Review of M Archive: After the End of the World
Alexis Pauline Gumbs. M Archive: After the End of the World. Durham, North Carolina: Duke UP, 2018. Paperback, 248 pg. $24.95, ISBN 978-0822370840.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s M Archive is the second installment in a planned trilogy that explores a speculative future landscape, ravaged by the effects of late capitalism, environmental devastation, and the exploitation of black and brown bodies. In the introduction, Gumbs credits M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing (2006) as a literary ancestor to M Archive. For Gumbs, the “M” in M Archive has a multitude of meanings—including magic, muscles, memory, and importantly, more. She describes her text as a “speculative documentary” (xi)—an inventive literary form that she imagines could be written by future survivors, who are witnesses to “the realities we are making possible or impossible with our present apocalypse” (xi). Fundamentally, Gumbs’s work is concerned with “black life, black feminist metaphysics, and the theoretical imperative of attending to Black bodies in a way that doesn’t seek to prove that Black people are human” (xi). In other words, Gumbs uses speculative documentary as a space in which to trace the possible impact of humanity’s exploitative labor and environmental policies, which rely on the subjugation of black and brown bodies—especially women of color—in order to create profits for others.
Just as Gumbs pays homage to Pedagogies of Crossing, she also references several other key intersectional feminists and scholars of color over the course of her narrative. Writing in lower case text, she resists the linguistic conventions one typically associates with scholarly works of theory. Instead, she subtly references her foremothers, such as bell hooks, who shift the standard linguistic paradigm to create new ways to engage with theory and praxis. The result is a text that is an intriguing mix of stream of consciousness, poetry, speculative fiction, and black feminist theory.
Furthermore, each section begins with a selection of the Periodic Table of Elements, in which Gumbs highlights different elements that set the tone for that portion of the text. Told from the perspective of a futuristic researcher, Gumbs’s text invites the reader to sift through layers of detritus to uncover the cultural artifacts below, in order to understand the harm that humanity has caused to itself and the planet as a whole. She breaks her book up into the Archive of Dirt, Archive of Sky, Archive of Fire, Archive of Ocean, and Baskets (Possible Futures Yet to be Woven). Each section then explores the cause and effect of the environmental catastrophe that Gumbs imagines ruined the planet and forced the surviving members of humanity to adapt and live underground to escape from the toxins on the surface of the planet after the ozone layer had been destroyed.
In Archive of Dirt, the speaker begins with a description of the capitalistic greed and disregard for other living beings that caused her ancestors (us) to treat everything as though it were expendable. Gumbs’s words pack a punch, leaving the reader with reverberating images of the body as containers for waste— “simply put, every piece of the planet was filled with trash. Our minds notwithstanding. Our bodies included”. (46) From there, she delves into the painful and traumatic process by which humanity had to give up the old ways of being in order to adapt to the harsh landscape in the post-apocalyptic future. The speaker discovers that in order to survive, humanity must become one with the Earth—both by reestablishing our connection to the planet that sustains us and by moving underground. In Archive of Ocean, Gumbs makes a powerful connection between science and spiritualism, reminding the reader that water is “the place where evolutionists and creationists agree that life began, the source of all the salt we breathed to get here, lives with us”. (11) Gumbs continues to advocate convincingly for the need for a belief in both science and the soul over the course of the text, ultimately showing the reader that humanity can survive only if it attends to both.
Finally, in Baskets, Gumbs further speculates on the limitations and possibilities that could define humanity. She rejects an individualistic way of thinking and encourages readers to think of themselves as part of a larger system. Yet, she cautions that any feeling of universalism must not overshadow the dark history of human exploitation (exemplified by the slave trade) or the need for intersectional thinking when describing the experiences of people of color. As Gumbs writes, “there did come a time when the species was united on the planet as human, but it was not what anyone had dreamt. And it was too late to truly benefit those of us who had been called alien. We who had nonconsensually generated the human across time” (171). In other words, universalism could potentially be just as problematic as individualism, if it erases the identities and hardships faced by cultural “others”.
Overall, I believe this text will be of particular interest to scholars and readers who appreciate literary forms that meld poetry and theory, such as Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back (1981) and (Gumbs’ earlier work) Revolutionary Mothering (2016). However, I would not recommend it as a primer into intersectionality or black feminist thought, as Gumbs takes for granted the readers’ familiarity with her many references to feminist concepts and black feminist writers, including bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Octavia Butler, among others. In doing so, Gumbs shifts the onus onto the reader—to study foundational black feminist scholars and practitioners, and to learn from their theories, in order to avoid the future that M Archive uncovers.