Note on Adrienne Maree Brown “Emergent Strategy” // Future Ancestors

Adrienne Maree Brown (2017) Emergent Strategy. AK Press. p14.

Adrienne Maree Brown’s work is oriented towards the future. This futurism draws deliberately on the imaginative possibility of science fiction, as she writes in Emergent Strategy (p16):

I would call our work to change the world “science fictional behavior” — being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations.

In particular, Brown draws on the work of Octavia Butler, whose science fiction dramatized the present moment by extending it into the future (p17):

Octavia wrote novels with young Black women protagonists meeting aliens, surviving apocalypse, evolving into vampires, becoming telepathic networks, time traveling to reckon with slave-owning ancestors. Woven throughout her work are two things: 1) a coherent visionary exploration of humanity and 2) emergent strategies for being better humans.

Brown’s work likewise asks us to orient ourselves towards the future. One piece of this is her interest in framing ourselves as “future ancestors.” I am struck by this phrase, with its time travel implications. Because on the one hand, naming myself a future ancestor opens the possibility of imaginatively investing the shadowy figures, the precursors of the past, with the flesh and blood, the intellect and the emotionality, which I currently possess, which in turn does something to complexify the notion of ancestral authority: personalizing it, humanizing it. If can see yourself in those who came before, crucially, you might be able to see both your debt to, and your impact upon, those who are still to come. In this way, the past and the future are kept in relationship via a kind of tensility — and a live wire. What we do now simultaneously draws on the past and shapes what comes next. We’re usually pretty good about paying attention to how the past influences us; and we’re certainly accustomed to invoking the past to give meaning to what we do in the present. But how we relate our present actions to the future is something that takes some conscious effort. Brown asks:

How can we, future ancestors, align ourselves with the most resilient practices of emergence as a species?

In addition to adjusting our vision to more actively include the future as well as the past, Brown asks us to broaden out the very notion of ‘ancestry.’ In this context, being a “future ancestor” does not mean simply considering the mother of your mother or the child of your child, but the generations of humanity as a community, i.e. “as a species.” In fact, understanding the family unity as something beyond a bloodline is a crucial component of the kind of future vision Brown asks us to use; an attachment to a narrowly defined idea of family is an invitation to other the humans who are not included in that category.

Roman carnelian intaglio set in a ring, 1st c. BCE/CE. The Walters Art Museum. Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, and leads his son, Ascanius, away from Troy as it burns (cf. Aen. 2.707). Present facilitating both past and future. Note that Aeneas did abandon his wife, Creusa, to achieve this…

Toshi Reagon, on the Octavia’s Parables podcast (Ep. 10, Aug. 24th 2020; 55:10):

“Every ten years of your age, there should be somebody ten years younger than you…The annoying one that’s always asking you questions and correcting you from something you said before which you can’t remember and who’s bringing in the latest technology that you need to move on to. That person needs to have real agency in your life. So now I have somebody in their twenties, somebody in their thirties, somebody in their forties, ’cause that’s how I’m rolling. And you do start to see that you don’t do a disappearing. An evolution happens around, over, and beyond you.”

Vergil enamels, liking what you like, Adrienne Maree Brown; tempora cum causis (5)

Ancient. Vergil’s Aeneid has inspired no shortage of visual representations in antiquity and modernity. In the 16th century, an unknown enameler made a series of plaques (82 are recorded) illustrating episodes from the Aeneid. These images are based on woodcut illustrations in the complete works of Vergil, edited by Sebastian Brandt, and published by Johann Grüninger in Strasburg in 1502. Here’s a small selection: Aeneas leaves Dido in Book 4 (Met Museum); Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld in Book 6 (Fitzwilliam Museum); Nisus and Euryalus in the enemy camp in Book 9 (Met Museum). 


Modern. This week I’ve been thinking about how difficult it can be to be open about what you really like. I was listening to Monday’s episode of What a Cartoon, which is done by the Talking Simpsons hosts, Henry Gilbert and Bob Mackey (I’ve written about them before, and surely will again). This week they were talking about the Pokémon anime (Japan 1997; US 1998). Both of the hosts spoke with their guest, Kat Bailey, about the fact that they felt pressure to hide their interest in it, despite the fact that it was deeply attractive to them and deeply resonant. There are a number of reasons why you might feel the need to hide your interest in something benign. We do want to connect, of course, but openness of this kind is a vulnerable thing. And it’s not just about the popularity contest. When I think back to times when I kept my interests to myself, I can pinpoint a dread which stems from middle class anxiety. For a long time, part of me truly could not embrace pop culture publicly, as much as I wanted to, because I felt that I was supposed to be interested, or appear to be interested, in something else. It’s certainly connected to my profession; in some of the academic environments I’ve found myself in, there has been a performative preference for the high brow. But it didn’t originate there for me. Education more broadly has historically expressed itself as the individual’s ability to make the correct series of references to correct audiences. The peer pressure which arises from a common consciousness can be enough to make you want to hide the parts of your interest that do not fit into the contemporary cultural lexicon.

In this context, I find myself, again, having some praise for the internet, despite its current and growing toxicity. Early on, it gave me an outlet and a community for my (probably bad) creative writing on message boards. The mainstream acceptance of quote unquote nerd culture could be explained by the fact that those who developed secret ways to find their people back in the nascent years of the internet over time set the stage for the embrace of once niche interests by the general public. (The cynical commodification of our desires and childhood nostalgia also has a role to play here.) While my twitter account is primarily geared towards an audience expecting Classics content, these days I tweet almost as much about the “bad” tv I watch, Adam Driver, or video games.

I’m beginning very slowly to operate by the principle that even if I know the thing I like is not actually that good, it’s okay for me to like it, and to admit that that’s the case. I’m beginning to regret not giving some things a chance just because I thought I was supposed not to like them. If some cultural artefact resonates with you, the draw is magnetic. The feeling of being pulled in a certain direction without knowing exactly why is the same divining rod that I use for my scholarly life. I’m drawn to certain texts for my research because something about them resonates with me; I read some ancient authors instead of others because I’m more interested in how they do what they do. Resisting that magnetic pull based on the expectation of imagined rejection is an extra mental block which none of us needs. 


Excerpt. Adrienne Maree Brown 2019: 11: “I believe in transformative justice — that rather than punishing people for surface-level behaviour, or restoring conditions to where they were before the harm happened, we need to find the roots of the harm, together, and make the harm impossible in the future. I believe that the roots of most harm are systemic, and we must be willing to disrupt vicious systems that have been normalized. I believe that we are at the beginning of learning how to really practice transformative justice in this iteration of species and society. There is ancient practice, and there will need to be future practices we can’t yet foresee. But I believe that with time it must be an incredible pleasure to be able to be honest, expect to be whole, and to know that we are in a community that will hold us accountable and change with us.”

Daily Life. I received two sets of flowers for the first time in my life!