This article will suggest a possible take on the notion of ‘post-race’ by looking at the relation between race and new media as it is delineated in the theoretical and aesthetical productions of Afrofuturism – a conceptual area developed at the intersection between afrodiasporic cultures, technology and science-fiction.
In the first section of this essay, I will return to the moment of theoretical articulation of Afrofuturism as a cultural movement between 1992 and 1998, in the context of the critical debates on non/essentialism and the emergence of cybercultures. Here I will stress the double character of Afrofuturism as cultural resistance to racism and a way to articulate alternative racial futures. In particular, I will show how some figurations of ‘racial mutation’ in Afrofuturism address race in ways that recall the theoretical debates concerning ‘post-humanism’, ‘post-identity’ and ‘post-black’. In fact, I will be asking whether afrofuturist explorations of the condition of being ‘alien’ as a transformative potentiality through technology offer a specific afrofuturist take on the sense of becoming ‘post-race’.
The second part of the essay will investigate a particular strain of Afrofuturism: its British version as unfolded in the works of Kodwo Eshun at the Warwick University’s Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) (1997-1998),and by Steve Goodman (2010). I will focus on how these works – by intermixing cybernetics and philosophy – have displaced the preoccupations concerning ‘discourse’, ‘meanings’ and ‘representations’ linked to the (sub)cultural aspect of Afrofuturism, in favour of a ‘micropolitical’ approach to black culture. In particular, I will address this passage by focusing on the main area of experimentation of this strain of Afrofuturism – music. The focus will be on the relation between the microphysical level of music and its micropolitical implications, which means the sound and its appeal to the body at the level of its pre-personal affects. I will interrogate here the ambivalent position of this strain of Afrofuturism in relation to the articulation of the question of race. What becomes of this question when meanings and representations are considered to be secondary side-effects of wider affective processes? Is such a perspective complicit of a dangerous denial or disavowal of the necessity to articulate political demands about race – something even more dangerous in the neoliberal times we face, as its detractors have often mentioned? Or could we find in this British version of Afrofuturism a conception of race so ‘molecularized’ and ‘abstract’ as to allow another modality of politics at its ‘degree zero’ to emerge, in the form of a sensory/sensual politics of ‘abduction’, ‘possession’ and ‘contagion’ which stresses the non-linear causality and the processes of retroaction between technological advancements and socio-cultural phenomena?
In the concluding remarks, the article will hint at this second possibility, trying to put forward a series of propositions about how the tension between the counter-cultural aspect of Afrofuturism and its micropolitical and affective version could be rendered critically productive.
Theoretical Recalls: Afrofuturism 1992-1998
“I’m not human.”
“The ships landed long ago.”
“[Afrofuturism should be] unblack unpopular uncultural.”
It was with a question that the trigger was pulled: “Why do so few African-Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other – the strange in a strange land – would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists?” A provocative question, indeed – which immediately smacks the readers of Mark Dery’s 1993 essay “Black to the Future” with the uncanny equivalence central to that cultural sensibility Dery himself will call ‘Afrofuturism’: that between a ‘slave ship’ and a ‘space ship’.
In fact, the opening question evokes the spectre of a second and more subtle interrogation: ‘How could it go unnoticed that all of what has been relegated to the science-fictional imaginary has in fact already happened to a whole culture?’
African-Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movement; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies (branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, and tasers come readily to mind).
Through these two questions – both pointing towards the delineation of a zone of convergence between black people and the non-human creatures of science-fiction – Dery renders immediately effective the potential of this conceptual overlap to induce an embarrassing short-circuit into the reassuring ‘normality’ of white (hegemonic) culture. From this, he sets forth to excavate and unpack the hidden traces of future imaginaries and technological speculations disseminated in black culture, to break open a critical interval in the ‘master narratives’ which have been immobilizing and relegating black cultures to ‘prehistory’ on a supposedly linear and progressive sequence of time. Further, the recuperation of the traces of a long tradition of anti-humanism in black culture also complicates the stable frame of ‘the human’ as interpellative and performative function.
Firstly defined as “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture – and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology,” Afrofuturism can therefore easily be ascribed to the number of counter-cultural practices that work as weapons to contest the racist “appetite for sameness and symmetry”. More specifically, the afrofuturist idea that, since the arrival of the first ‘space ship’ (i .e. since the Atlantic Trade) no one on ‘Planet Earth’ can be considered as human anymore, but is rather a singular mutation of a still ongoing process of contact and transformation between species, inserts this cultural movement straight into the number of attempts aiming not just for a displacement of blackness as a homogeneous discursive construct, but also for a dynamic understanding of blackness which would challenge the ‘essentialism/ non-essentialism’ binary division within late Eighties’ cultural theory. Indeed, as in Gilroy’s 1993 The Black Atlantic – a text championing the idea of an anti-antiessentialist, diasporic stance – also in the sci-fictional imaginary of Afrofuturism, modernity’s teleological visions come to be exposed, and exploded, by positing slavery (the ‘alien abduction’) as the founding moment of modernity, and the motion of ships (‘space ships’) as the trope to confute any supposed ‘authenticity’ of black culture.
But how are these imaginaries specifically addressed in Afrofuturism through technology? In which specific ways does the use of new media inflect these reflections on the afrodiasporic cultures? And in what sense could this afrofuturist aesthetics be said to point towards what I would define a becoming ‘post-race’? I will try and suggest an answer to these questions first of all by mobilizing the concepts of unrepresentability, ‘opacity’, and ‘post-black art’.
As underlined by Kodwo Eshun, “the human-machine interface became both the condition and the subject of Afrofuturism.” This remark addresses in a very clear way that the counter-cultural character of Afrofuturism cannot be separated from its context, which is that of the emergence of the cultural formation of Cyberculture and the perspective of New Media. With its conceptual milieus, Afrofuturism shares the preoccupations on the issues of the biotechnological mutations of bodies and spaces in the age of the proliferation of information technology devices marked by interactivity and heterogeneity. In this sense, it participates also in the wider postmodern debate on ‘post-human’ and ‘post-identity’, partaking in the erosion of the line separating human and nonhuman, nature and culture, and in the displacement of the human as the only depository of agency, in favour of a networked dynamics of interaction between humans and the non-human.As a radical cybercultural phenomenon, Afrofuturism engages with these issues more characteristically from the point of view of the implications they have on the question of race.
A classical cybercultural trope which might help address this point is that of the ‘cyborg’, as outlined in the 1985 “Cyborg Manifesto” by Donna Haraway. A figuration proposed as a way to provide new situated conceptual maps to articulate the questions of ‘race’, ‘class’ and ‘gender’ in the age of the passage from industrial to post-industrial society, the cyborg stands out – in the face of the recombinant processes that translate racism and colonialism into the systemic architecture of the informatics of domain – as the figuration of an alternate possibility to think ‘life’ in the age of late capitalism and contest ‘essences’ through material-semiotic ‘noise’ and ‘pollution’.
The increasingly capillary diffusion of digital technologies, starting from the late 1980s – especially in the musical productions of the urban peripheries, where samplers and synthesizers became distinctive features of the sounds infiltrating from the peripheries into the global routes of music, and walkmans and portable radios became the vehicles of transmission and diffusion of these sounds – allows for a double appropriation of the figuration of the cyborg in Afrofuturism, able to address the specific relation between race and new media in this cultural movement. In fact, apart from a meaningful appropriation of the image of the cyborg as the perfect epitome to trans-valuate in the present and the future the suspicious concept of ‘the human’ – always so controversial for afrodiasporic cultures, as underlined above – Afrofuturism also testifies to a concrete and material engagement with technologies that comes to mutate what one takes ‘race’ to be. Scrambling the possibility of associating cultural products with a certain racial ‘identity’ (not even a ‘hybrid’ one), it seeks to open the space of cultural production on to an indefinite zone of creativity that exceeds the interplay of meanings and representations.
Again, Afrofuturist music gives the sense of this process in a very strong way:
[t]he emergent digital technology began to scramble the ability to assign identity and thereby racialize music. Familiar processes of racial recognition were becoming unreliable. Listeners could no longer assume musicians were racially identical to their samples.
Indeed, at the beginning of the Nineties, techno and house music – coming respectively from the post-industrial cities of Detroit and Chicago – and the disquieting British drum ‘n’ bass have already (pre)absorbed the counter-cultural speculations on the synthetic character of urban rhythms that will be the core of culturalist writings from the middle-Nineties on. Cyborg fantasies of techno pioneers Underground Resistance already testify to the potentiality of science-fictional imaginaries to revert the implications of the status of ‘non-human’ creatures attached by racism to black people, and to creatively address the recombinant character of blackness.
However, at the same time, these sounds – by way of the possibilities opened by new media – seem to have already left behind the intent to approach the question of race with the aim to fulfill a desire to be visible, to express political resistance by way of a struggle for self-expression and of a desire to speak ‘the truth’ to a hegemonic power whose main interest lies strangling the ‘subalterns’ between the oscillating poles of ‘truth bearer’ and ‘victim’: the only two positions allowed to those who live in a perennial ‘state of emergency’.
Race is instead rendered opaque in Afrofuturism. The unrepresentability of the trauma of slavery remains unrepresented and comes to be estranged and subjected to a detour, through the confusion of the boundary between the real and the imaginary and through the material power of sounds to convey a sense of closeness while defying any possibility of empathic identification. As in Thelma Golden’s project of a ‘post-black aesthetics’, clear reference to race become opaque. A new dimension of proximity without identification comes into existence, opening up to a dimension of relationality.
In music, the voice is distorted. Often, there is no voice at all, only some very tiny bits of phrases so dilated as to elude any chance of recognition. Layered rhythms; sounds that seem to skip away from the physical instrumental ‘skeleton’ used to produce them as to seem coming from nowhere. All of these elements begin to infiltrate the global routes of quintessentially ‘black urban’ hip hop, launching new and disorientating signals into the communication battlefield; confusing the possibility of interpretation of the strategies of encoding and decoding; partially frustrating the desire to grasp into these raving sounds any antagonistic stance. As Eshun would write a few years after 1993,
[w]hat’s happening is that sound has become detached from sources, effects are arriving before objects. It’s like what Murray Schaffer used to talk about in the 70s. Murray Schaffer was an old acoustic reactionary who coined the term “soundscape” that everybody uses now. But he also coined the term “schizophony,” which simply meant sounds devoid of sources; […] beats decapitated from drummers. […A]ll sampledelia is schizophonic now, all sounds are separated from sources […]. [Y]ou hear all these effects without causes, and it’s incredibily frightening and it’s incredibly exhilarating simultaneously.
Afrofuturism seems indeed to operate a becoming post-race pushing to the point of speculative acceleration a line of flight already existing in post-industrial societies: the abstraction of race as information pattern. The use of cybercultural trope signals also, along the path of this line of flight, a sort of ‘relief’ in not having to address the visible evidence of racial oppression, by substituting the struggle to be ‘against something’ with the attempt to create new possibilities of life out of the urban alienation. As with Eshun,
if racial identification became intermittent and obscure to the listener, for the musician, a dimension of heteronomy became available. […] The cyborg fantasies […] were used both to alienate themselves from sonic identity and to feel at home in alienation.
What I want to suggest is that this double challenge to ‘essentialism’ – expressed through the recourse to ‘opacity’ – seems to push in the direction of a becoming ‘post-race’ that includes an original engagement with the postmodern emphasis of “floating signifiers” as it has been reworked and complicated in the cultural studies’ assumption of the challenge of “the politics of representation” – but is not exhausted by it. I will speculate on this point more in details in the second section of this essay, where I will address the way in which, a few years after its first theoretical articulations, Afrofuturism will assume a sort of “cruel, despotic, amoral” character, when put in comparison with the social and political preoccupations about race animating Cultural Studies.  Indeed, in its British version as formulated by Kodwo Eshun in his 1998 work More Brilliant than the Sun and later on by Steve Goodman, Afrofuturism will abandon any take on black political culture related to meaning and representation, to propose a materialist conceptual apparatus which, in Eshun’s words, would polemically declare itself to be “unblack, unpopular, uncultural”.
A ‘molecularization’ of race? The micropolitics of British ‘affective’ Afrofuturism (1998-2010)
“Black culture is this series of machines built here and there.”
“[T]he future is not an idea, but a sensation.”
“What is of interest here is […] molecular seepages and rhythmic infections.”
1909 Italian Futurist Manifesto had opened with the noisy cling and roar of an engine – the machine of industrial capitalism – to declare its glorification of speed, on the run to leave the past behind and reach towards future and progress. Opening with the subtle energetic fluxes emanating from the silicon heart of the post-industrial cybernetic machines – with their reversible temporality and retroactive processes – Afrofuturism would instead, at every turn, unfold a different edge out of its fluid temporalities, where past and future would feedback on each other.
In the 1997 movie The Last Angel of History, directed by John Akomfrah of the Black Audio Film Collective, such a temporal fluidity swirls to take the shape of an alternate afrofuturist figuration of the late-Nineties ‘network culture’. Spinning off the age of cybernetic machines, the world of The Last Angel of History presents itself as a cyberworld which exceeds and preceeds the digital age, by opening onto a virtual dimension perceptible through black music: a lively world of communication technologies, cracked codes and energetic fluxes whose sinister precursor would lie in the cruel events of Atlantic slavery, as the incubator of a whole diasporic networked culture.
The Middle Passage forced culture to become immediately mental. All of the other things were by definition left behind, left ruined: architecture, everything else. So culture immediately became […] dematerialized. And then it has to be rematerialized, first through hitting the hands, or through the mouth. It had to be passed on again, and reinvented all over again.
Indeed, what the emergence of Afrofuturism would increasingly signal throughout the Nineties is the delineation of a zone of affinity between the turbulent dynamics of new media systems, and those characteristics of ‘turbulence’ and ‘chaos’ that the disciplinary power of modernity had been violently associating with ‘race’ and the cognate concept of ‘blackness’. While turbulence, deviation and chaos became more and more disentangled from their disciplinary assemblage (through an alliance between non-deterministic sciences and human sciences), as to be exalted as the life-bearing vehicles of mutation and indeterminate productivity, Afrofuturism would increasingly delineate itself as that cybercultural movement which defiantly welcomed this shift as the opening of a new possibility to engineer a different take on race and diaspora in the age of new media.
This is especially true of British Afrofuturism as it is delineated in the works of Kodwo Eshun and Steve Goodman. As I will show in this section, this strain of Afrofuturism will take the challenge raised by this new tendency towards the fascination for, and spread of, the characteristics of ‘flexibility’, ‘chaos’, and ‘turbulence’ as desirable features as way to relieve thought from the obligation to address blackness from the restrictive conceptual box of identity politics, absence/presence and the struggle over representation. Declaring black diasporic culture to be a precursor to the post-industrial drive towards fluxes and deterritorialization, British Afrofuturism reacted with antipathy to the Birmingham Cultural Studies tradition of critique and proposed its treatment of race not just as a social construct, but as an assemblage. This meant that – being race “a shifty amalgamation of human bodies and their appearance, genetic material, artifacts, landscapes, music, money, language, and states of mind” – it was a complex dissipative system, a material interlocking of heterogenous components in turn stabilized in a certain asset, but continuously differentiating through new “little connections and flows”. It could therefore be analysed the way complex systems are: starting from their micro-dynamics of organization, from the wider field of relations out of which it emerges, from its dynamic transformations.
While journalism still insists on a solid state known as ‘blackness’, [my book] More Brilliant dissolves this solidarity with a corpse into a fluidarity maintained and exacerbated by soundmachines.
[S]itting here in England, in London, it’s much harder for me to even assume a unified anything, let alone a unified black culture. I tend to start from the opposite. I tend to think of things more freefloating, and there’s various strange attractors trying to agglomerate things, there’s various inertia-producing forces which are trying to centre, and trying to attract material to black culture […]. To me everything now looks like it’s synthesized. There’s obviously stuff that’s been around long enough so that it feels solidified […] but actually it’s all synthesized. Because I’m looking at emergences […] I bring the machine into it.
This would have led to what Steve Goodman has defined “a Nietzschian, affirmative mode [of analysis that] wards tradition off, letting everything which it disallowed rush back in”, which will take the form of an affective and micropolitical method. In British Afrofuturism, the relation with the new media system comes to be outlined as a relation with those technologies – and, more generally, also those techniques which precede new media and digital cultures – able to open onto new modalities of perception of difference, where the machines of cybernetic capitalism are not just upgrades of techniques of command and direction entrapped into the grid of meanings and representations of alterity, but are also transversed by an excess of perception able to intensify the movement of difference itself, thus engendering new affective modalities of relation and new forms of life. Race will emerge from this plane as ‘molecularized’ – a term by which I want to suggest how difference will be not addressed starting from positions distributed on a grid of relations (oppositions, identifications, hybridizations), but from the material plane of its ‘processes of individuation’, its continuous differentiation. In turn, this ‘molecularization’ of race might appear as a ‘disappearance’ of race – its denial or disavowal. However, I shall propose, its controversial character could in fact be seen as a reservoir of potentialities for critical thought in the contemporary age.
I will now briefly show how the above considerations have been developed by Kodwo Eshun and Steve Goodman through the concepts of ‘audio abduction’, ‘speed tribes’ and ‘the viral contagion’. I will use these three figurations, all drawn from music, to suggest the complex molecular dimension of matter animating the perspective of British Afrofuturism’s micropolitics of affects and possessions, and its impact on the politics of race, showing how, in Eshun and Goodman’s works, the treatment of race is transformed by being suspended in favour of the microanalysis of wider affective processes of individuation.
In the early Nineties, while Mark Dery was starting to draw the general profile of Afrofuturism, Kodwo Eshun was a post-graduate student at the Department of Philosophy of Warwick University, UK and a member of the research group CCRU. Here the project of Eshun’s conceptual book on black urban machine music More Brilliant than the Sun (1998) – a sort of exemplary ‘manifesto’ for British Afrofuturism – was conceived, opening the way to an approach to black musical sound cultures which offers numerous (though controversial) entrance points to a discussion of race and new media which seems to stretch in the direction of a post-racial approach.
The CCRU’s declaration that the Unit would
engage with peripheral cultures not because they are ‘downtrodden’ or oppressed, but because they include the most intense tendencies to social flatness, swarming, populating the future, and contagious positive innovation, hatching the decisive stimuli for the systematic mutation of global cybernetic culture
is subscribed by Eshun. In line with the CCRU’s interest in new technologies – such as the internet, and new youth cultural phenomena emerging from the post-industrial global peripheries – such as rave culture and the electronic music productions of the British “Hardcore Continuum” – More Brilliant than the Sun is a work on black urban electronic music in the new media age, from Sun Ra to Dr Octagon, from Tricky to Lee Perry and Grandmaster Flash, to Goldie and A Guy Called Gerald.
The book applies indeed the same temporal switchback proposed in The Last Angel of History. In fact, it is an attempt at tracing in black cultures the presence of those ‘internal immigrants’ or ‘despots’ – as Eshun would define them – who had claimed for themselves the status of ‘being alien’ and the right to address blackness from the post-racial ‘molecular’ scale, seeing themselves not as a minority, but as part of a forthcoming majority who did not even realize the fact. According to Eshun, their sonic productions could be thought of as ‘a memory of the future’, a science-fiction made to pre-programme the present: “[Y]ou see a lot people saying the breakbeat is the […] return of the African drumming sound, but […] it’s the other way around. [It] should be moved forward. […] If he could have been, Grandmaster Flash would have been a computer designer.”
According to Eshun, to these musicians music would be “the science of playing the human nervous system”: an attempt to use energetic fluxes to communicate faster, to capture attention and modulate mood. In this sense, the techniques that black cultures had been experimenting for centuries to communicate along the routes of a dispersed and collective diaspora would also be able to provide tools to understand communication cultures, and better tools also, able to dispense with one of the ‘great mistakes’ of first cybernetic theorists – the question of the non-materiality of information.
Where crits [sic] of CyberCult still gather, 99.9% of them will lament the disembodiment of the human by technology. But […] sound machines make you feel more intensely, along a broader band of emotional spectra [...]. Sonically speaking, the posthuman era is not one of disembodiment but the exact reverse: it’s hyperembodiment.
The question of hyper-embodiment – which is the question of an excess of sensation that overspills the channels of representation – had some important consequences on how difference (and thus also racial difference ) was conceived. Paul Gilroy had in fact (involuntarily?) suggested that the Black Altantic could be thought of as a system; also, he had alluded to the peculiar sensorial dimension of this system, by putting his emphasis on music and the ‘phatic’ as the best keys to the enter black diasporic cultures. However, a few years after The Black Atlantic and before More Brilliant than the Sun, Erik Davis had pushed these intuitions further on, finding in the polyrhythmic character of black music (analog and digital) the tools to provide a new definition of space in the age of new media. His theorization of a “polyrhythmic cyberspace” would indeed address the crisis of representation brought up by any spaced charged with an excess of sensory data, and the fact that concepts of ‘identity’, ‘race’, ‘ethnicity’ would have to mutate accordingly.
Where are we? The collective mindscapes we both find and lose ourselves within seem to be rapidly mutating: the compressed ‘urban’ density of an increasingly globalized, networked, and overpopulated world; the twilight zones introduced by media saturation and the collapse of master narratives; the blurry boundary regions between identities, ethnicities, bodies, cultures; the virtual interdimensions of cyberspace. These new social and psychic morphologies demand that we reimagine space itself. […] McLuhan believed that electronic media were subverting visual space by introducing “acoustic space”. […] I am interested in one particular zone of electro-acoustic cyberspace, a zone I’m calling the Black Electronic […] – a “nomadic” space of multiplicity unfolded on the fly.
More Brilliant than the Sun explores this displacement of the ocular in favour of the visceral as an experimentation on the perception of difference, where the immediate impact of molecular sound particles all along an interconnected mass of matter opens those exposed to sound to a contact with difference beyond the gap between subject and object, thus engendering an affective mutation. Transfigured through the register of science-fiction, these sonic experimentations on difference and contact of Afrofuturism are defined as “audio abductions”.
The idea of losing control, of losing sense, of being abducted, snatched away by sound. […] Rhythm is this terra incognita, it’s this continent we’ve yet to land to. […] Rhythm […] is about intensities, it’s about crossing a series of thresholds across your body. Sound doesn’t need any discourse of representation, it doesn’t need the idea of discourse or the signifier: you can use sound as an immediate material intensity that grabs you, […] the signs of a bodily intelligence switching itself on.
Kodwo Eshun’s interest into post-representation, the blurred lines between fact and fiction and the sound as a form of critical thought, and the ‘molecularization’ of difference have more recently moved towards video-art production and resonate strongly in the works he has realized with Anjalika Sagar (with whom he has founded the research art-group The Otolith). The sonic philosophy and micropolitics of British Afrofuturism have however been carried out by Steve Goodman, both through essays and the book Sonic Warfare and through the productions of the British label Hyperdub and the radio channel RinseFM.Steve Goodman’s work has provided many useful concepts to carry out the micro-analysis of sound cultures along the molecular scale. Here – for reasons of textual economy – I will mention just two of them: “speed tribes”, and “virus”.
The first of the two concepts – “speed tribes” – was proposed in 2005, and it is particularly useful to point out the way in which Goodman’s afrofuturist-inspired analysis speculates on the molecularization of identity presented by Eshun’s work (and actively operating on the physical side of black urban machine music) to construct an ethical approach to ‘subjectivity production’ that is based on the cartography of affective processes in the perspective of ‘media ecologies’. The essay “Speed Tribes” advances a method defined “dromography”, which draws from the techniques of ‘abduction’ in Afrofuturism to insist on a comprehension of the emergence of phenomena – in this case sonic subcultures – from the point of view of affective and kinetic relations. Goodman mobilizes a Spinozian conception of vibrating matter based on rates of stillness and speed, of attraction and repulsion and shows the way they recall the techniques employed in bass-based diasporic sound system cultures to capture the listeners on the visceral level of his/her affects, thus engendering metastable aggregates – the ‘tribes’ – which are transversal to the molar separations of ‘race’, ‘gender’, ‘class’.
The UK speed tribes […] populate what […] the ‘hardcore continuum’. […] Th[e] nuances [between tribes] can relate to divergent compositions of the collective body, seemingly along traditional sociological lines (race, class, gender). But what is of interest here is the affective trajectories of these networked collective bodies, understood as ecologies of speed; those molecular seepages and rhythmic infections which deviate from molar social segmentations.
In Goodman’s analysis, the perceptive sensorium is a forcefield and a battlefield. This is especially evident in the tone and aim of his 2010 philosophical study Sonic Warfare, where the polyrhythmic cyberspace proposed by Erik Davis is not presented as the ‘promised land’ where sound cultures would find a free uncompromised space for counter-cultural operations, but as a battlefield for symbiotic relations between cybernetic capital and anti-capitalist microcultural processes. In particular, this symbiotic relation is seen under the light of a viral contagion, stretched between the two attractors of control and modulation through virosonic capital, and affective mobilization and collective enjoyment through dance.
In this essay, I have made an attempt to move through the conceptual area of Afrofuturism in order to suggest some ways in which its take on race and new media might be considered in terms of a becoming post-race. In the first section, the cognitive estrangement proposed by the science-fictional imaginary of Afrofuturism has been mobilized to address its relation to the debates on essentialism, on the post-human and post-identity. I have tried to show how the specific afrofuturist take on these questions – accelerated by the use of cybernetic machines – has resulted in rendering opaque the question of racial oppression, thus re-routing its unrepresentability as a potentiality for envisaging alternative racial futures. In the second part, this speculative move has been pushed further on, towards the proposal a ‘molecularization’ of race taking place in British Afrofuturism. Here, I have tried to suggest how a suspension of the articulation of the question of race on the level of meaning and representation has took place, in favour of an affective and micropoltical engagement with race as a machinic assemblage and with the pre-personal ethical level subjectivity production.
There is indeed a tension between the more evident counter-cultural character of Afrofuturism, and its affective and micropolitical version. British Afrofuturism has in fact in turn been accused of too much abstraction and therefore little usefulness to articulate a pragmatic political answer to racism; of a disavowal of race as if the question of race had been already dealt with and therefore a complete withdrawal from political engagement; and a sinister attunement to late capitalist enterprise culture and its complicit partaking in neo-liberal versions of multiculturalism. ‘How could it be called Afro-Futurism’ – these accusations seem to suggest, when any clear reference to race seems to be liquefied? It is beyond my purpose and possibility here to discuss in detail these accusations – which nevertheless point to many interesting elements of critical friction, whose precious character could not be fully exhausted through a total endorsement or a simple dismissal of British affective Afrofuturism. In this conclusive ‘coda’, I will therefore simply reflect on the challenges this impossibility of dismissal points to.
What British affective Afrofuturism seems to signal – to the enjoyment of some and to the disappointment of others in critical theory – is indeed the emergence of the increasing importance of the virtual, affective, future-oriented dimensions involved in the production of subjectivities. British Afrofuturism’s ‘liquid’ sociality and ‘degree zero’ politics point indeed towards the energetic constitutions of subjectivities: as with Elizabeth Grosz,
subjectivity, […] social relations are […] structured not only by institutions and social networks, but also by impersonal or pre-personal, subhuman, or inhuman forces, forces that may be constructed as competing microagencies rather than as the conflict between singular, unified, self-knowing subjects.
This kind of sociality – retro-triggered by the cultures of information – appears indeed as a challenge, for it unsettles what we take ‘bodies’, ‘communication’, and ‘politics’ to be here and now, and asks for a conceptual leap into the unkown and indeterminate process of potential politics. This leap is abstracted and re-proposed as an ethical-aesthetic emanation, exactly through the opaque figurations of Afrofuturism and its creased temporalities. To dismiss this aspect, this critical emergence, would mean to dismiss the way in which British Afrofuturism resonates strongly with the debates on society as a brain, of rhythms and energetic waves involved in the production of subjectivity, on memory and attention in the materialist media ecologies of contemporary culture, and the concept of the ‘public’ as the new subject/object of biopolitics.
At the same time, the estrangement proposed by the figuration of Afrodiasporic culture as a precursor to network culture, although not directly engaged in the articulation of traditional political demands about race, gives rise to a double conceptual movement with implications about race. On the one side, it summons for a meta-reflection on critical theory: claiming their visions to be theoretical gestures and abandoning a metaphysic of truth/ falsity, and to have done with the obligation for black cultures to adhere to a logic of ‘realism’, Afrofuturist musicians and essayists reclaim full conceptual committment for black culture. At the same time, the coincidence between the tools of British Afrofuturism and those of the studies on the affects of precarity and immaterial labour – the perception of a precarity which is not ‘exceptional’, but constitutive, transfigured through the image of an alien abduction and rendered momentarily ‘post-racial’ (not to speak of the subsequent proximity between times and spaces of (non) free work, but also between networks of affects) open the way to new transversal alliances for the younger generations of researchers trying to cope with the new affective climate in which they live and work.
All of these elements stress the way in which British Afrofuturism unfolds the evidence of a circulation of causes and effects between technological advancement and socio-cultural phenomena. What if – at the end of the day – Afrofuturism was itself a conceptual abduction, a viral contagion, infiltrating the frames of many disparate areas with which its shows an affinity? What if its post-racial figurations were the perfect ‘Trojan horse’ to mutate those areas from within, to infect with what power continually tries to pre-empt: the affective joyous engineering of new forms of collective life?
1. The title line comes from a quote by Sun Ra, African-American electronic music pioneer, slanting member of free-jazz, self-declared ‘alien’ and precursor to the cultural sensibility of Afrofuturism; the line is qtd. in John F. Szwed, Space is the Place. The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (1997; repr. Cambridge MA: DaCapo Press, 1998). [↑]
2. In this essay, I take Afrofuturism to be a cultural sensibility much more than an organized cultural movement. By this, I mean a chronologically and spatially far-flung conceptual area including each singular case of interaction between the issues of race/ethnicity and the use of technologies which could raise new questions, and open new perspectives. [↑]
3. See: Mark Dery, “Black to the Future,” in Flame Wars. The Discourse of Cyberculture, Mark Dery, ed. (1993; repr. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1997). Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant than the Sun. Adventures in Sonic Fiction (London: Quartet, 1998). Mark Sinker, “Loving the Alien – Black Science Fiction,” The Wire 96 (1992): n.p. [↑]
4. For this use of the term ‘micropolitics’, see: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980; repr. London & New York NY: Continuum Press, 2004); Félix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics (New York NY: Puffin, 1984). [↑]
6. On this reprise of the concept of ‘affect’ firstly theorized by Baruch Spinoza in 1677 and then reworked in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and on the challenge it poses to representation, see: Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual. Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2002). Patricia Clough, ed. The Affective Turn. Theorizing the Social, (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2007). [↑]
7. For this use of ‘abstract’ as “the diagram [or] map of relations between forces, a map of […] intensity, which [...] acts as a non-unifying immanent cause which is coextensive with the whole social field”, see Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (1986; repr. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 37. [↑]
8. This section will try to unpack the resonations between Afrofuturism and the questions of the ‘post-human’, of ‘post-identity’, and ‘post-black’. All of these questions have a long and documented history within critical theory, where they have been extensively discussed – often in relation to the shifting terrain of the discourses on race. Given the extent and scope of this essay, this first section will not provide a detailed treatment of the fortunes of the concept of the post-human and the discourse of post-identity in critical theory, nor of the idea of a post-black aesthetics. Less ambitiously, I have instead set forth to suggest a series of recalls between these issues and the science-fictional racial imaginary of Afrofuturism at the moment of its first articulation. [↑]
9. Sun Ra, Fallen Angel. Excerpt from an Interview with Rick Theis, http://www.semiotexte.com/documentPage/fallenAngel.html (1983). [↑]
12. Dery 1997, 179-180. Although Dery’s inaugural essay conflates Afrofuturism with African-American science-fiction, I shall insist on the necessity of a transnational Afro-diasporic perspective. [↑]
13. See Kodwo Eshun, “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism,” CR The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003): 287-302, 230: “The effect is not to question the reality of slavery, but to defamiliarize it through a temporal switchback that reroutes its implications through postwar social fiction, cultural fantasy and modern science fiction, all of which begin to seem like elaborate ways of concealing and admitting trauma”. This approach is clearly exemplified in the editorial profile of Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, eds. So Long Been Dreaming. Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004). [↑]
16. This extends the concept of Afrofuturism well beyond its classification as a contemporary phenomenon. In this sense, might count as Afrofuturists not only the immediate references hinted at by Dery (such as the Detroit techno music pioneers or musicians Sun Ra, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and George Cliton, or novelists Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler), but also black intellectuals such as W. E. DuBois, whose experimental piece of writing “The Comet” (1920; repr. in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From the African Diaspora. Sheree R. Thomas, ed. (New York: Warner, 2000), 5-18) stands out as one of the very first attempts to reroute double-consciousness and the critique of white humanism through the register of science-fiction. [↑]
18. On the essentialism/non-essentialism (and the related postmodernism/nationalism, reduction/appropriation) debate in relation to race, see Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993); Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities,” (1989; repr. in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, David Morley and Kuna-Hsing Chen, eds. (London & New York NY: Routledge, 1996)). On the relation between this debate and Afrofuturism, see: Kodwo Eshun, “Futurhythmachine,” in The Popular Music Studies Reader, Andy Bennett, Barry Shank and Jason Toynbee, eds. (Oxon & New York NY: Routledge), 292-293; Goodman 2010, 202. [↑]
19. For a critique of the ‘teleological visions’ of modernity, see Sybille Fisher, Modernity Disawowed. Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Durham NC & London: Duke, 2004), 34. For an Afrofuturist take on the trope of the ‘ship in motion’, see Sinker 1992. [↑]
20. ‘Opacity’ refers here to Glissant’s concept as theorized in Édouard Glissant, Le discourse antillais (Paris: Gallimard, 1981): the right to express difference and singularity while displacing demands of transparency. The formulation of a ‘post-black aesthetics’ has been advanced by art curator Thelma Golden, who used the concept in the early Nineties, as she illustrates in: Thelma Golden,‘Freestyle’ Exhibition Catalogue (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2001), 14-15. [↑]
22. I am well aware of the problems raised by any attempt to provide a unitary definition of Cyberculture or New Media. Here, however, I choose to summarize the many characteristics of the new media system of communication through an emphasis on the two dimensions of ‘heterogeneity’ and ‘interactivity’ – as in New Media: A Critical Introduction, David Lister et al., eds. (London & New York NY: Routledge, 2003); and to adhere to Dery’s definition of Cyberculture, in Mark Dery, “Cyberculture,” South Atlantic Quarterly 91 (1992): 509, “[Cyberculture is] a far-flung, loosely knit complex of sublegitimate, alternative, and oppositional subcultures whose common project is the subversive use of technocommodities.” [↑]
25. The concept of ‘figuration’ is itself drawn from Donna Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM (London & New York NY: Routledge), 8-11. It indicates a creative use of “performative images that can be inhabited”; not metaphors, but situated “material-semiotic” processual entities, useful in contaminating and disrupting dominant epistemologies. [↑]
28. On the meaning-based relation between musical productions and hybrid cultures as analysed through the culturalist methodology of subcultural studies firstly experimented at the Birmigham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies during the late Seventies, the most representative study remains Tricia Rose, Black Noise. Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Middleton CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994). [↑]
30. Kodwo Eshun, Abducted by Audio,http://virtualfutures.co.uk/archive/papers/abducted-by-audio/ (1997) [↑]
32. See: Stuart Hall, “Encoding/ Decoding,” (1973; repr. in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, David Morley and Kuna-Hsing Chen, eds. (London & New York NY: Routledge, 1996)); Race: the Floating Signifier, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMo2uiRAf30 (1997). [↑]
34. I believe Eshun (qtd. in Attimonelli 2008, 115) uses this expression with a clear reference to Birmingham Cultural Studies, where the phrase stays as a ‘mantra’ for the whole study of the popular through a semiotic and Gramscian perspective; see Stuart Hall’s essay “What is this ‘Black’ in ‘Black Popular Culture’?,” (1988; repr. in Black Popular Culture, Gina Dent, ed. (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992), 21-33). [↑]
36. Sadie Plant and Nick Land, Cyberpositive, http://www.sterneck.net/cyber/plant-land-cyber/index.php (n. d.). [↑]
38. The concept of ‘network culture’ is drawn from Tiziana Terranova, who describes it as an attempt to think singularity and multiplicity at the same time, taking the challenge to think through “the heterogeneous assemblage which is global culture […] a kaleidoscope of differences and bewildering heterogeneity […] that appear to us as a meshwork of overlapping cultural formations, of hybrid reinventions, cross-pollinations and singular variations”; Tiziana Terranova, Network Culture. Politics for the Information Age (London: Pluto, 2004), 1-2. [↑]
39. Eshun 1998, 192. This passage anticipates an important feature of British Afrofuturism, which will be explored in this article, i.e. its material stance: the cybercultural stress on information and communication dynamics does not point towards a dematerialization of cultures, thus reinforcing representation and the Cartesian mind/body dualism, but towards the primacy of material, bodily, visceral modes of communication. [↑]
40. Postcolonial theory – often through the tools of psychoanalysis – has widely addressed the conflation of race with blackness and the link between the latter and the threat of confusion, chaos and turbulence within disciplinary assemblages. See: Ranjana Khanna, Dark Continents. Psychoanalysis and Colonialism (Durham NC: Duke, 2003); Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark. Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992; repr. New York: Vintage, 1993); Sidonie Smith, Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body. Women’s Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1993). [↑]
41. On the emergence of a fascination for turbulence, chaos and the mechanics of fluids during the transition from disciplinary to control societies, and its links with the waves of cybernetics, see: Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova, Heat-Death Emergence And Control In Genetic Engineering And Artificial Life, ftp://gd.tuwien.ac.at/soc/ctheory/articles/Heat-Death_by_Luciana_Parisi_and_Tiziana_Terranova_.html (2000). [↑]
42. It would be useful to mention here that both Eshun and Goodman have been members of the Warwick University’s experimental research group Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, gravitating around the theoretical attractors of cyberfeminist philosopher Sadie Plant and theorist Nick Land. CCRU’s essential feature – which would pass in Eshun and Goodman’s works – was its hybridization between the heretical philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, French post-structuralist thought (especially the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillar and Paul Virilio), economical theories, cyberpunk and cybernetics. This original mixture of theory and fiction, philosophy and hard sciences aimed at the displacement of any distinction between nature and culture, real and artificial, and would inform the violently post-representative methodology of the Unit. See: Simon Reynolds, “Renegade Academia: The Cybernetic Culture Research Unit,” (1998; repr. in Sound Unbound. Sampling Digital Music and Culture, Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, ed. (Cambridge MA & London: MIT, 2008)), 171-179. [↑]
43. I will just beckon here to the fact that Eshun and Goodman’s theoretical gestures make no concessions to the ‘melancholic’ condition of the intellectual at the dawn of the ‘enterprise culture’ in the United Kingdom, as lamented in Hall and Jacques, eds.; and in Stuart Hall, “The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities,” October 53 (1990): 11-23. British affective and micropolitical Afrofuturism seems in fact really prescient on the impossibility to separate the role of the intellectual from the ‘social factory’ – as many theorizations on immaterial labour have more recently made clear (see Maurizio Lazzarato, La politica dell’evento (Cosenza: Rubbettino, 2004)). [↑]
44. For this use of assemblage, see Deleuze e Guattari 1980. For a very insightful study on race as a machinic aseemblage and the material ontology of race – which can offer interesting elements to tap into the British Afrofuturism’s molecular affective treatment of race – see: Arjun Saldanha, Psychedelic White. Goa Trance and the Viscosity of Race (Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007). [↑]
48. See: Luciana Parisi, “La percezione della differenza nel digitale: movimento e affetto, ” in La nuova Shahrazad. Donne e multiculturalismo, Lidia Curti, Anna De Meo, Silvana Carotenuto and Sara Marinelli, eds. (Napoli, Liguori, 2004), 321-332. [↑]
50. CCRU, qtd. in K-punk (Mark Fisher), Abstract Engineers, http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/003847.html (2004). [↑]
51. “Hardcore Continuum” is a term applied by British journalist Simon Reynolds to “a musical tradition/subcultural tribe that’s managed to hold it together for nearly 20 years now, negotiating drastic stylistic shifts and significant changes in technology, drugs, and the social/racial composition of its own population. […] [T]he tradition started to take shape circa 1990 with what people called Hardcore Techno or Hardcore Rave, or sometimes simply Ardkore”: Simon Reynolds, On the Hardcore Continuum # 4, http://thwire.co.uk/articles/2028/print (2009). [↑]
52. Eshun 1998, 181. This idea of future-oriented thought as a criss-crossing of temporalities, and of science-fiction as a way to pre-program the present is drawn by Cyberpunk’s visions of the future, and especially by the works of William Gibson. According to Gibson, science-fiction is not a way to foresee the future, nor to provide social utopias; rather, science-fiction is a way to generate processes of retroaction “between [a] preferred future and its becoming-present” (qtd. in Eshun 2003, 290). [↑]
55. Indeed, as I want to suggest between the lines, this approach based on the immanent mutability of matter and the perception of movement stands out as a third, materialist, machinic and affective way to hack the dispute between social constructionism and reductive biological essentialism. [↑]
56. See Gilroy 1993 for a definition of the Black Atlantic as ‘metastable’, ‘autopoietic’ ‘open system’. This is, however, where the attunement between Paul Gilroy’s thought and Afrofuturism seems to end. In fact, Paul Gilroy himself has declared his antipathy towards the afrofuturist sensibility; see Paul Gilroy, Darker than Blue. In the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture (Cambridge Ma & London: Harvard University Press/ Belknap, 2010). As I aim to show through this article, this divergence becomes also very clear in reference to the concept of post-race itself, where Gilroy’s post-racial ‘against race’-project of a postcolonial humanism based on assumptions of social constructionism strongly differ from afrofuturist’s post-racial material ontology of race as a machinic event; see: Paul Gilroy, After Empire. Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (Oxon & New York: Routledge, 2004). [↑]
59. The concept of “audio abduction” is widely used in More Brilliant, although it had been firstly theorized one year before in a CCRU’s pamphlet on the interface between music and drugs in hip hop and grime entitled “Abducted by Audio”; see: Eshun 1997, n. p.. [↑]
62. See: Steve Goodman, “Speed Tribes: Netwar, Affective Hacking and the Audio-Social,” in Cultural Hacking. Kunst des strategischen Handelns, Thomas Düllo e Franz Liebl, eds. (Wien: Springer-Vorlag, 2005); “Contagious Transmission: On the Virology of Pirate Radio,” in Radio Territories, Brandon Labelle, ed. (Copenhagen: Errant Bodies, 2007); Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear (Cambridge MA: MIT, 2010); and the productions of Hyperdub (http://www.hyperdub.net/). [↑]
63. On the term “media ecology” and the specific symbiotic approach to technology it entails, see Matthew Fuller, Media Ecologies. Materialist Energies and Technoculture (Cambridge MA: MIT, 2005), 2: “The term ‘ecology’ is used […] because it is one of the most expressive language currently has to indicate the massive and dynamic interrelation of processes and objects, beings and things, patterns and matter.” [↑]
65. For a stimulating reading about these debates, see: Gilroy 2010; Angela McRobbie, 2002, “Clubs to Companies: Notes on the Decline of Political Culture in Speeded Up Creative Worlds,” Cultural Studies 16: 4 (2002): 51-531; The Los Angelisation of London. Three Short-waves of Young People’s Micro-economies of Culture and Creativity in the UK, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0207/mcrobbie/en (2007); Tobias Van Veen, “Technics, Precarity and Exodus in Rave Culture,” Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture 1.2 (2010): 29-49. [↑]
67. See: Maurizio Lazzarato, Videofilosofia. La percezione del tempo nel postfordismo (Roma: Manifestolibri, 1997); La puissance de l’invention: la Psycholgie économique de Gabriel Tarde contre l’economie politique (Paris: Les empecheurs de penser en rond, 2002); Lazzarato 2004; “The Concepts of Life and the Living in the Societies of Control,” in Deleuze and the Social, Martin Fuglsang and Bent Meier Sørensen, eds. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 171-190. Tiziana Terranova, “Futurepublic. On Information Warfare, Bio-Racism and Hegemony as Noopolitics,” Theory, Culture & Society 24.3 (2007): 125-145; “Another Life. The Nature of Political Economy in Foucault’s Genealogy of Biopolitics,” Theory, Culture & Society 26.6 (2009): 234-262. [↑]
68. The work of Julian Henriques, who proposes sound as a way of thought, and invites to consider sound system cultures’ emphasis on rhythms, vibrations and viscerality as a way to approach contemporary conceptual frameworks such as ‘culture topology’ or ‘social networking’, is indeed an inspiring (although indirect) attempt to reconsider certain aspect of British Afrofuturism. See: Julian Henriques, “Sonic Dominance and the Reggae Sound System Session,” (2003; repr. in The Auditory Culture Reader, Michael Bull and Les Back, eds. (Oxford & New York NY: Berg, 2006); “The Vibrations of Affect and their Propagation on a Night Out on Kingston’s Dancehall Scene,” Body&Society 16.1 (2010): 57-89; Sonic Bodies. Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing (London & New York: Continuum, 2011).