The Gothicness of Black America: Liberal Studies Alumna Leila Taylor on Her First Book

A library after closing hours can be a mysterious place — making it a great location to talk with Leila Taylor about her first book, Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul (Repeater, 2019). From a bench in the children’s section of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), Taylor, a 2018 Liberal Studies MA alumna and BPL’s creative director, explores the history of Afrogoth, the visceral horror and inherent gothicness of Black America, and her own history in the Goth scene.

Taylor’s personal relationship with Goth culture is critical to the development of the book. “I didn’t really intend to write about myself as much as I did,” she says. “I was intending it to be much more of a historical and cultural text, but I found that it was hard to talk about the subject matter without talking about myself. When I realized that so much of my own personal story was directly related to these larger historical issues and larger cultural issues, all of these genres mushed together made sense.” 

In Darkly, Taylor writes, “I suppose I would fall into the Traditional goth category or (god forbid) Elder Goth.” Growing up as a self-proclaimed Goth kid in Detroit, Taylor threw herself into the music of the 80’s goth rock. She recalls buying Siouxsie and the Banshees albums and hanging a Joy Division poster on her bedroom wall. As an adult, she reclaimed this inner angsty teen by going to events hosted by Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy, which produces events on ‘art and medicine, death and culture’.

Decolonizing Goth

Through these experiences, Taylor felt the whiteness in Goth spaces. She was often the only Black person at the events and concerts, and she started to ask herself why. “When I started this project, I was really looking at what it was like being a Black person in the Goth scene and to be the only person in the room and all that entails,” she said. “I made an effort to go looking for people who shared this experience.”

Taylor found a good starting point in the Afropunk scene. “That was my gateway into all this,” she laughs. The documentary Afro-Punk (2003) examines Black people in the overwhelmingly white punk scene, and is also the name of a movement that has blossomed into journalism, fashion, and a music festival. 

Taylor looks at Afrogoth as a twist on Afropunk. “Afrogothic is a similar  Black-centric perspective of the gothic. Some people think of it as the subculture of people who dress in black and wearing too much eyeliner, but for me, it’s closer to a way of looking at a genre through an Afrocentric, decolonized lens.” 

What Taylor found is that the experiences of Black people in the scene didn’t have anything to do with them being Goth, but rather, the lived experience of being Black in America — applicable in any field in which people of color are not considered, marginalized, or taken for granted.

“I realized there really wasn’t any difference between Black Goths and everybody else. The only difference was that they were Black,” Taylor said. “It really stopped becoming about Goth as a subculture, but the gothicness of Blackness and how blackness itself is a gothic experience.” Darkly asks, “If the gothic narrative is metabolized fear, if the Goth aesthetic is romanticized melancholy, what does that look and sound like in Black America?” Taylor contrasts this question of the “aesthetic of horror” with the real visceral horror that defines the history of race in America for many. Part memoir, part historical context, and part cultural criticism, the book analyzes the ways Goth embodies race relations in the U.S. in the twenty-first century. The skeletons in the closet are the persistence of white supremacy and the ghosts of slavery, and the haunted grounds are the ubiquity of Black death and its mourning. This ghastly undercurrent of fear and grief moves throughout Darkly, but there is still a joy in Taylor’s writing, a reclamation in processing this trauma. 

The Horror of Working, Writing, and Studying

While Darkly was published in 2019, the idea of the book has motivated Taylor for years, even before she started her Master’s in Liberal Studies at The New School for Social Research. “I knew I wanted to do it, but I had no idea what I was doing,” she said. “I had it in my head the entire time. I was writing short essays here and there of cultural theory stuff and not getting published and realizing that I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

Taylor began to take note of faculty members who could help shape her writing and processes. “I was taking classes with the people that were writing the kind of things that I like to write and the kind of style that I like to write, so having those people as a sort of a regular weekly influence was helpful,” she says, citing Dominic Pettman, Professor of Culture and Media, and Eugene Thacker, Professor of Media Studies as influential mentors. 

In addition to studying part-time at NSSR, Taylor was working full-time at BPL. When asked when she found time to work on the book, she replied “Every moment! It was before work, sometimes during work, after work, and on the weekends,” she said. “It was a lot. It was really rough, but basically any free time was when I did it. The one thing, working for the library — it was incredibly supportive. Also if I ever needed a book source it’s right there.” Working as a designer also helped her develop her creative problem-solving skills and her research process. “Part of the creative process is trying to do something that no one else has done before, something unique that is expressive of yourself and communicating a larger idea. This all goes back to the idea of sending a message,” Taylor explains.

Research Matters asked Taylor if she had any advice for writers who are full-time students, like many Liberal Studies and Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism students, or have unrelated full-time jobs. “Give yourself a break,” she says. “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t write a day, because you’ll go crazy. Don’t think about what you think other people want to read or what you think will get published or what you think is going to sell. You have to do what you want to do, as long as you can, and as much as you can.”

The Future of Afrogoth

Looking to the future of Afrogoth, Taylor says that the movement is happening right now and there’s only more to come. Taylor emphasizes that there is an abundance of work on the history of Black people of horror films. She recommends the Shudder documentary Horror Noire as particularly great viewing. “There’s a lot more scholarship about [Afrogoth] and work being done creatively in the mainstream giving it a bigger voice,” she says. Films like Tales from the Hood and the more recent works of director Jordan Peele are using horror to express the Black experience and the day-to-day terror Black people continue to experience. The success of Peel’s Get Out has amplified his messages to much wider audiences.  

“It’s not only Black people,” she says as she excitedly references newer horrors like HBO’s Los Espookys, featuring New School alum Julio Torres, and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, called “the first Iranian vampire Western.” “Any kind of opportunity for different faces and different voices is good. I think it’s only going to get better.”

McKenzie Wark on Capital, Capitalism, and Expanding Our Language

Our data is everywhere. From Facebook likes to online personality quizzes, our internet clicks leave an ongoing record of our personalities, our preferences, and our habits.

This information is the new currency of the 21st century. Our very sociability has been commodified, and those who own and control our data form a new ruling class, argues McKenzie Wark, Professor of Culture and Media, in her latest book, Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? “If the information is not being sold to you, then it is you who are being sold,” she says.

A follow-up to A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press, 2004), Capital Is Dead draws on Wark’s past work, the work of contemporary theorists, and the writing of the Situationists to explore the information age. Wark poses the questions: What if this era cannot be defined by capitalism anymore — and what if it’s something worse? Research Matters sat down with Wark to discuss her latest book and the process behind developing her new theory. 

Wark’s main argument is this: The new ruling class uses our information against us to deter labor and social movements, thereby changing the way we must look at traditional leftist ideas around capital. 

The book opens with a quote from writer Kathy Acker, a friend and collaborator of Wark’s and the focus of both a class she teaches and an upcoming NSSR seminar she’ll lead: “Post-capitalists’ general strategy right now is to render language (all that which signifies) abstract therefore easily manipulable.” With capitalism is no longer an efficient descriptor for today’s chain of production, Wark explains that failure to innovate new language may be a major part of the problem. “It struck me that a phrase like neoliberal capitalism is just incredibly bad poetry,” she says. “You just shove a modifier on something that you then don’t think about the thing you’re modifying, the modifier has a modifier. That’s not a thought to me.” Additionally, a new form of class relation has arisen in response to this data commodification, one that cannot be contained by terms such as “capitalist” and “worker.”

Creating a New Vocabulary

Instead, Capital is Dead provides a new descriptive language to better navigate this flow and ownership of information and properly analyze a new world of data. Wark gives us the terms “vectoralist class,” those who own not only the flow of information, but the “legal and technical protocols for making otherwise abundant information scarce,” as well as “hacker class,” the vast majority who are producing new information. She urges us to see “a common class interest in all kinds of information making, whether in the sciences, technology, media, culture, or art. What we all have in common is producing new information but not owning the means to realize its value. ” While not exactly the same as labor, Wark notes from Marx’s writings that “there are always many subordinate classes….modes of production are multiple and overlapping.” As expected in a book about capital, discussions of class, production, commodities, and struggle wind their way through the text, but with considerations and redefinitions for how those forms are changing or are no longer applicable.

Wark also addresses science and the challenges of the current Anthropocene era, weaving through theorists from Joseph Neeham to Jean-Paul Sartre to make connections between natural and social history, and how the hacker class might look to the former for new models of organization.

Building on her wealth of celebrated prior research, articles for the intellectual commons Public Seminar, and other published writings, Wark says this latest thought experiment is ”summing up or maybe concluding things that I have been working on for a long time.” She also shares that writing practice was a major part of her research process to produce this thought experiment. 

“I’m a writer,” she says “Media studies is my discipline, but that was a bit accidental. So what I practice is writing and how we understand, in this case, Marx and the various people in the conceptual space of Marx as writers, and how did they invent or create new languages that cut across the assumptions of the times.”

Collaborating for Learning and for Survival

One of the more challenging parts in Wark’s theory is accepting how little is actually known about this new controlling vectoralist class. Rather than assuming they can be analyzed in the same way as capitalists, she makes the case for starting over with the critique strategies and looking for a way out.

Wark emphasizes that these questions raised in Capital is Dead can only be answered together, working across disciplines and fields. “Humanities and the social sciences really do need to think about what a collaborative production of knowledge looks like,” she says. “What are collaborative practices of knowledge that reach outside of disciplinary assumptions and cultural habits?”

These questions help guide the courses Wark creates and teaches at NSSR and at Eugene Lang College. Drawing largely on the work of other writers and theorists, she aims to share with her students knowledge and work practices that enable them to survive in this political economy,  “It’s about living,” she says of both studying and surviving in the current political economy of knowledge.

During the 2019-2020 year, Wark is teaching courses at NSSR and at The New School’s Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in which she does just that, with a particular focus on trans issues. In “Trans Theory as Gender Theory”, a Spring 2020 course in NSSR’s Department of Liberal Studies, Wark and her students will work together on constructing alternate pathways into the research on gender and sexuality. Much like in Capital Is Dead, Wark also hopes the class will develop new concepts for trans literature, art, and media that don’t fit neatly into existing theoretical categories.

Pushing those boundaries is essential to Wark’s work, but she’s not always met with positive response. The introduction to Capital is Dead offers a range of reactions from scholars and activists to her work ⁠— as well as Wark’s dry, hilarious responses. “They’re a lot of Marxists who think like cops and that’s just boring,” Wark laughs.

Living After Capitalism

So if this isn’t capitalism and we’re still not quite sure of what it is, is there a way out of it? Wark is wary of treading into false hope for the future. In A Hacker Manifesto, Wark saw a path to reclaim the commodification of information — a battle she now deems as lost. 

“A moment of defeat is useful to acknowledge and retreat and try to secure any basis at all of non-commodified social life,” she says. “There is a very narrow possibility of surviving this century.” Wark is critical of false optimism that accompanies some “allegedly leftist theory.” To her, an accurate assessment of the social and political climate is critical for any shred of hope in radically changing it. “It’s all a bit bleak,” she says. 

However, as Wark writes, “This was in the end a defeated movement, but that is no reason to pretend that it didn’t exist. Rather, there’s work to be done to narrate and analyze the struggles of that time and those that continue as relatively novel expressions of what kinds of worlds are possible in and against the forces of production of these times.”

Researching Subcultures, Inc.

Gregory Snyder is a PhD alumnus of the Department of Sociology and received his MA in Liberal Studies at The New School for Social Research. He is currently a Professor at Baruch College, where he dedicates his research to the scholarly study of subcultures. His book Skateboarding LA: Inside Professional Street Skateboarding will be published this December by New York University Press.

And he was also a clue on Jeopardy!

Snyder was born on a U.S. military base in Germany and grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Drawn by the interdisciplinary nature of NSSR’s Liberal Studies program, as well as the chance to live in New York City, Snyder enrolled at the New School for Social Research in 1992. Following the completion of his MA thesis, he was accepted to the PhD Program in Sociology at the NSSR.

Snyder remembers with fondness the New York City of the 90’s, a time when graffiti art was at its apogee and the Wu Tang Clan was ascendant. Despite having conducted research in the sociology of religion, Snyder had a “conversion” moment that altered his scholarly trajectory. While riding his bicycle across the Williamsburg Bridge to meet his dissertation advisor, Snyder was struck by a beautiful bit of graffiti. Dwelling on the art and reflecting on the dearth of scholarly engagement with graffiti, Snyder made a decision.

“By the time I arrived at the meeting,” he said, “I told my advisor: I’ve got to write about graffiti.”

Snyder had little idea of how to go about formally studying graffiti culture. “I started researching graffiti before I knew about subculture theory,” he said. He immersed himself in a growing milieu by interviewing artists, winning access to the painting process, and eventually producing some of his own work. Combining an amateur’s fascination with scholarly ethnographic practice, Snyder began to hang out regularly with some of the most prominent graffiti artists in the city. Given the importance of passion and motivation to his dissertation, Snyder’s advisor lent his support to the project of developing a sophisticated scholarly understanding of what was—in the mind of many—a crude form of vandalism.

At the time he was first studying it, graffiti had a reputation as more of an urban nuisance than a valuable object of study. “Combating simple binaries is really important,” Snyder suggested. For him, scholarship attains its value precisely acts that complicate—thereby weakening—binary ways of thinking, while at the same time exposing nuance and compelling gray areas. “When things are contradictory, there tends to be beauty involved,” he said. Such was the case with the underground culture of graffiti artists. “To me,” he continued, “graffiti was high art vandalism […] I liked my art vandalistic and my vandalism artistic.”

But what counts as a subculture, and how do sociologists and other social scientists go about studying them? Snyder explained that, in the more than twenty years since he first began studying graffiti, a new subfield has emerged to address precisely these issues, while codifying methods for researching and understanding subcultures. He said that subcultural groups, “are sophisticated enough to self-identify.” So despite the scholarly debate about what really counts as a subculture, he relies on self-identification. When a group describes itself as a subculture, Snyder suggests that we should take them at their word.

The subfield of subculture studies was originally developed at the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England. More informally known as “the Birmingham School,” the Center pioneered cultural studies methodologies for understanding subcultures. The young scholars that made up the Birmingham school argued that working class subcultures, like Mods and Punks, were evidence of symbolic resistance to the mainstream consumption imperative of capitalism. They argued however that this resistance was fleeting, it was merely symbolic and did not alter the lives of working class kids, because there were in fact no subculture careers. It is on this final point that Snyder takes issue, and having spent years studying subcultures that have become self-sustaining, he argued that graffiti writers and skateboarders do indeed create subculture careers. While this brings up issues of co-optation, he shows that despite this economic incentive, skaters, writers and a host of other subcultures, profit from their activity while still self-identifying as members of a subcultures.

Snyder’s claim is precisely that, pressing back against this thought, subcultures can take on lives of their own that replicate the mainstream, and can even become a part of it while retaining their distinctive “subcultural” quality. Graffiti and skateboarding thus become ways of showing that subcultures can indeed become careers; indeed, they are industries, and nonetheless retain their subcultural status. In this way, Snyder seeks to contest some of the most influential theoretical approaches to understanding subcultures. In order to understand why the Birmingham framework may have missed the mark, Snyder argues that it is necessary to go to the subcultures themselves, and spend time with the people who participate and make them grow.

Reflecting on the theory and practice of studying subcultures, Snyder said: “When I committed to ethnography, I committed to graffiti.” However, graffiti was not his endpoint. Following his initial research on graffiti, which resulted in the book Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground, Snyder set his eyes on another emergent subculture: skateboarding.

He was inadvertently immersed in the skateboarding crowd through his brother, professional skateboarder Aaron Snyder. Relating skateboarding to his previous studies in graffiti, Snyder said, “Both practices are misunderstood, and conventional wisdom is that they’re dumb or deviant, which makes them sociologically interesting.” Snyder has long been interested in the way that graffiti artists and skateboarders professionalized and monetized their alleged deviance (skateboarding was, for a time, illegal in many places in the United States) in order to form legitimate industries and find ways to make a living.

“Skateboarders are very deft at recording and distributing their work along industry lines,” he explained. He added that, just like the graffiti artists of the previous generation, skateboarders demonstrate a great amount of “creativity, athleticism, and competition” among themselves. The work of both subcultures is marked by “artistry and dexterity” that has challenged the negative associations and characterizations of their early days. This has allowed them to scale, and, in a way, gain acceptance within the mainstream, even while retaining their spirit of rebellion and irreverence.

In this sense, Snyder tells me, “subcultures produce their own contexts.” More importantly, Snyder argues that the maturation graffiti artists and skateboarders, as well as their ability to promote their work commercially, “indicates a blind spot in how people have thought about subcultures.” We continue to miss the value of subcultures as they emerge, and are belated to accepting the value that they create. This is as true today, despite the increase in books and articles on the subject, as it was when Snyder first had his epiphany about graffiti on the Williamsburg Bridge.

In his research, Snyder develops the theoretical and ethnographic tools to help guard against a tendency to miss the full breadth of creativity, know-how, and gradual development of a variety of subcultures. Armed with his insights, we are better equipped to appreciate the richness of these tendencies, which stand apart from our culture, but which can also teach us so much about it.

Liberal Studies Publications: 2015

Faculty in Liberal Studies shared thoughts about their recent work.

Dominic Pettman

Dominic Pettman, Chair of Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research and Professor of Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College, recently published the book Infinite Distraction (Polity Press, 2015). Pettman shared thoughts about this project (excerpted from the book’s preface):

“This book began its life as a humble Facebook update. In terms of media ecology and technological evolution, this is a bit like starting with a bird and ending up with a dinosaur. Despite being a Professor of Culture and Media – that is, a professional skeptic of technological promises and practices – I certainly surrender an inordinate amount of my time interacting online in social media spaces. For fellow critic Jonathan Crary, this is no doubt in part because I – like everyone else – am obliged to submit to ‘mandatory techniques of digital personalization and self-administration.’ But I would be lying if I pretended that mediated socialization doesn’t bring me many micro-pleasures, along with generous infusions of exasperation, boredom, and spleen. Moreover, I would have trouble denying the fact that for every intellectual observation I post or link to, I upload several more frivolous or trivial info-morsels, designed more to distract than instruct or edify. If accused of wasting time or procrastinating, I can certainly use my job as an alibi. ‘Know your enemy.’ But the truth is that having a critical-theoretical perspective on something does not necessarily make you immune to it. An intellectual understanding of a problem does not prevent an affective investment in the same (as we all know, from our romantic histories, as much as our credit card receipts).

In short, this book explores some of the more troubling effects of what we might call ‘the digitalization of distraction,’ along with its luminous shadow: attention. It therefore touches upon some of the specific technological, cultural, social, and political constellations which solicit these two intimately connected phenomena.”

Other publications include the books Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology (Zero Books, 2013), In Divisible Cities (Punctum Books, 2013), and Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines (University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

Choose a publication below to learn more.


Bio | Pettman is Professor of Culture and Media and Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs at Eugene Lang College, and Chair of Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research. He received his PhD from the University of Melbourne. Pettman His work explores topics ranging from digital culture, new media, modern literature, visual culture, audio culture, popular and unpopular cultures, affect theory, libidinal economies, and the increasingly blurry boundaries between humans, animals, and machines.


Continue reading “Liberal Studies Publications: 2015”