This conversation with Alexander Weheliye is built upon the critique he made of the work of Giorgio Agamben, in particular in his essentialization of the muselmann in the context of the Holocaust. Alexander argues that slavery functions as a better paradigm to understand the “layering” of bare lives and the racial aspects that this understanding involves. He explains how he is interested in finding other ways to “claim humanity” than the traditional judicial one that attributes this status in a retroactive manner to suffering bodies. In order to do so, we evoke the works of major African-American and black Caribbean thinkers such as Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Wynter, Édouard Glissant, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, C.L.R. James, etc. We spend the last ten minutes of the conversation talking about Alexander’s work about the relationship between black music and technology
Alexander G. Weheliye is professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University where he teaches black literature and culture, critical theory, social technologies, and popular culture. He is the author of Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Duke UP, 2005), which was awarded The Modern Language Association’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Study of Black American Literature or Culture and Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Duke UP, 2014). Currently, he is working on two projects. The first, Modernity Hesitant: The Civilizational Diagnostics of W.E.B. Du Bois and Walter Benjamin, tracks the different ways in which these thinkers imagine the marginal as central to the workings of modern civilization. The second, Feen
– Alexander G. Weheliye, “After Man,” in American Literary History, Oxford University Press, 2008.
– Alexander G. Weheliye, “Pornotropes,” in Journal of Visual Culture. 2008.
– David Scott and Sylvia Wynter, “The Re-enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter,” in Small Axe 8 (2000): 119–207.
– Sylvia Wynter, “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory and Re-imprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Désêtre: Black Studies Toward the Human Project,” in In Not Only the Master’s Tools: African-American Studies in Theory and Practice, edited by Lewis Ricardo Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon, 107–69. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2006.
– Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—an Argument,” in CR: The New Centennial Review 3.3 (2003): 257–337.
– Alexander G. Weheliye, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity, Durham, Duke University Press, 2005.
– Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.
– Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
– Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, New York: Zone Books, 1999.
– Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–76, translated by David Macey, New York: St. Martin’s, 2003.
– Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, translated by Betsy Wing, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
– Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, edited by Lydia Maria Child, Boston: Published for the Author, 1861.
– Cyril Lionel Robert James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In, 1953, Reprint, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001.
– Hortense J. Spillers, Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
TRANSCRIPTION OF THE CONVERSATION BY AMRIT TREWN:
This series of transcriptions is curated by Amrit Trewn, recent graduate of Northwestern University (Chicago) and aficionado of mathematics, critical theory and Emmanuel Levinas
Léopold Lambert: Hello Everyone. Today my guest is Alexander Weheliye, who is an Associate Professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University in the North of Chicago. He is the author of a book called Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity, and we’re going to talk about that a little bit later today.
But before all, hello Alexander.
Alexander Weheliye: Hello, how are you?
L: Good, thank you. And maybe to begin this conversation, would you mind telling us what your research is currently about?
A: Okay, happily.
So I just finished a book that should be coming out next month in August. It’s called Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. And that book is on the one hand a critique of what I call ‘biopolitics and bare life discourse’ and, more specifically, the work of Giorgio Agamben and Michel Foucault, on the one hand. On the other hand it uses black feminist theorists Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter to think about some of the same questions that Foucault and Agamben have raised, but from the perspective of black feminism. And, beyond the brilliance of the work of Spillers and Wynter, I thought that it was necessary because neither Agamben nor Foucualt, even though they’re writing around it and they use the terminology, actually really theorize and think about race: What race is and what racism is. So it sort of remains suspended in this bubble where it doesn’t have to be explained. And my point is that thinkers such as Wynter and Spillers, but also others―Glissant, Fanon, WEB Du Bois, et cetera and so on―actually provide much of the same language but highlight questions of race, gender and sexuality, and also embodiment, right? How is a category such as bare life embodied and lived? Which is something that Agamben is not very interested in.
So, I finished that and I’m kind of returning to questions of black culture and music and technology, as in Phonographies, and working now on one project about the history of RnB or soul music since the late 1980’s. And thinking about the way that different technologies―both technologies as gadgets but also as forms of knowledge―have been used in RnB because RnB music, as opposed to hip hop or even electronic dance music, is very much under-discussed in the critical literature.
And then I also have a project that I’ve sort of been working on that is more archival, which is a project that discusses German thinker Walter Benjamin and WEB Du Bois, and sort of thinks about their theories of civilization.
L: Great. That very much sets up the way we’re going to try to have this conversation, starting with this critique of the philosophy of Agamben and try to see how to build upon it. And, then, this second part about technology and music.
So, to really jump into the topic, I think that one of the ways you approach questions about humanity in particular is to take advantage of the current research being done around what we call ‘posthumanity.’ And it’s interesting to see that by thinking of posthumanity we are forced to think of what is humanity to begin with. One of the remarks that you are making is that we are rethinking of humanity in terms of posthumanity but not so much in terms of race, and it seems to be completely forgotten from the debate. So, in your research about what maybe humanity consisted of, you look in particular [at] the suffering humanity and[…] the critique of exceptionalism or particularism. Could you tell us more about that?
A: Mhm. I’m going to back up a little bit.
One of the things that happens with posthumanity and, I would say, even earlier if think of the discourses of antihumanism that comes up in late 1960s France for instance, right―what is then known as poststructuralism or even earlier in structuralism―, that there’s this idea that we need to leave a certain notion of humanity and humanism behind. And in that moment what really doesn’t get discussed or theorized is that that version of humanism and humanity is a very particular one. And I think that this becomes much, much more explicit in theories of posthumanism where there’s this idea, ‘Okay, now we’ve entered this posthuman stage where we are not in control of ourselves, we are not liberal humanist subjects that own ourselves.’ Right? This is sort of the basic definition of the human in liberalism: [to] own ourselves, [be] in control of our faculties, that can think, that can think abstractly, and so on.
And my fundamental question has been for awhile, what happens if we don’t begin with that version of humanity but begin with a version of humanity that is not in control of itself: the slave subject or the colonized subject, et cetera and so on? And then you get a very, very different idea of what it might mean to claim the category of the human. And I think oftentimes the way that, let’s say, a thinker like Fanon is read in his invocation of ‘humanism’ is that it’s a sort of very, very simple appropriation of humanist discourses. Or, Cesaire would be another early example. But I think what we’re missing there is the moment that someone such as Fanon or Cesaire claims the human, the category has to change, right, because they’re not speaking from the vantage point of being liberal subjects.
L: It’s not the human that Foucault declared “dead.”
A: No, no. I mean, Foucault is able to write The Order of Things without necessarily ever considering colonialism, in the way not only that colonialism shaped Europe but shaped the very idea of what it means to be ‘human’ in that context. And, very often, those ideas of what it means to be human―the liberal humanist subject―are always set off against the woman, the slave, the colonized subjects, those are all the ones that can’t have access to that category, so they’re very much coterminous. But I feel that in contemporary critical discourse that oftentimes that sort of fallacy is being repeated again and again.
So that was really my starting point. And, you know, to make a very, very long and complicated sort of debate, to bring that to a head: When I initially read Agamben’s work, my first question was, what would happen if we would start the category of the homo sacer, if we would think about that in relation to racial slavery and not in the way that Agamben does in relationship to the Holocaust? Not by replacing one [with] the other, but it was just a thought process of how would his theory have to change, where the Holocaust provides in a certain way a neat conceptual apparatus because you can historically contain it, even though it’s actually not containable, because it happened during 12 years in the center of Europe. Whereas if you look at racial slavery you would have to look at 500 years, what happened there. And this is what I mean by the kind of exceptionalism that especially Agamben traffics in is that, in order to make the Holocaust this sort of complete aberration and new thing within Western history and discourses, he kind of has to neglect this large chunk of history. And the very basic things that led to killing camps, the death camps of the Holocaust, were first used nascently in many different contexts: In the German colonies, in southwest Africa, but also during Indian removal in the United States. So there’s this kind of larger sphere that really gets pushed to the side and that then allows someone such as Agamben to make the grand arguments that he makes.
So it’s not necessarily so much a fundamental disagreement with Agamben, but really trying to resituate it and really think about what happens if we don’t think of the Holocaust as this sort of delimited, extreme moment but in the kind of historical entanglements―What Eduard Glissant would call as this moment of relation: Relation to racial slavery, and there are many historical convergences between those things, thinking about the Jim Crow laws in the United States and then the Nuremberg Laws in Germany. There’s a clear connection there. Then you could also go to South Africa and the apartheid laws, the history of eugenics in the United States, and so on. That doesn’t mean that they’re the same, but that they’re a part of this sort of historical[…] ocean, if you will. And that is really what interests me the most just in terms of the historical and conceptual aspects.
And it’s similar to Foucault, that they only way that he can claim that biopolitical racism is something new is by neglecting colonialism, by really removing that completely from view. And it’s not only the removing of colonialism from view, but then leading to this idea that regular ethnic racism is something that’s natural; Biopolitical racism is something different because it’s racism between different, autonomous groups in Europe. Whereas the racism against someone in north or west Africa by a European subject is not really something that needs to be explored.
What that really leads to―this is the second part of the critique―is the way that Critical Theory gets canonized in the US Academy is in this very Europhilic way. In that folks such as Foucault, Agamben, and earlier Derrida, Deleuze, and so on, Antonio Negri, they get to occupy this space of the great thinkers because they never speak from a marked position as opposed to a black feminist perspective that is always, already marked. And my point with that is that the reception of folks such as Agamben and Foucault and Negri allows people in the United States to maintain a racial innocence, or denial, neglect, as it has existed in Western Europe with a few exceptions. There’s still this idea that―and I use a phrase from Foucault to highlight this―ethnic racism takes place some place else: It’s a problem of the United States, it’s a problem for Great Britian, and it’s the same thing in Germany, it’s even more extreme in Italy[…]. And I think that this is reflected in the thinking of folks such as Agamben and Foucault, but it’s also reflected in the institutional politics. I remember when Agamben and the idea of bare life, even Foucault’s notion of biopolitics, were first translated into English and people started reading them, there seemed to be this idea, ‘Oh, now Foucault and Agamben have spoken about racism, we don’t really need to read black people or people of color anymore.’ And I’m being mildly facetious, but only mildly facetious. I mean, people would actually say things that were along those lines.
So, for me, it’s about pointing out those gaps and really resituating Agamben and Foucault, and placing them in this context of where, in a lot of Western European countries, the public discourse maintains this racial innocence. And I think that the two can’t really be separated. That, if you think about, for instance, the French case―the surrealists or Sartre―that there was a very clear engagement with thinkers and activists from the colonies, from the[…] territoires d’outre mer [outer-seas territories] in a way that it really disappears post-1960’s. There are a few exceptions but, nevertheless, there is this European whitening of what the thinking is.
L: This introduction being made, let’s look at this concept of ‘humanity’ and how it’s being either attributed or claimed. There’s one thing that you wrote in the articles that you were kind of enough to send me, how humanity is sometimes retroactively attributed[…] in precisely what I was introducing earlier which is the ‘suffering.’ Retroactively, the victims are being attributed the status of ‘humanity.’ That’s something that we’ll be discussing in a very different context, in a forthcoming podcast with Miriam Ticktin about migrant rights, and it’d be interesting to make the bridge in advanced.
So, could you tell us more about that, about this notion of suffering and everything that’s problematic that goes [along] with it?
A: Again, they’re not the same, but there’s a very clear connection [to] what you were saying about migrant rights. That usually the logic that happens is that minoritized, subjugated, oppressed groups―groups that are under genocidal conditions―, the main way that they can make claims on state entities in the West or non-state entities, such as the various offices of the United Nations, is by claiming injury, by claiming suffering. And that, then, allows them at least nominally on paper to be recognized by the state by being given full citizenship rights or, by the UN, by being recognized as ‘proper refugees’ as opposed to ‘economic migrants.’ That’s the main way certain groups have gained access.
In the book the way that I talk about it is through habeas corpus. That’s why the title [is] Habeas Viscus, to think about a different way of inhabiting that space. But what often happens, just very basically on the ground, is that the bequeathing of humanity doesn’t actually occur. It’s sort of just this placeholder. And, secondly, that oftentimes the violence that the state and non-state entities subject folks to is much more extreme than the violence that they might have encountered. So[…] I really want us to find a different way to make claims to humanity that are not based on this sort of legalism. If you have these states that are basically built on colonialism, slavery, genocide, et cetera and so on, it seems somewhat contradictory then to expect that state to give one the humanity. I’m not saying that it’s sometimes not necessary just as a local or even super-local organizing principle, but it should never be the only path because usually one has to pay a certain price for the entry.
In my thinking, especially with black culture―this is also why a lot of the discourses around the posthuman and humanism are somewhat problematic―, is that there is this assumption: If you get full citizenship rights, then you are fully human. My argument is that black people are not fully human. I mean, black people can be killed at will by the US state and by many other states. We live in a space where there are millions of black people who are imprisoned for the right and the wrong reasons. And the legal mechanism of full citizenship rights, of the recognition of the suffering, hasn’t really in any way mitigated the actual suffering. It’s just migrated onto different paths.
Recently, there have been a few people who have critiqued a sort of global human rights discourse. And the other thing is also only certain kinds of suffering are acknowledged. For a very long time, and still now, what doesn’t get acknowledged, for instance, is sexual violence, primarily against female bodied folks but also against men. One has to present one’s suffering and oneself in a certain way in order to be recognized; You already have to be respectable. If you’re a transgender street worker from a country from the global south, the chances that your suffering will be recognized are much less than if you are a doctor or a lawyer from the same context. Again, this idea of the human is very much encoded in that.
Just to give you a historical example: WEB Du Bois and several other people, William Patterson, in the late-1940’s tried to petition the United Nations when the Declaration of Human Rights was being crafted to include the black population in the United States in that Declaration of Human Rights, and to have lynching, Jim Crow, sharecropping be recognized as a form of genocide. And, of course, that was shot down because that would be admitting that the problem is not only those bad third world countries but that the problem is within the system itself. So far as I know, there are hardly any groups within Western nations that have been able to make that kind of claim to the United Nations. So there are all these preconditions that one has to fulfill in order to be recognized, and in order for one’s suffering to be recognized.
L: Well that drives us pretty close back to Agamben and this concept of bare life that he construct[ed] in his Homo Sacer series of books. And in the historical example that he takes, the Holocaust, bare life is embodied by the Muselmänn. So you talk about the Muselmänn―and correct me if you think I’m misreading what you wrote―but, in my understanding, you think that Agamben essentializes the Muselmänn whereas we should probably have a sort of…I don’t know if gradient is the right word, but maybe we should look at it in terms of degrees rather than in terms of essence.
Maybe I should leave it to you here, but there’s more to it after that in another paper that you wrote that very much goes back to the same questions and, this time, not using the[…] rhetoric of Muselmänn that was used to talk about the weakest the Holocaust detainees in the Nazi extermination camps.
But we’ll talk about right after. So, could you tell us more about this?
A: It has to be essentializing because, for Agamben, the Muselmänn is this absolute limit figure. That’s why he calls it the “absolute biopolitical substance.” And the irony for me is, of course, he says that this is the moment where there are no more caesuras, where racial categorization is not possible. Even though the Muselmänner were not all Jewish, many of them were. Initially when I read it,[…] I started thinking about the very name: Why were they called Muselmänner?
L: Which is Muslim.
A: …Muslim, right. It’s a little bit more complicated than that. Then it was named Muslim, and in French it’s basically the same term…
A: But it actually changed after the Third Reich in Germany, and it was actually declared [that] one could claim injury before German court if one was called that. And the more common term is Muselmänner, not Muselmäner.
So this is, at this point, really a terms that is specific to the camps. But, nevertheless, it designates Muslim. My question was just, why did these people who were the weakest, the least closest to what we would consider a full human and subject, were called that? And Agamben doesn’t really reflect on that. He sort of gives a theological explanation of why they were called Muselmänner, but I was really more interested in terms of how, in the interactions with the other inmates in the camps, they came to figure as that. And, also, to think about how being termed ‘Muselmänner’ is in and of itself also a form of racial categorization.
One of the things I did was go back to the―there aren’t that many primary sources―sources. There were these two Polish sociologists who did interviews in the late 1970s and that Agamben draws on to look at, because Agamben also has a tendency to make things up.[…] He will literally just change the text if it doesn’t suit his interpretation. So I went back; I read them. And it seemed to me that there was a lot of horror, but what Agamben really doesn’t get to is this…such a strong drive for wanting to survive. Yes, they might have been weak, but the way that he describes them are as these apathetic figures. And when the folks who been Muselmänner themselves and witnessed the Muselmänner in the camps, when they talk about it it’s a much more, as you said, “gradient,” I would say layered, way that they talk about [them]. I don’t think I go through great lengths about that aspect. But it’s in the book, that they talk about their dreams, their hopes, desires, that they have these very intense memories 40 years after it happened [about] how they felt.
There was this one moment at the end of the book where Agamben writes about the Muselmänn most extensively, Remnants of Auschwitz, he prints the testimonies taken from the study of the two Polish sociologists without any commentary. And there was this one moment where he leaves out a few words, and I thought that was really telling. It was a former Muselmänn, I’m forgetting the name now, but he says, “I had this incredibly strange and sweet feeling.” It’s not even ‘strange:’ ‘pleasant.’ Angenehm is the German word, I don’t know what the Polish word is; There are lots of layers of translation. And Agamben takes out the ‘pleasant.'[…] How do you get to that point when you’re so close to death, when everything that is thought to be human about you has been taken away by sheer violence, how does that constitute something pleasant?
And that’s what really sent me on that journey to think about being Muselmänn[…] as something political, and there are certain writers who study this who also think about being Muselmänn not only as something being done to someone, but as a form of resistance, as a withdrawal. This is perhaps one of the only things that those folks had control over, meaning that they denied themselves the food. But really, again, to not think about this as this abstract Jesus-like figure, but as actual living, breathing beings. And I think that’s really something that very often disappears in Agamben. For him, the Muselmänn and the homo sacer is a figure that shows us something and for me it was really important to think about in this context but also with CLR James and with certain slave testimonies, layered and as shrouded and veiled as those testimonies may be, what actually happens in that space that he calls ‘bare life’ or ‘the zone of indistinction.’ And how people actually perceived of themselves in those moments not because that’s more correct but in many ways, for me, it’s much more interesting because there’s actually something happening there and we can learn something from it. And that really disappears in Agamben’s worldview.
L: You just evoked CLR James, who’s a great Caribbean writer. And precisely he helps us to think of it in terms of layers, to you use your own terminology. You’re quoting him when he was held incarcerated for four months on Ellis Island. Could you tell us a little bit [about the] context of his detention, and what makes him reflect as well on this Muselmänn condition that you thought he was in?
A: I wouldn’t say he was in a Muselmänn-like condition, but a bare-life like [one].
CLR James had a very long and storied life, but this was when he was in the United States which I believe was from the 1940’s onwards. He initially was a Trotskyist but he even broke with Trosky and he founded the Johnson-Forest Tendency, his own stream of Marxist thought and organizing. And he was held on Ellis Island―this was in the moment of McCarthyism―and was to be extradited from the United states because he wasn’t a citizen and I think he was here without a visa for over ten years[…].
So what happens to him there is he writes this book, which is basically a study, a political Marxist reading of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. And then he appends to that an autobiographical account of his time on Ellis Island. He wrote this and had it printed himself, and then submitted this to the court. So this was testimony. Clearly it was ignored. But, for him, it was testimony. Partially he wrote about Melville in order to show that he knew something about American culture. He was always a big defender of popular culture and American culture where a lot of other Marxists in that moment just thought that it was garbage, to put it somewhat extremely. In that testimony, in the last chapter, he talks about the inhumane conditions, and what linked it to me to the Muselmänn was the idea of food, because for the Muselmänn their whole world revolved around food: getting scraps of food, dreaming about food, talking about food. With James, it’s slightly different because he has an ulcer, but he can’t literally digest the food in Ellis Island. So he becomes very, very sick. And, because he’s CLR James, he reflects on it in a political fashion, in a way that the Muselmänner did not really have the opportunity. Not only thinking about it as being simply bad food, but something being done to his body. He thinks about it in relation, to use Glissant’s term, to what happened in the Gulags and in the camps, without ever in one moment saying, ‘This is the same.’ But that there’s a continuum there, in the way that food and sustenance, and the lack thereof, are used politically.
L: You used the phrase earlier, ‘It’s in the same ocean,’ I think it’s perfect. A very Glissant thing to do.
A: So that’s what interested me about those moments. Again, it’s James in that moment[…] where he finds an opening in order to use what is being done to him in order to create something else: To draw attention to it, but also to create a space in which he’s not only being acted upon.
In the book, another example that I look at in that chapter is Harriet Jacob’s slave narrative where she was in this tiny garret, which was probably as big as this table…
L: that’s pretty small
A: …―it was really small―for seven years. I forgot the dimensions; It was really tiny. She did that in order to hide from her master, but at the same time to still be able to see her children. So she was hiding basically just out of sight of the slave master who was constantly threatening her with sexual violence. She uses this long moment of imprisonment in order to actually create something else, in order to have some semblance of control. I’m trying to avoid agency and resistance because…
L: That’s perfect to actually transition to what I suppose is in the same book but for me is in two articles, which is looking in particular at slavery as operating through similar mechanisms[…]. In order to describe that, you are turning no longer to the concept of bare life, but to a concept elaborated by Hortense Spillers, that is the concept of flesh rather than the concept of body. Could you explain to us what this is about?
A: The concept of the flesh is…Spillers writes this in an essay from 1987, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” and she talks about the middle passage and the ensuing racial slavery in the aftermath as taking away the bodies of the people that were captured and brought over the ocean, and instead that they’re constituted as flesh.
In relationship to that, she also talks about there being an ungendering, which doesn’t mean that black people in the “new world” don’t have any gender, but that they don’t conform to hegemonic notions of what masculinity and femininity is.
And what was also really interesting to me about the flesh―and, again, habeas corpus and then habeas viscus, that’s “to have the flesh”―was that the flesh provided a specifically racialized and gendered and sexualized concept but that also so much of it was about how that category was lived, the sort of messiness about it. Also, what Spillers really contributes is to look at how the flesh is then not only something that is created in the particular moment, as with the Muselmänn in the camps, but that it’s something that is then transmitted through the generations.
To put it in really, really simple terms: The way that Spillers thinks about the flesh is, how do black people become black through slavery in the Americas? And, then, how is that categorization sustained over 500 years, or 600 years at this point in time? And that’76s where the notion of the flesh comes in. She calls it the “hierogliphics of the flesh,” that they’re these markings that are illegible but nevertheless have these very, very far reaching consequences that we tend to think of as racial categories or identities.
L: And I suppose one of the main differences to distinguish between[…] the Holocaust and slavery, is that the Holocaust was an industrialization of death as such whereas slavery was an industrialization of anatomies and workforce. But not at all in a way where each body would therefore need to be maintained in an optimal workforce. but, more, the mass of bodies were considered as a potential for workforce that needed to be industrially and administratively worked on. So, when I…
A: Can I? I just want to say, in terms of the workforce and labor, there’s what we tend to think of as work: working in the fields, working in the plantation. But I think one of the things that oftentimes gets lost in that essay [is] the libidinal aspect of it, right…
L: that’s where I was going
A: Okay, okay haha…and all these other affective ways. I think we still see that today in that black bodies are very, very often needed if there’s a crisis. Let’s say we want to talk in the public about sports figures that are not heterosexual. It’s usually black figures first. HIV, it’s the same thing. Domestic violence, it’s the same thing. So that there’s this way that black people as an idea in a mass and as actual living beings are put in the place of laboring in so many different ways. And one of those ways is the libidinal aspect of it.
L: And I suppose that’s where the concept of flesh really carries this complexity of this meaning.
A: Yeah. Also with, you know, the sustenance, food, the fleshiness, the actual embodiedness of these figures.
L: Okay. Well, there won’t be much of a transition here and I apologize if someone wants to trace the curve of this conversation, there’s going to be a sort of rupture here. But I really wanted to hear you―maybe for the last ten minutes of the conversation―about your writings about technology and music, and how this relates to this African American Studies research that you’ve been working on these last years. Could you introduce us to this work?
A: Yeah. For me, there’s actually clear conceptual connection, because one of the things I’ve tried to do in all of my work is try to understand really how this abstract notion of blackness operates. Whether that’s in relationship to the kind of discourses of the ‘human’ in a more theoretical register in that project, or in relationship to black music and technology.
Basically, the idea there being that one of the main ways in which the notion of the ‘human’ has been defined is as being distinct from the technological but, on the other hand, also in control. And one of the things I found when I first started thinking about these questions in the mid to late 1990s―this was the moment when a lot of people were talking about the digital divide―this basically designated that―this was the early days of the internet―that populations of color, especially black people, didn’t have the same kind of access to the internet and to technology as other groups financially, structurally, but also culturally. So my approach to the question of black music was really through the conduit of the technological; To really think about how different technologies, from the phonograph to the auto-tune software, had been used in black popular music, not necessarily to show that the digital divide was untrue, but to tell a different, more complicated story about the relationship between black culture and technology. And there, as with the category of the ‘human’, what you find is oftentimes only certain things count as technological. So that, let’s say, the grand piano: Perhaps not quite thought of as a technology but “mastering it” is thought of as an accomplishment. Whereas the pianos that ragtime musicians used, that they really transformed, were not thought of as technologies.
In the project that I’m working on now, one of the things that I’m really trying to take very seriously is how the black singing voice functions as a series of particular technologies of inhabiting and imagining what it is to be human differently.[…] In Phonographies I look at several different instances: DJing, but also literary texts, film, and then a few―I’m not sure they’re quite contemporary anymore, but back then contemporary―hip-hop groups, especially ones that were not necessarily, or at least primarily, from the United States, to really think about how the current moment of globalization, since there have been several others, what that has done to black music and vice-a-versa. So that one of the ways to think about the export, especially of US popular music, is that it has primarily been black popular music or derivations of it. And to sort of provide a history of that as well.
So for me, again, it’s about this question of what’s the relationship between blackness and the ‘human.’ And technology is one of those ways; Whether this is the internet, it’s the player piano, or it’s the record player, or the walkman, [technology] is one way to approach that question.
It’s also…it’s not so much about the music, but it’s also about the sound. Historically speaking, one of the reasons―and it’s not the only reason―that sound has taken on such a great importance in black culture in the United States, but also in other parts of the Americas, is because the financial barriers are low. But it’s also the way that, for instance, writing and different writing cultures, right?[…] That black people that were taken from literate cultures were dissuaded, punished for writing and reading, which doesn’t mean there is this complete opposition but it’s something more fraught, where sound is a space where black culture has really, in some ways, been allowed to excel. And because of that, initially, it’s been taken up in so many different ways.
But I also don’t want to be in that camp that says that’s the only thing. But I think you find a lot of extensive histories of engagements with technology, of imagining humanity there, in a way for instance that you don’t quite find in film because the structural and financial barriers are just so much greater than it is to produce and, at this point also, disseminate music. That you can be, I don’t know, a musician who comes from a rural area. But you can put together a beat and flow over that beat and record it on your cheap laptop computer or even on your iPhone, to a certain extent, and then be able to distribute that globally almost instantaneously.
So those are some of the things that have interested me.
L: Alright. Well, Alexander, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I will be looking forward to this new book of yours that will come out…when?
A: In the next couple of weeks.
L: That’s the very, very near future; This podcast will come out in the next couple of weeks as well. That will be very contemporary.
Thank you very much.
A: Thank you.