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Social Text 20.2 (2002) 21-47

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Posthuman Voices In Contemporary Black Popular Music

Alexander G. Weheliye

Book titles tell the story. The original subtitle for Uncle Tom's Cabin was "The Man Who Was a Thing." In 1910 appeared a book by Mary White Ovington called Half a Man. Over one hundred years after the appearance of Stowe's book, The Man Who Cried I Am, by John A. Williams, was published. Quickskill thought of all the changes that would happen to make a "Thing" into an "I Am." Tons of paper. An Atlantic of blood. Repressed energy of anger that would form enough sun to light a solar system. A burnt-out black hole. A cosmic slave hole.

—Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada

If you listen close to the music, you'll find . . . my syste-systic humanistic sound to prove you, yeeaah.

—Zapp, "It Doesn't Really Matter"

This essay takes up N. Katherine Hayles's challenge to seize this critical moment in order "to contest what the posthuman means . . . before the trains of thought it embodies have been laid down so firmly that it would take dynamite to change them," by closely examining her recent text, How We Became Posthuman. 1 I do this because Hayles's volume provides the most elaborate history and theory of the posthuman, even while her framework embodies the "trains of thought" she herself queries. In other words, Hayles's own formulations are on the way to becoming hegemonic, at least in the discrepant disciplines in the humanities and social sciences that make up the postdiscipline of cultural studies. I begin with two contentions. The first concerns the literal and virtual whiteness of cybertheory. 2 The second establishes at the very least an aporetic relationship between New World black cultures and the category of the "human." In addition, this essay also seeks to realign the hegemony of visual media in academic considerations of virtuality by shifting the emphasis to the aural, allowing us to conjecture some of the manifold ways in which black cultural production engages with informational technologies.

This is followed by a discussion of the distinct status of the "human" in Afro-diasporic politico-cultural formations. Then my attention turns to the foremost theorist of a specifically black posthumanity: the British music and cultural critic Kodwo Eshun. 3 Eshun's work provides an occasion to imagine alternative stagings of the human and posthuman found in [End Page 21] the crosscurrents and discontinuities marking the history of African American music and the informational technologies in which they have been embodied over the course of the twentieth century. To this end, my focus will be on the role of the vocoder, a speech-synthesizing device that renders the human voice robotic, in R&B, since the audibly machinic black voice amplifies the vexed interstices of race, sound, and technology. In contrast to other forms of black popular music (jazz or hip hop, for instance), R&B, especially current manifestations of this genre, has received little critical attention. I would like to amend this neglect by insisting on the genre's importance as a pivotal space for the coarticulation of black subjectivity and information technologies. The interaction between the audibly mechanized and more traditionally melismatic and "soulful" voice in contemporary R&B indicates a different form of posthumanism than the one suggested by cybertheory, a posthumanism not mired in the residual effects of white liberal subjectivity, and a subjectivity located in the sonic arena rather than the ocular.

How We Were Never Human:
Race and the (Post) Human

It is obviously nothing new to declare that cybertheory has little if anything to say about the intricate processes of racial formation, whether U.S.-based or within a more global framework. While gender and sexuality have been crucial to theories of both cyberspace and the posthuman, the absence of race is usually perfunctorily remarked and of little consequence to these analyses. Critics such as Joe Lockard and Kalí Tal have dealt with the erasure of race from these studies, but their work remains ghettoized...


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Archived 2005
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