Katherine McKittrick, Dear Science and Other Stories. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021. 240 pages. ISBN: 9781478011040. £18.99. Paperback.
Reviewed by Lena Wånggren.
Dear Science and Other Stories by Katherine McKittrick is a one-of-a-kind, theoretical-practical-creative work that promises to intrigue, inspire, and question the reader, urging them toward new relational ways of thinking and living. It is a wonderful book, which encourages the reader to step out of their comfort zone and to explore interdisciplinary and cross- theory-making and art, in and through Black creativity and ‘livingness’, storytelling, and ways of knowing.
While the project behind Dear Science initially started as a twofold examination of race in feminist science and technology studies, along with Black feminism’s engagement with science, the book centres Black creative works (the work of poets, musicians, visual artists) and interrogates how they engage with science and its biases. It is an interdisciplinary work situated within, between, and beyond Black studies, science and technology studies, gender studies, literary studies and the humanities. Dear Science is an art-work itself. The book’s title is taken from the final chapter (a kind of afterword), in which the author directly addresses ‘Science’ and points to a way forward. Noting that she’s written earlier without receiving a reply, McKittrick states: ‘To be black is to live through scientific racism and, at the same time, reinvent the terms and stakes of knowledge’; it is ‘to recognize and enervate the fictive perimeters of you, Science, and notice […] the conditions to concoct a different story altogether’ (186). Through interdisciplinary, relational and creative work, the book argues, Black scholars and artists create new engagements with scientific concepts and world-making outside of white supremacy.
The book is structured into different ‘stories’ (chapters), all named after creative and theoretical works by Black artists. Through an interdisciplinary academic-poetic form, the different stories (chapters) of the book provide ways to understand and explore knowledge-making, bias, resistance, representation, and creative work in a multifaceted celebration of Black creativity, with the textual stories interrupted half-way through the book by images and photographs. The introductory text ‘Curiosities (My Heart Makes My Head Swim)’ frames the book through a discussion of storytelling as being crucial to life, work, and ways of knowing: ‘Telling, sharing, listening to, and hearing stories are relational and interdisciplinary acts that are animated by all sorts of people, places, narrative devices, theoretical queries, plots’ (6). Sharing ideas and stories, McKittrick argues, is a collaborative way to engender struggle; it is the ‘rebellious methodological work of sharing ideas in an unkind world’ (7). This idea of sharing is explored further in the later chapter-story on citations, which notes the political work of citation practices but even more so emphasises the need for collective work, dialogue and relationality; of sharing not only the end product but the process of our work. ‘Curiosities’ further notes that theory itself is a form of storytelling, gesturing toward a later story-chapter in which McKittrick blurs the boundaries between theory and creative work, urging us to read creative texts as theoretical texts. Later chapter-stories examine themes such as racist bias in biocentric science and knowledge systems, consciousness, Black liberation as a site of possibility, the importance of place, racist algorithms, representations of violence, music as rebellion, and diaspora. McKittrick centres interdisciplinary and Black creative work throughout these varied but interlinked discussions, which are informed specifically by three Black theorists and creatives: Franz Fanon, Édouard Glissant, and Sylvia Wynter.
An especially powerful story toward the end of the book is ‘Zong (Bad Made Measure)’, in which McKittrick through historical, theoretical and poetic notes explores ‘how we think about, study, and theorize racial violence’ (127) without repeating that violence (and the racist systems that are part of and behind it) through description. Framed by a reading of Black feminist interventions into science studies, the story engages with the historical massacre on board the slave ship Zong, and the work of Black theorists/creatives, specifically NourbeSe Philip’s long poem Zong! In this poetic and complex story, McKittrick envisages a possibility for creative work to open up new forms of resistance and systems of knowledge, in which ‘the brutalities of racial violence are not descriptively rehearsed but always demanding and participating in practical activities of resistance and encounter, disobedient inquiries, wonder, and anticolonial thinking’ (150). Some Black creative works, she writes, ‘allow us to see into the future’ (148), where forms of freedoms and resistances not yet articulated can exist through the past. It is a difficult chapter to read, but also a celebratory one, which I very much recommend to anyone teaching, writing about, or living with, texts or images of racial violence.
Having at first struggled with the (to me) complex academic-poetic form of Dear Science, after only a few chapters, I started recommending the book to practitioners, scholars, and educators, including a museum curator attempting to decolonise institutions, and a humanities colleague working on bias in science and medicine. I will keep recommending the book, not just for the strengths described above, but for the joy and occasional difficulty I experienced when reading it. Any reader interested in Black studies, knowledge production, feminism, decolonial work, representation, intersectional biases in science, philosophy, and (especially Black) writing, art and music, will be much rewarded.
Keywords: Black studies, creativity, science bias, diaspora, Sylvia Wynter
Bio: Lena Wånggren is a researcher and teacher in English Literature at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. She works on gender and nineteenth-century literature, literature and science/medicine, feminism and social justice.