The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics

The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics

by Louis Chude-Sokei


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The Sound of Culture explores the histories of race and technology in a world made by slavery, colonialism, and industrialization. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and moving through to the twenty-first, the book argues for the dependent nature of those histories. Looking at American, British, and Caribbean literature, it distills a diverse range of subject matter: minstrelsy, Victorian science fiction, cybertheory, and artificial intelligence. All of these facets, according to Louis Chude-Sokei, are part of a history in which music has been central to the equation that links blacks and machines. As Chude-Sokei shows, science fiction itself has roots in racial anxieties and he traces those anxieties across two centuries and a range of writers and thinkers—from Samuel Butler, Herman Melville, and Edgar Rice Burroughs to Sigmund Freud, William Gibson, and Donna Haraway, to Norbert Weiner, Sylvia Wynter, and Samuel R. Delany.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819575777
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 12/29/2015
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI is a professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle. His essays have appeared widely in publications such as African American Review, Transition, and The Believer. He is the author of The Last "Darky": Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora, which was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.

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On or about December 1835, American popular culture could be said to have begun. Though it may seem obvious that this is merely a restating of Virginia Woolf's famous declaration in her 1923 essay, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," which addressed the change in sensibilities that signal the formal birth of what we call literary or cultural modernism, it comes from Victorian scholar Judith Wilt's paraphrasing of Woolf. Wilt's well-known essay begins, "In or around December, 1897 ... Victorian Gothic changed — into Victorian Science Fiction."

Wilt's exploration of the birth of science fiction "in the light of imperial anxieties" is largely rooted in questions of genre. The interest here is in exploring how those anxieties as specifically racial were shaped in American popular culture within that space between the formal birth of science fiction — Victorian or otherwise — and the period still called modernism. Unlike Wilt, however, the concern here isn't science fiction per se but its participation in broader conversations and tensions around race and technology as they produce literary and cultural modernism as well as phenomena that function beyond them. This modernism is one in which American popular culture emerges as a world-shaping phenomenon due to those anxieties associated with slavery, colonialism, and industrialism. Though characteristic of the Victorian era, in the twentieth century these anxieties became the primary tensions of race and technology at the core of an American imperial epoch.

This appropriately mythical timeframe ends with 1923, not with Woolf's essay but because it is the much less mythical date of the introduction of the word robot into the English language. The term was coined for use in Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) but derived from the Czech word robota, meaning serf, if not slave labor. Much more will be made of this remarkable play, particularly since its anthropomorphizing of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anxieties about technology became superimposed on extant anxieties about race and empire in that long fin de siècle.

The year 1835 is when the notorious P. T. Barnum "bought" or acquired the rights to display the slave woman Joice Heth, so-called mammy to George Washington, allegedly 161 years old, from an itinerant showman named R. W. Lindsay. To say that American popular culture began at this moment may be an intentional overstatement, but it is shared by those aware of the uncanny intersections at work in the relationship between Barnum and the woman he called Aunt Joice. As James W. Cook puts it, "if we were to pick a single moment to mark the birthdate of modern American popular culture, this just might be the one: on that fateful afternoon in July 1835, when an aspiring impresario from Bethel, Connecticut took off his grocer's apron and began to think seriously about how to market Joice Heth as a popular curiosity in New York City."

Barnum describes his first viewing of her thusly:

Joice Heth was certainly a remarkable curiosity, and she looked as if she might have been far older than her age as advertised. She was apparently in good health and spirits, but from age or disease, or both, was unable to change her position; she could move one arm at will, but her lower limbs could not be straightened; her left arm lay across her breast and she could not remove it; the fingers of her left hand were drawn down so as nearly to close it, and were fixed; the nails on that hand were almost four inches long and extended above her wrist; the nails on her large toes had grown to the thickness of a quarter of an inch; her head was covered with a thick bush of grey hair; but she was toothless and totally blind and her eyes had sunk so deeply in the sockets as to have disappeared all together.

Called everything from an "Egyptian mummy" to a "living skeleton," from "venerable nigger" to "The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World," Joice Heth was brought from Africa as a child. It is generally accepted that Barnum built his entire career on her display. He admits as much: it was the "accident" of Joice Heth that "seemed almost to compel my agency," and it was she who "first brought me forward as a showman." She was his introduction into an American public life that he irrevocably changed and a media culture that some argue — including him — he essentially invented.

But where Cook identifies the meeting of Heth and Barnum in July 1835 as that origin moment (or perhaps the meeting of Barnum and Lindsay, Heth being mere property and whose complicity or participation remains enshrouded in fable and confusion), it should be pushed four months further to Boston, Massachusetts. There she was first displayed alongside perhaps the most well-known machine of the age of both wonder and of reason. It should be pushed to the December meeting between Joice Heth a human reduced to an object and the infamous chess-playing machine, "The Turk," an object raised to the querulous status of human. This machine has such a long and complex history of display and literary and cultural reaction that the attempt to account for it here would be both unsatisfying and impossible. Reactions range from Descartes to Edgar Allan Poe to Benjamin Franklin to Walter Benjamin, who would begin his "Theses on History" with reference to it.

Wolfgang von Kempelen constructed the Turk in 1769 for the entertainment of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. For years it stunned, terrified, and entertained Europe with its eerie mimicry of human beings, playing a game already established as a visible display of reason. This "thinking machine" was eventually acquired almost a century later by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, purveyor of dioramas, court mechanic of the Hapsburgs, and close friend of Ludwig van Beethoven. Barnum writes that the pairing of Joice Heth and the Turk was in Boston, where they were on display in contiguous rooms. It was also in Boston where Barnum would first meet Maelzel, who would inspire him and through whom he would be instrumental in reinvigorating a tradition of automata that had long fascinated and flummoxed Europe.

Maelzel would will his collection of automata to Barnum, who he considered his American protégé. But despite his passion for automata and the fact that mechanical oddities would become as much a part of his repertoire as were monstrosities, Barnum ultimately "led the way for human oddities to replace mechanical curiosities in the public imagination." This was, after all, a mere three years after Thomas D. Rice's staggeringly successful performance of "Jim Crow" in New York, and Barnum quickly began using blackface performers in his shows alongside the display of automata, "exotic" peoples and "freaks."

What makes the meeting of black slave woman and machine a necessary starting point for this book was what happened next, something that hasn't been covered by the well-documented history of freakery, ethnographic display, and the birth of both the museum and the carnival and circus complex. Though Barnum is notoriously unreliable, it is best to have him tell the story, despite the narrative slight of hand at work in that relentless presentation of innocence, characteristic of all his autobiographies:

When the audience began to decrease in numbers, a short communication appeared in one of the newspapers, signed "A Visitor," in which the writer claimed to have made an important discovery. He stated that Joice Heth, as at present exhibited, was a humbug, whereas, if the simple truth was told in regard to the exhibition, it was really vastly curious and interesting. "The fact is," said the communication, "Joice Heth is not a human being. What purports to be a remarkably old woman is simply a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, India-rubber, and numberless springs ingeniously put together, and made to move at the slightest touch, according to the will of the operator. The exhibitor is a ventriloquist, and all the conversations apparently held with the ancient lady are purely imaginary, so far as she is concerned, for the answers and incidents purporting to be given and related by her are merely the ventriloquial voice of the exhibitor.

Keep in mind the stress on the "ventriloquial," the suggestion that she was merely a black mask for white voice. There is little doubt that Barnum himself or his associate Levi Lyman was in fact "A Visitor." There is also little doubt that the very idea to suggest to the public that Joice Heth was a machine came from Maelzel himself. Maelzel did have a long history of passing a machine for human, particularly that impersonation of a machine by someone clothed in the skin and turbaned costume of Orientalist fantasy (a "Turk"). Barnum continues,

Maelzel's ingenious mechanism somewhat prepared the way for this announcement, and hundreds who had not visited Joice Heth were now anxious to see the curious automaton; while many who had seen her were equally desirous of a second look, in order to determine whether or not they had been deceived. The consequence was, our audiences again largely increased.

The presence of the Turk clearly had some impact on conditioning the public to imagine Joice Heth as a construct of the age of industry, an American version of automata but masked in the dark flesh and withered femininity of a far more intimate, local, and familiar racial stereotype. That was not enough to guarantee the success of the hoax. The Turk was eventually revealed to have functioned by a steady sequence of diminutive chess prodigies hiding behind the machine-mask. It played chess but was a manmade artifact, carved largely of wood. Most notably, it did not speak, and the phonograph and the spectacle of recorded speech was still decades away (though it is true that Von Kempelen is also famous for having begun work on one of the earliest voice synthesizers in 1769).

So the question is this: why were P. T. Barnum and the early market for freakery and human oddities able to so easily sustain this particular humbug? Why was it credible and indeed logical? And what would be the repercussions of this masquerade in which race, Africa, sexuality, minstrelsy, technology, and artificial intelligence all came together in one performance?

This chapter is an attempt to answer these questions by situating them as primary concerns of American modernism and the popular culture it would produce in the twentieth century. The goal is to make sense of how sense was made of Joice Heth in that period and how echoes from those meanings continue to structure both racial thinking and technological advancement. This requires a perspective informed by at least two seemingly dissimilar critical trajectories: those focused on race and colonialism and those invested in histories of technology. What is most exciting about these trajectories is not just that they are only rarely considered in collusion and so can give rise to new ways of thinking about race, history, and technology. It is the fact of rich and surprising moments, where each has always made productive incursions on the other.

And so we proceed in three parts: first, an extended discussion of minstrelsy as a broad-based, transnational, cultural phenomenon deeply implicated in ideas about technology. Though rooted in plantation slavery, by the period known as cultural modernism the form became a way for whites and Europeans to deal with the loss of nature and their own dehumanizing by the forces of industry by projecting all manner of primitive meanings and desires onto the blackface mask and the black body it connoted. Joice Heth may not have been a minstrel but was marketed much like one — a black body through which a white voice spoke — and helped give rise to the presence of minstrels in the Barnum shows, but her presence as possible machine, or passing for one, is crucial to how minstrelsy would function as a form whose pleasure derived primarily from its relationship to an increasingly technological environment.

The primary conceptual parallels in this chapter are therefore those between primitive blacks and nature, black music (particularly jazz) and technology, and the Freudian uncanny as both sign of racial terror as well as of humor. Caribbean thinkers have been very notable in this intellectual realm, with the plantation and black folk culture being rich with the kind of metaphoric meanings necessary for a black technopoetics. Therefore, Sylvia Wynter, George Lamming, Antonio Benítez-Rojo, and even Aimé Césaire feature in the discussion of blackface's relationship with industrialization.

The second part of the chapter follows blacks and the minstrel mask into early twentieth-century American robotics, as the blacks/technology dyad becomes, for example, literalized by the Westinghouse corporation in the wake of Karel Capek's monumental play R.U.R. due to its success at blending racial terror with histories of labor and modern anxieties about technological replacement. Reading Capek in this context proves just how embedded the term robot was in race but also how implicit and explicit are histories and narratives of technology embedded with those of racism. It is that intimacy between those histories and narratives that would allow black modernist Jean Toomer to suggest them in his well-known 1923 work, Cane, as well as much lesser experiments in drama.

The chapter concludes by isolating the actual role of early black music in these conversations about race, technology, and the modern. In each section black music is the central presence in the conversations and assumptions around race and technology, particularly through minstrelsy, radical modernism, popular culture, and what eventually became science fiction. The focus here is on black music as a mechanized form, as mediated by machines like the phonograph in the wake of automata. By returning to the work of Joel Chandler Harris and his "Uncle Remus" for an early vernacular take on race and the machine, the function of "the Negro" in this period will be argued to operate not just as "nature" but also as a sonic and symbolic force necessary for the naturalizing of technology. This is of great importance for modernism but also for how race endures in subsequent conversations about human replication or simulation. Such conversations range here from the Freudian uncanny to Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori's notion of an "uncanny valley," which concludes this book as its arguments about race, technology, and creolization are brought to bear on the contemporary world of artificial intelligence.

But to begin, we explore the curious story of the minstrel and the machine. We may start with the era of modernism, where that relationship is first notably articulated in the European avant-garde and in American popular culture, but it returns us to Barnum's time and a Victorian world on the cusp of the kinds of transformations that would necessitate the bringing together of those two figures.


Were we to trace Euro-American modernism back toward some elementary set of concerns, influences, and obsessions, we could isolate two primary clusters of meaning among the intersecting many at work within the shock of America's relentless global expansion. This expansion was generated far more by cultural and technological influence than by techniques and axioms of territorial domination, and these two clusters keep focus on domestic racial subjugation and colonial domination alongside the "soft power" of what was once called "cultural imperialism." The first cluster is the so-called machine aesthetic. Produced by and through the West's difficult and ambivalent responses to industrialization, it would find its political and social fulfillment in an America that announces its global presence through the language of inevitability, the language of the new.

In America technology was celebrated as being central to its democracy, but also as a natural sign of it, despite its initially disorienting and continually irruptive presence in a nineteenth century where as a defining issue it was arguably second in importance and controversy only to slavery. As Leo Marx insisted in The Machine in the Garden, "There is a special affinity between the machine and the new Republic." Even now in the wake of industrialization, most will still take this technoexceptionalism for granted. This ideological claim is framed as an almost spiritual if not divine fact. Yet this "special affinity" is nothing without the nation's "peculiar institution."

In one of the few works to include a historical foundation to the ideas being explored here, historian Daniel R. Headrick provides necessary parameters: "Among the many important events of the nineteenth century, two were of momentous consequence for the entire world. One was the progress and power of industrial technology; the other was the domination and exploitation of Africa and much of Asia by Europeans. Historians have carefully described and analyzed these two phenomena, but separately, as though they had little bearing on each other." America's global expansion would be fueled both by ideologies of racial dominance and of technological advancement. Each would buttress the other, a fact central to literary and cultural production and the politics of race as a parallel effect — an echo — of technology. America's exceptional relationship to technology has been described as an "Imperial Mechanics," which "refers to the interrelationship between imaginaries of empire and conceptions of machine-civilization." Leo Marx's "special affinity" was nothing less than "the machine as the dominant representation of U.S. superiority and supremacy in the Western Hemisphere."


Excerpted from "The Sound of Culture"
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Copyright © 2016 Louis Chude-Sokei.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
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Table of Contents

Of Minstrels and Machines: Tales of the Racial Uncanny
Karel apek's Black Myth
Prognosticating Echoes: Race, Sound, and Naturalizing Technology
Masters, Slaves, and Machines: Race and Victorian Science Fiction
Melville's Man-Machine
Erewhon: Lost Races and Mechanical Souls
Sexing Robots, Creolizing Technology
Cyberpunk's Dubwise Ontology
The Music of Living Machinescapes: Creolization and Artificial Intelligence
Echolocating Surrealism
Sylvia Wynter's Naked Declivity
Caliban's Uncanny Valley
Appendix A: A Playlist

What People are Saying About This

Mark Dery

“In this bracingly original book, Louis Chude-Sokei crosses neuromancy with “negromancy” (as he calls it), calling up the ghosts of historical memory and conjuring new meanings from dead texts. Whether he’s reading the minstrel as uncanny robot, creolizing Haraway’s cyborg, or calling Afrofuturism to account for its blind spots, Chude-Sokei is as intellectually daring as he is erudite. In The Sound of Culture, he gives us the ‘shining’ he’s got, helping us see the spectral twins of race and technology that haunt our past . . . and our future.”

Carolyn Cooper

“With the daring and precision of an inspired sound engineer, Louis Chude-Sokei skillfully plays the ontological mixing board, creating a masterpiece in which music, literature, science, and cultural theory are dubbed in and out of the text. This startling book is an echo chamber where discourses of race and technology reverberate, confounding outdated notions of the limits of a black poetics.”

From the Publisher

"The Sound of Culture is a brilliant project at the intersection of Caribbean thought, science fiction, minstrelsy, posthumanism, and cybernetics. Chude-Sokei is a scholar unafraid to cross borders as he tracks transnational culture through the lens of race and technology."—De Witt Douglas Kilgore, author of Astrofuturism: Science, Race and Visions of Utopia in Space

"With the daring and precision of an inspired sound engineer, Louis Chude-Sokei skillfully plays the ontological mixing board, creating a masterpiece in which music, literature, science, and cultural theory are dubbed in and out of the text. This startling book is an echo chamber where discourses of race and technology reverberate, confounding outdated notions of the limits of a black poetics."—Carolyn Cooper, author of Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture At Large

"In this bracingly original book, Louis Chude-Sokei crosses neuromancy with "negromancy" (as he calls it), calling up the ghosts of historical memory and conjuring new meanings from dead texts. Whether he's reading the minstrel as uncanny robot, creolizing Haraway's cyborg, or calling Afrofuturism to account for its blind spots, Chude-Sokei is as intellectually daring as he is erudite. In The Sound of Culture, he gives us the 'shining' he's got, helping us see the spectral twins of race and technology that haunt our past . . . and our future."—Mark Dery, cultural critic and the author of "Black to the Future," a seminal essay on Afrofuturism

De Witt Douglas Kilgore

“The Sound of Culture is a brilliant project at the intersection of Caribbean thought, science fiction, minstrelsy, posthumanism, and cybernetics. Chude-Sokei is a scholar unafraid to cross borders as he tracks transnational culture through the lens of race and technology.”

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