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Blog Post 2: On Speculation

A key point of inspiration for my final project is Danielle Brathwaith-Shirley’s “BlackTransArchive”: In this work, Brathwaith-Shirley, who is a Berlin-based Black trans artist and game developer, creates a digital, interactive archive in the form of a video game, designed in collaboration with Black trans coders and artists as a way to center Black trans lives and fight against the erasure of their history. Here, she attempts to ensure that the Black and trans people who enter her virtually-created world on the archive are given a dedicated and safe space, by presenting a series of initial questions to the user, which then designate the parameters of their interaction and accessibility to the content, depending on their identity and the levels of privilege they are afforded. The BlackTransArchive entangles difficult concepts such as opacity, consent, and other ideas by indexing different lines of play, prompting user interaction, and creating fantastic digital imagery that prompt the user to question where they lie in contemporary structures of power, and how that affects the way they experience both the world and Brathwaith-Shirley’s work itself.

I read BlackTransArchive less as a an expansion or reconfiguration of the archive than as a mode of critique that ruptures the traditional conceptions of the archive, whereby the latter’s epistemological and political contribution tends to be marked by empiricism. To read this work as a kind of critique is to heed David Kazanjian’s call in “Scenes of Speculation”: To attend “less to the wills, desires, and voices of the historical subjects in question and more to the speculative work done by the textual traces they have left in the archives… that which might not be the expression of a subject’s will, desire, intention, or voice but might still be readable by us, today, as a powerfully political text.“ For I would argue that by refusing the familiar tropes that characterize the archive as a repository of of information and evidence, Braithwaith-Shirley, in the BlackTransArchive, calls not only the archive itself but also the liberal notions of justice—inflected with assumptions of “expressions of humanity understood as willful, desirous interiority” that follow the longue durée of post-Enlightenment thought (see: Towards a Global Idea of Race by Denise Ferreira Da Silva)—in question/speculation. The artistic production of this work, as such, can be read as a speculative theory of justice. The BlackTransArchive’s series of questions (“Are you Black & Trans, Trans, or cis?”; “How will you help us?”) and demands (“Use your privilege to help us”, “You must agree to center Black Trans lives”) read to me as less a gesture to empathize with Black Trans lives as to reach towards liberal inclusion that it is a speculation on what reparations, allyship, and memory means and should politically positioned.

With all this in mind, I wonder the following: Given the rise in speculative fiction and literature as a mode of imagining new possibilities, what is speculation’s impossibilities and limits? Here, I am thinking of Saidiya Hartman’s warning in Scenes of Subjection regarding the “difficulty and slipperiness of empathy”: “Empathic identification… cannot be extricated from the economy of chattel slavery with which is at odds, for this projection of one’s feeling upon or into the object of property and the phantasmic slipping into captivity, while it is distinct from the pleasures of self-augmentation yielded by the ownership of the captive body and the expectations fostered therein, is nonetheless entangled with this economy and identification facilitated by a kindred possession or occupation of the captive body, albeit on a different register.” With this in mind I cannot help but wonder the ways in which Kazanjian’s mode of reading the “scenes of speculation” in the archive is always-already enmeshed in the humanist entanglement of political desire and an objectivist logocentric project, whereby speculative works are incessantly assumed to be acts of resistance and agency—not to productively configure a political project, more than it is to feed into, what Frank Wilderson describes as, “the kinship, or communal, structure of feeling that [is presumed] to exist ab initio.” What are the ways in which liberal hegemony paradoxically requires resistance as a signifier of human singularity? I appreciate Kazanjian’s essay a lot, which is why I surface these concerns.