Reading List: Feenin: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music

There’s a lot of interesting material in here, with an admirable purpose. Taking as a starting point a history of posthumanism by N Katherine Hayles, Alexander Weheliye sets out to address what he identifies as a lack of attention to racial construction and formation, by arguing that contemporary R&B is “a pivotal space for the coarticulation of black subjectivity and information technologies”. Or, as he also puts it, “to realign the hegemony of visual media in academic considerations of virtuality by shifting emphasis to the aural”. There’s nothing like a good hegemony-realignment.

As in virtually all the other articles I’ve been reading, there are some eyebrow-raising moments. For example:

Even when giving examples of paradigmatic posthumans, Hayles falls back on white masculinist constructions by citing the Six Million Dollar Man and Robocop […] It seems that one has to be always already “free from the will of others” (or think that one is) in order to mutate into the fusion of heterogeneous agents comprising the posthuman state of being.

The first part is surely a fair criticism; but suggesting that the creation of Robocop is an example of posthuman creation centered on being free from the will of others seems a bit odd. Similarly, at times Weheliye seemed to me to cross over the line from arguing that the use of information technology in contemporary R&B has a unique meaning to arguing that the use of information technology in contemporary R&B is unique. Given that much of his article explores the use of more-or-less mechanized voices, at times you start wondering how such use differs — in terms of constructing a virtual self — from, I don’t know, “Fitter Happier” (or “Karma Police”, or indeed quite a bit of Radiohead), or work by other not noticeably black American artists.

Still, there are probably less such eyebrow-raises than average, and in broad terms Weheliye is quite convincing. The first half of the article establishes that “human has had a very different meaning in black culture and politics than it has enjoyed in mainstream America”, having to do with the disqualification of blackness from the category of human for so long; and further establishes that this understanding of human is not well-integrated into posthuman theory (at least in 2002). The second half of the article has the more challenging task, in that it has to establish that “incorporating other informational media … counteracts the marginalization of race” in posthuman theory, and further that “sound technologies” are in this sense a meaningful informational media.

Whether or not you ultimately buy all this, I think, depends on whether you accept the construction of “posthuman” in the article. Weheliye is good on his contention that “black popular musical genres make their own virtuality central” by, for instance, foregrounding the role of producers, and employing the aforementioned voice-alteration effects. (He also manages to write about popular music without sounding like he’s trying too hard.) “Feenin” is brought in as a term for a sort of industrial mechanisation of desire, the implication being this is a central affect of contemporary R&B, which also seems like a solid point.

Here’s the conclusion, though:

Eshun provides a singular account of nonhumanist black popular music as it explosively interferes with sound technologies, but in doing so he fails to take in the ramifications of these discourses in genres that do not explicitly announce themselves as Afrofuturist, such as R&B. Hayles’s conclusions seem indicative of numerous studies of virtuality and/or cyberspace, where race is heard in a minor key, and computer-mediated communication is the sole melody of the song we know all too well: the virtual. I hope I have shown that any theory of posthumanism would benefit from making race central to its trajectory, not ancillary, as well as venturing beyond purely visual notions of subjectivity.

As in Colin Milburn’s article, I find myself struggling with this understanding of “posthuman” — a word whose meaning is largely taken for granted in both pieces. Specifically: in what way is it meaningful to consider the sort of audio virtuality discussed in Weheliye’s article as evidence of posthumanity?

Consulting Wikipedia, I see that there is more than one definition of posthuman in use, which clears things up somewhat. The first definition given is that “the posthuman is a speculative being that represents or seeks to enact a re-writing of what is generally conceived of as human”. That’s the understanding in this essay, with the “general conception” of human being specifically identified as the Enlightenment conception from which black people were excluded: the use of virtuality in contemporary R&B challenges this conception, and therefore is posthuman. My reservation, then, is that what Weheliye is outlining is itself a virtual re-writing: it has no transformative effect on the experience of an actual human in the way that becoming Robocop does, or being uploaded into cyberspace does. Perhaps that’s not necessary for the academic/theoretical understanding of posthumanism under discussion here; but this is part of the reading list for a class on science fiction criticism, and within science fiction such an understanding of posthumanism strikes me as pretty marginal.


9 thoughts on “Reading List: Feenin: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music

  1. within science fiction such an understanding of posthumanism strikes me as pretty marginal.

    Possible exception: some of Tricia Sullivan’s work, notably Sound Mind, which specifically attempts to use music (or rather, descriptions of music…) to describe undescribable posthuman transformation. This is still in the end a real transformation, but it starts out as the sort of virtual one being discussed here.

  2. Perhaps that’s not necessary for the academic/theoretical understanding of posthumanism under discussion here; but this is part of the reading list for a class on science fiction criticism, and within science fiction such an understanding of posthumanism strikes me as pretty marginal

    I’m confident, that at least Istvan will disagree with me here ;), but one of the problems I have with the “posthumanist/postmodern/postwhatever” position in sf criticism is exactly, that it is not real sf criticism – concepts such as posthumanism are often not used to make us better understand specific work of sf, but quite on the contrary, examples from sf are taken as illustrations for certain post* theories.

    To be fair, this is a perfectly legitimate approach, it’s just not what I’m personally interested in. In general, I want to know how a certain piece of art “works”, and not so much how it fits into some big cultural theory.

  3. I don’t mind a bit of the big-cultural-theory stuff, but yes, in general I’m much more of a specific-text-mechanics person as well. And not that theory can’t be used to do that, either, it just often isn’t.

    Possibly of interest: a couple of posts from last year, where discussion had a go at some of these “theory” issues.

  4. Having written a theory-laden PhD thesis on sf film, I don’t have anything against theory – quite the contrary. But in my opinion – and I do realize that opinions and tastes vary greatly here –, the job of literary or film theory should be in the first place to make us better understand the specific art form. That’s why I’m much more interested in analyzing how a specific film or text works and much less in fitting them into a bigger cultural theory.

  5. It struck me that technology seems to have moved on in the years since the article was written, in ways that might have an impact on the argument. I would be fascinated to know Weheliye’s take on the current prevalence and sophistication of pitch-correction software, and the backlash against its use.

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