In his book, The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics, Louis Chude-Sokei samples freely from history, music, literature and science, conjuring new meanings from dead texts, to build an echo chamber where the discourses of race and technology collide. At a time when automation threatens jobs and pits humans against machine and Artificial Intelligence systems manage financial markets, Chude-Sokei’s arkeological excavations reverberate through the future-present. In this conversation, he joins Kodwo Eshun on a journey into science fiction and Afrofuturism that engages the intimate relations between black peoples and technology within the wider imperial histories of industrialisation and slavery.
Kodwo Eshun: I first encountered your writing in Chimurenga. Back in 2008, they did a special issue on science fiction from the continent called Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber. Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber is a famous dub album. It’s also the name of your essay in that issue. This essay was compellingly narrated and vivid, a certain kind of intensity and a kind of energy. Reading it, you have this sense in which a literary thinker was entirely at ease with questions of the sonic, questions of transnationality, questions of informatics and questions of electricity. So that the questions of the sonics seem to continually unfold into more and more invocations…
Louis Chude-Sokei: I want to begin with the song, “Phonograph Blues”, by Robert Johnson, the father of rock’n’roll. This song is interesting because it’s about a black encounter with a machine – the phonograph. There’s a chapter in my new book which talks about looking at the early moments when Africans and blacks encounter these things called machines – phonographs and gramophones. And what do they make of the machine while the machine, of course, is simultaneously making them into things, by recording them and recreating them in certain ways. It’s common for us to talk about how language and literature and colonial power remakes subjects. Sound does the same thing too. And the history of recorded sound is also a history of recording black voices and black subjects and turning them into other things. “Phonograph Blues” ends up with Robert Johnson fucking the machine. Suddenly the needle becomes his penis and the machine becomes a woman – presumably a black woman. And it’s so important that the relationship between the black male and the machine ends up being: this is a strange machine, what an interesting object, it’s recording me, how do I control it? How do I deal with it? I’m going to fuck it, right?
And I say that deliberately because we know that the word rock’n’roll means sex. And not just sex, it was the most vulgar way of saying sex. It meant fucking, right? So the fact that “Phonograph Blues” and these early blues songs are about sexualising machines and trying to control them by using metaphors of sexual dominance and control – all of that is like so rock’n’roll.
I think it is just so interesting to begin a history of race and technology with stories like that and with songs like that, because a song like that reminds us that it’s not just cultural criticism that can make this experience visible and audible to us – this history of race and technology. That’s actually what’s going on in the music itself. They’re actually thinking about these things and working through these things. There’s this interesting history of race, technology, gender and the machine – they’re all inextricably linked. And that’s kind of how the book tells itself from beginning all the way to the end. So, “Phonograph Blues” is a good way for me to begin this… well, but also the conversation.
KE: Can you talk about a particular moment in the relation between race and technology, enslavement and robotics, and the way in which that constellation sets out some of the terms of the book in a particularly powerful way?
LCS: The word “robot” first entered into the English language in 1922. Before 1922, before “robot”, the word used to describe artificial, humanistic machines was “automata or “android”. There was a guy called Karel Čapek, who wrote a play called “Rossumov’s Universal Robots”, which premiered in the United States in 1921. And with the translation of that play into the English language in 1922, the word “robot” supplanted “automata” or “android”. Now the word “robot” comes from a Slavic root word, “robota”, which Čapek and his brother generated to describe artificial human being-slash-machines. “Robota” means a slave. It means free labour, coerced labour, it means slave. That seems an accident or just an interesting coincidence historically… Not to me! When Čapek described it to his brother, he used the word “slave” to describe it. And the reason is that he was obsessed with segregation in the United States. If you read the play, it’s about machines that are segregated against. They clean, they cook, they do all the labour. Little by little, they begin to get resentful of how they’re treated. They slowly but surely start organising among themselves. They’re told that they don’t have souls. And little by little they begin to ask themselves “Do we have souls? What is this thing called soul? Where does soul come from? Why don’t we have it? How come they have it and we don’t have it?” In the play, a young white woman comes to liberate the machines. And she helps to create this organisation for machines to fight against their oppression… Do I need to go on like this? I’m reading this and I’m like “Holy cow! How did people not see this?”
So at this point, I wonder, is this the beginning of the parallel between race and technology? Because the image of the robot and machine at work in Karel Čapek’s play is what would inspire Fritz Lang in the film Metropolis, which gives us the enduring image of the machine. And of course, what does the machine turn into? A woman. So, it’s race, it’s sex, it’s technology. They’re all always connected in some way. And one of the things I point out in the book is race, sex, technology… sound and music almost always emerge in these conversations, going all the way back.
Here’s the real story folks – the year 1835 is when the notorious PT Barnum (father of American sideshows, founder of the American Museum, and progenitor of the modern circus) bought or acquired the rights to display the slave woman, Joice Heth, said to be 161 years old. When the public’s interest in her age waned, Barnum rekindled its curiosity by spreading a rumour that Joice Heth was actually a mechanical automaton. The question for this book is: why were PT Barnum and the early market for freakery able to so easily sustain this hoax? Why was it seen as credible and indeed logical? And what would be the repercussions of this masquerade in which race, Africa, sexuality, technology and artificial intelligence all came together in one performance? That’s the beginning of the book. To explain why all these things came together and why they are always kept together in conversation.
KE: I find it kind of sinister, a sinister and chilling story, and yet you tell it with such relish. You tell dark and sinister, if not downright horrific, tales with a certain, certain…
LCS: Perverted glee?!
KE: Yeah, exactly. A kind of careful glee. I have the feeling you enjoy rubbing the readers face or brain in the details of what it is you’re discussing. At one point, when you say “the very fact that they couldn’t tell the difference” – so there we open up the uncanny declivity between race and the human. The fact that a white American audience is not sure whether Joice Heth is human or not is what allows everything else to then follow in its wake. Barnum becomes the figure who comments on blight and race, race as a mutation of the human race, that which is less than human, other than human. Race which is on the side of the non-human or the inhuman. And what he then does is effectively monetise that.
LCS: Absolutely. He monetises the ambiguity. But it’s important to realise that Joice Heth was already not a human being. Why? Because according to American law, she was a slave. She wasn’t a human being anyway. What then comes up for me in this conversation about the limits of the human is what constitutes the human, right? Because whenever you ask whether or not this is human or that is human, you’re actually asking “what is the human?” in the first place. Which is a question that we still don’t really know. The same thing when we talk about artificial intelligence. What artificial intelligence has taught us is that we don’t know what intelligence is. Whenever we encounter a machine, can it think? Does it have a soul? And then the question becomes: well, what is thinking? What is a soul? Are they human? Do they merely mimic us? Will they take over from us? Will they revolt? These same exact questions that were asked about slaves during slavery. This is not an accident. Things that seem accidental are not accidental at all. It’s a shared logic around a restrictive understanding of what constitutes the human. And that’s where blacks and robots and machines really come together – not just in a clever, theoretical formulation. It’s there in history. It’s why Robert Johnson wants to have sex with his phonograph. By going into that material, you realise that these parallels and relationships are, in fact, embedded in the history of technology. My goal is to bring them out so they might, in fact, seem a little uncanny and bizarre and disturbing, but they’re absolutely real, they’re there.
Another thing that motivates this work is not only a long-standing history in which we think of race or black people as opposed to technology – we’re natural, authentic, organic and all that kind of garbage, right? This binary between race and technology has fed a lot of thinking. When you study technology, you don’t study race. When you study race, you don’t study technology. When you study music, you study music as an expression of the soul or an expression of rhythm, lyrics, etcetera – you don’t study music as actually informatics. But black peoples, particularly in the Caribbean and Americas, have always engaged technology, in terms of programming it, in terms of informatics, as modes of communication transfer and information transfer.
KE: Part of the implication of thinking race and technology together is that race is a technology. Then the question is what kind of a technology is it? Race is so slippery because it can be understood as ontology, it can be understood as pseudo-science, it can be understood in multiple ways. One of the things that comes through in your book is this series of questions in which science fiction effectively treats race as a technology.
LCS: Absolutely. This is one of my quarrels with what’s called “Afrofuturism” – not to dismiss it. You get the impression from a lot of Afrofuturism, or even a lot of feminist science fiction discourse, that these are contemporary phenomena, 20th-century phenomena, right? When, in fact, they are actually not only 19th-century phenomena, but the very beginnings of science fiction were about race and empire. Race as a technology, but empire as a way to frame interactions between the human and the inhuman. A lot of Afrofuturism comes to science fiction belatedly (Octavia Butler, less so Samuel Delaney – I do wish Afrofuturists would read more Delaney) and sees in black science fiction and black science fictional music the expression of race, empire, gender, sexuality – and that liberates people. That’s why Afrofuturism is so exciting. However, as a classic, old-school sci-fi nerd, science fiction itself has always been about this stuff. It didn’t need it to be discovered in the late 1990s as a genre amenable to conversations about race, gender and sexuality. The history of science fiction is the history of race, gender and sexuality and empire. And that goes all the way up to, you know, cyberpunk, cyborgs and all of that. So, my quarrel with Afrofuturism is the suggestion that science fiction has not always been aware of these things. My argument is that is what science fiction is about.
KE: Could it be that when people talk about Afrofuturism, what they’re talking about is a counter-response against the kind of imperial mechanics of science fiction that you describe. Everything from I Robot to Ex-Machina, AI, Wall-E, the Planet of the Apes films speak to this. It’s clear that Afrofuturism comes with a project of affirmation which writes itself. Part of the project is to affirm a future. People scan some film and say, in this future there are hardly any black people in it. People want to see figures who will suggest that the African-American presence will exist in the far future. And part of your critique of Afrofuturism, part of what’s most compelling, is to say well, why would that be the case? If the future can be defined minimally as transfiguration over time and transformation over time, as evolution over time, why would we assume that the African-American presence would be invariant?
LCS: Exactly. I am politically and culturally aware of it connected to that desire to see the future with black people in it. I understand reading science fiction and saying “well, there’s no black people in it”. But someone coming from a sci-fi nerd background, you know that whenever you saw cyborgs and robots, you’re like, “they’re really talking about black people”. I always saw it as being about otherness and difference and race. So, even though black people weren’t in it, it was about technologies of race. Right? With technology as a metaphor for race. This is very clear in a lot of science fiction. But the project to see the future in a black way… I get it. I get it. Right. But the problem for me is that what that then becomes is susceptible to a nationalist passion for invariance over time. Meaning that to say that black people in the future will be black and proud and African or whatever, right, is to miss the fact that history and time changes all of us culturally, ethnically, socially. And so the project of Afrofuturism is very like the project of Afrocentrism.
KE: So, one of your projects is to say “well, what happens if we submit blackness to transformation over time? What forms will it take?” And this is something that runs through your book. But you introduce it, not through the question of Afrofuturism per se, but through what you call “creolisation”. And you associate that with figures such as Sylvia Winter, Wilson Harris, Édouard Glissant. Reading this, I was really struck by your reading of Glissant, in particular. You read the Glissant of Caribbean Discourse. The Glissant of the 1970s. And you read creolisation in a very strong sense of the word. Can you tell us a bit about creolisation and the role that the Caribbean plays as a kind of intervention into science fiction, which is dominated by, let’s say, the imperial mechanics of science fiction – the Star Trek motifs – or by Afrofuturism as a counterproject. You’re saying “no, there’s a totally different tendency which is related but distinct. And we need to think that through as well.”
LCS: I am interested in creolisation as a way of looking at history as something that constantly produces difference and change over time. And what’s important for us to do is to not imagine ourselves, or not need to see ourselves, as the way we are in the past or the future. But to understand ourselves as transforming through time into new configurations that we adapt to as we move forward. Creolisation is a way for me to think about these things, but at the same time to be committed to a critique of racism, sexism, nationalism… you know, empire. Creolisation as a way of thinking comes out of not just the Caribbean, but Latin America, both places, shaped by colonisation and incredible racial violence; also places of remarkable musical production – not an accident, places where they’ve come to terms, theoretically, with the violence that has brought us together. And so creolisation doesn’t apologise for violence and racism and history. It acknowledges that, but attempts to make sense of what those things do. Creolisation is basically saying “okay, so now what?” And that “now what” is a futurism. That “now what” is to imagine possibility and to adapt artistically, culturally and politically to the fact that things will constantly reinvent and reshape themselves over time.
Roots is an obsession, of course, with invariants, which is why I read a lot about reggae. Roots reggae and the obsession with a kind of nationalist, invariant sensibility, recapturing what we once were is crucial to a lot of black politics, nationalist politics. But at the same time as roots we have dub. At the same time as hip-hop hardcore machismo, nationalist lyrics, we have a sound world that is as hybrid as possible. And if you study the history of music writing about reggae, hip-hop, dub while you’re simultaneously studying Caribbean and Latin American theory and philosophy, you’ll realise that they all use the same metaphors – metaphors of mixing, of collage, of echo. The roots metaphor in reggae was so crucial because all this stuff started for me when I was writing about the movement from reggae, dub and dancehall, right. And if you look at the metaphors and how these things manifest in reggae culture and soundsytem culture, soundsystem culture is about technology. It’s an obsession. It’s like a pornographic obsession with technology and machines. Coming from a West Indian background, I grew up seeing that, right. And so “Phonograph Blues” is just, you know, an earlier iteration of a lust for machines! And machines as a way of expressing nationalist black dominance. But that’s part of a much larger story.
KE: Music allows for a will to inauthenticity – which is a great phrase that you use at one point in the book: “Music allows a will to inauthenticity that other modes don’t.” Music doesn’t punish inauthenticity. On the contrary, it creates opportunities for it. Continually, at its best, it strives towards that. Whereas other modes seem to have a problem – just as you move into cinema or you move into robotics, that will to inauthenticity, something happens to it. It starts to get hemmed in and constrained by posing dynamics. Dynamics of disciplining and punishing. It’s a kind of recurrent move in your text.
LCS: Yeah. The first part of the book focuses on jazz a lot. Particularly on big band jazz because it’s the conversations around big band jazz in the early 20th century in America where you first start seeing – not in science fiction but in jazz writing – representations or references to black people through their dance moves as robots. The word “robot” shows up in people who are hostile to jazz, right? This isn’t music, this is sound that’s more amenable to robots, they would say. And one of the reasons they thought so was because the black body in the syncopated big band jazz movements just seemed mechanical. Lots of critics were terrified of jazz and popular musical forms as being that which would de-individuate us, and make us like robots. And the dance movements were scary. Because it was like, oh my God, that’s what industrial culture’s going to do to us! And it’s going to be done through black people and their cultural forms. When you look at big band jazz, you think of it now as okay, organic and spiritual and soul and blah, blah, blah. Back in the day, when you saw fifteen dudes with these horns, it was mechanical. It was like pistons! “Tchoo-tchoo-tchoo-tchoo-tchoo-dooo-dooo-dah-dah-dah-dah-da!” Back then, the syncopation to sound like a train or to sound like a factory, right? That stuff was pretty terrifying to a lot of people who didn’t understand the music. So it was black people allowing – and you can see this in Le Corbusier, the architect – those who liked jazz and black people, thought “Ah! Through the negro and his sound…” You’re seeing a new way of allowing ourselves to be integrated with this new technological society to come. Which is why Italian futurism effectively begins for me with a novel called Mafarka the Futurist by Marinetti, right, which features an African king and his robot black son, his son who produces a strange music. This is 1915. I ain’t making this shit up. This is real.
Listen below to the conversation, where he joins Kodwo Eshun and Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom:
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