, Keeling sources a way to harness the uncertainty—the queerness—of the future that finance capitalism attempts to foreclose by way of such tools as the futures contract (more commonly called, simply, “futures”). In other words, whereas finance capitalism seeks to guard against any risk to ever increasing profits, poetics, as it appears across various forms and media, opens us onto the unforeseen possibilities that risk enables. If capitalism therefore consigns futures only to that which is presently knowable and if it seeks to police the imagination by limiting the possible only to that which is presently available to “common sense,” QTBF alternatively considers how Afrofuturist and Black queer media reveal otherworldly and profoundly non-linear futures that exist here, now. “Here now” is a refrain that is echoed throughout Keeling’s engagements with her capacious archive of audio, visual, and literary media, which she reads as instances of the impossible, errant, opaque, utopic and dystopic—the Black and queer. Asking what these works may offer us in the present and in our material relations to futures that remain beyond view, Keeling’s theoretical and close reading practice is animated by a commitment to “the stubborn spatiotemporalities of our senses”—something that she again credits to Lorde’s writing—so as to “intervene in the smooth and seductive assertions of capitalism’s inevitability” (xi).

To explicate the fundamental antagonism over the very meaning of the “future” that is at the center of her inquiry, Keeling opens QTBF with an analysis of the Royal Dutch Shell company’s future scenarios, which exemplifies how racial capitalism tethers the imagination to the present in order to project itself into a future where Black and Indigenous lives, and the planet on which we reside, remain in peril.[4] Introducing readers to the ambivalence of the future, Keeling details the brutal tactics Shell has used since its founding, and particularly since beginning its future scenario initiatives in the 1970s, to dispossess life, labor, land, and resources from Indigenous ecologies. Using the example of “the Ogoni nine,” arrested and executed following non-violent opposition to Shell Oil’s extractive operations in the Niger Delta, Keeling lays out the predicament she later argues Black queer media are primed to unmake and challenge. That is, the futures of finance capitalism “are part of a knowledge project that has been calibrated to reproduce existing relations” (9). The future in-progress—being made here, now—is under constant dispute, subject to projections both by corporate entities such as Shell that seek control and by the ungovernable, endless creative force that Keeling identifies with the horizon of Black futures.

As Keeling’s reading of Shell’s extractive infrastructure and futures scenarios suggests, central to QTBF's argument and analysis is the inseparability of contemporary finance capitalism from longer histories of racial capitalism, racial slavery, and its afterlives. Indeed, the stakes of Keeling’s interventions are nothing short of life and death, as are the conditions of Black being in the wake of transatlantic slavery.[5] Drawing on Ian Baucom’s Spectres of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History, she invokes the 1781 massacre aboard the British slave ship Zong, where the ship’s captain ordered 150 enslaved Africans thrown overboard (“for want of water”[6]) on the (later confirmed) belief that it would trigger insurance monies as reimbursement for the legal murder of their human cargo.

Baucom explains how the “triangle trade”—from Europe to Africa to the Americas and back—relied heavily on credit (“imaginary value”) to finance slaving operations that would eventually, upon exchange of commodity goods, confirm the credit’s “money value” agreed upon by the lender (empire) and buyer (slaver). The court ruling in favor of the Zong’s captain required the insurance company to confirm the (pre)existence of money value without commodity exchange, creating in effect a real debt from imaginary values materialized in the form of money value paid by the insurers.[7] The lives and deaths of the 150 massacred were socially, juridically, and economically imaginable only as money value lost. As Keeling explains, the “Zong massacre reveals that the economy of the transatlantic slave trade was a speculative one” (28). It brought into being the now familiar “geopolitical logics and material relations” (29) upon which the presiding imaginary value system of finance capital relies.

By drawing attention to the originary mechanics of racial capitalist speculation, Keeling reveals how the regimes of value birthed through the Zong massacre continue to structure Black existence and its futures. For Keeling, “Black existence” refers at once to the violent (re)production of Blackness and Black people as nonhuman other—that is, to the procedures through which white being becomes possible—and to the “creative invention” necessary to “Black belonging” that cannot be captured by this quotidian violence (36). Here enters the centrality of poetic cinema, music, and digital media to QTBF’s overall project. As relational tools and phenomena, these forms hold the capacity to practice, visualize, and enact ways of being that might spawn liveable futures for all: a future usurped, flipped, chopped and screwed in favor of Black life and liberation, a future that is indecipherable to the world birthed through the Zong.

Keeling reads Daniel Pebbles’ The Aggressives (2005) exemplifying her use of “queer” to name not an identity but the ungoverned and ungovernable quality that exists in every now: an openness to chance.

From the outset, Keeling admits that she is indeed trying to sketch out something that confounds expression (Black liberation) and that QTBF in no way professes to know what might follow from it. However, what she is ushering readers to explore is how Black futures hold an investment in queer temporality. Queer, in Keeling’s articulation, names not an identity but the ungoverned and ungovernable quality that exists in every now: an openness to chance. This is not to deny queer its vernacular use in North America by and for those who identify as “LGBT+” but rather reminds that such a reduction is a neoliberal and ahistorical “domestication” of the relation queer articulates.[8] In the realm of social life, we might understand “queer” as “change”—an eventuality that racial capitalism shrouds in fear for that which cannot be foreseen, controlled, managed, or guarded against. In capitalist terms, such queer eventualities emerge as risks to investment. Keeling reminds us that in “financial management, it is well known that ‘time’ itself produces risk” (19). Therefore, Keeling uses “queer temporality” to describe “that dimension of the unpredictable and the unknowable in time that governs errant, eccentric, promiscuous, and unexpected organizations of social life” (19).

Racial capitalism’s efforts to project itself onto or into the future, by relying on present conditions of possibility “through calculations and algorithms devised to predict and control for randomness,” “miss the ways ‘queer’ remains here and now in both recognizable and imperceptible forms” (19). Queer time is always already here, now, producing unforeseen and unforeseeable change, producing risk to the proscriptive futures by which Euro-American social life is ordered and through which its regimes of value and speculation are maintained. Black futures invested in queer time therefore exist “after the end of the world,” Keeling explains with the help of Afrofuturist icon Sun Ra whose words entitle her first chapter (53). Black futures exist beyond what is imaginable to world systems that imprison futures for profit—“(Don’t you know that yet?)” (53).

Afrofuturist icon Sun Ra featured in the opening sequence of John Coney’s Space is the Place (1974) which Keeling reads in QTBF for Ra’s temporal interventions after the end of the world where time has officially ended.

In Chapter 1, Keeling revisits Afrofuturism through the sonic influence of free jazz and Sun Ra’s 1974 film Space is the Place (dir. John Coney), first enlisting the work of Gilles Deleuze to argue for the potential of sound and music to disrupt “the hegemony of vision in modernity” ushered through the cinematic. Keeling then reads Ra’s temporal interventions in the film alongside Karl Marx’s idea of “poetry from the future,” outlined in the opening pages of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, to explore how that which “escapes or resists recognition…meaning and valuation” becomes “an impossible possibility within our shared reality…threaten[ing] to unsettle, if not destroy, the common senses on which reality relies for coherence” (62). For Ra, this impossible possibility is the project of Black liberation, to unsettle what Euro-American colonial violence has controlled through the muting of the sensory realm. For Ra, this project begins with the official ending of time. The ending, stopping of, or escape from time—more specifically, linear or “straight” time, as Keeling refers to it—is a recurring concept throughout QTBF and also a fundamental dilemma across Black studies and queer theory more broadly. As Keeling works to demonstrate, futures thinking is overdetermined by prescriptive readings of history and the present that, as a result, lock perceptions of both space and time into regimes of truth, reality, or the (im)possible—what can be is ultimately beholden to, or only understandable based on, what has already been.