Archive for the ‘AfroFuturism’ Category

The Self-Made (WHITE) Man

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

In which I write a Letter to Q on John Swansburg’s deconstruction of the “Self-Made Man:” it didn’t go nearly far enough.


dear Jian & Q,

I listened to the interview with John Swansburg concerning the “Self-Made Man” & it was as much interesting as it was disturbing.

John didn’t go far enough in deflating the myth.

To say that the “Self-Made Man” was more of a reality under Ben Franklin, as John suggested, is to assume that the category only applies to White Men, and that this is all that continues to matter today. It completely ignores all those who were enslaved, exploited, and colonized to produce this myth.

It is not just that “African Americans” and “women” have been “left out of the narrative,” as John suggests. 

No, the myth of the “Self-Made Man” required the forced enslavement of Africans, the exploitation of women, the theft of land from indigeneous peoples, and the murder of those who resisted.

It is only because of these conditions of economic exploitation, colonization, murder, and slavery that capitalism was able to produce the conditions for the myth itself, in which, as John demonstrates, only a small percentage of privileged males of the white population were able to live off accumulated wealth exploited from others so as to enrich and enhance their personal lives.

The myth of the upwardly mobile is predicated upon, and is socioeconomically dependent upon, the violent economic exploitation of women, indigeneous peoples, and people of colour.

Yrs Sincerely.

meditation iii (exophilosophy)

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Why is European philosophy “philosophy”, but African philosophy ethnophilosophy, the way Indian music is ethnomusic – an ethnographic logic that is based on the very same reasoning that if you were to go to the New York Museum of Natural History (popularised in Shawn Levy’s Night at the Museum [2006]), you only see animals and non-white peoples and their cultures featured inside glass cages, but no cage is in sight for white people and their cultures – they just get to stroll through the isles and enjoy the power and ability of looking at taxidermic Yaks, cave dwellers, elephants, Eskimos, buffalo, Native Americans, etc, all in a single winding row. — Hamid Dabashi, Can Non-Europeans Think?

I agree with this statement in fighting spirit — indeed, don’t get me started on the incredibly ignorant genre title of “world music” — in regards to my research on Afrofuturism, which argues for the consideration of other forms of knowledge as “philosophy.” Specifically, I campaign for forms of thinking that are otherwise excluded from an increasingly professionalized philosophical discourse; and forms of thinking that are materialized in different ways other than argued essays and books. What is philosophy? Here’s a provisional phrase: philosophy is a working form of thinking through thought, of considering the balance of nearly unanswerable questions, of probing deep into uncertainties and impossibilities. This need not occur through its elaboration in scripted forms of writing, and certainly not in peer-reviewed journals and other sites of careerist discourse. It is for all these reasons that I argue for Afrofuturism, or rather, for exophilosophy in general: for all the approaches that ascertain thought through ways that are otherwise in the “margins of philosophy.” Graffiti, rhyme, movement, gesture, beats, art, sampling…

But is this all philosophy? Should it all be flattened to philosophy? Is philosophy still the signifier to be retained? Or should it not be historicized and geographically delimited for a reason?

For philosophy is philosophy. It is not “European philosophy” and “African philosophy” but philosophy. This is not Eurocentrist; it is to respect the Greek origins of the name “philo-sophia.” The signifier of philosophy names a certain history. To argue for philosophy means also to argue with this history. If this is Eurocentrist, it is historically so. Playing with philosophy means respecting its roots.

In this respect, Dabashi is entirely on point when he critiques the postulate that only Europeans think — as if, in short, philosophy is the only form of thinking. For me this is the stronger argument. Not that there are different philosophies measured against Philosophy (which is what Dabashi critiques) but neither that all is philosophy (which is what Dabashi suggests). Rather, that there are different forms of thinking materialized in different ways. The Greek tradition of philosophia, from which not only Europe inherits but a huge part of the world (thanks to empire, colonialism, etc., but also trades of thought, intellectual spin-offs, exchanges of ideas, and so forth), is philosophy. But exterior to philosophy are other domains of thought just as powerful which claim universalities of application insofar as they advance the question of the question, the principle of the principle, the reflection of the reflection. Yet they need not be wrapped into philosophy, collapsed to its discourse, its rules, its convention, its history — and above all its signifier, meaning, at base, the “love of wisdom.” Other names abound that could mean something else than a love for wisdom: a distaste of unthought, for example; a longing for the alien; a thought of the uncertain.

Delightfully, Dabashi sustains the principle of the universal to begin with, which is also what I like about his argument: that all persons in all cultures have the ability to think in such a self-centred fashion that they consider themselves yardsticks of globality (to paraphrase from this essay). Whereas Dabashi sees this as the universality of philosophy, I see this as the universality of thought from which “philosophy” is but a variant, a stream from the spring.

There are other barriers to break down. Damashi’s article maintains a weak bias toward naming professionalized intellectuals in other countries than Europe as exemplary of philosophy’s globalization. Of course I support this move, insofar as he is critiquing the perennial go-to of European and North American “public intellectuals.” But why should the go-tos also be of the same class of thought?  So, despite his attack not only on Eurocentrism, he (perhaps unwittingly) maintains that philosophy solely operates within certain strictures of academia. In this respect, he is correct: it is but philosophy, a discourse of the tradition of the discourse. But there are other forms of potent thought lurking beyond the campus walls. They rap into place, form beats about space… and perhaps today have more to say about the changes of life actually throwing down.

memory rewound: the space echo

Monday, November 14th, 2011

mnemotechnics interphase

This is a machine of mnemotechnics. Memory erased unto itself. The mystic writing pad looped in magnetic filament. A machine that spins tape back unto itself in a loop, eating itself, devouring itself, an interface of mechanical time, capable of repeating, reiterating, a sound, over & over, and sending it into space & echo. The Roland RE-201 Space Echo is such a machine. I have desired one for years. It is the basis of King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry. It is a channel into the technics of space and time… it is a time travel device, a memory palimpsest on rewind. It is beauty.

Too bad I don’t have a PhD expense account. I couldn’t finish writing about the tape loop echo until I simply had one. Indeed, the most valid research expense yet, save for the thousands spent in books thanks to lack of VPN library access from McGill.

the pale fox

Friday, October 14th, 2011
Pale Fox --- in hand

Pale Fox --- in hand

Finally—the anthropological source of the popular literature on the Dogon in hand. Why do the Dogon have a calendric system based upon Sirius? What is the meaning of their mythic systems, insofar as they resemble contemporary representations of scientific phenomena from DNA to mitosis? Is it possible they knew of the hidden planets and stars of Sirius, invisible to the naked eye until the invention of 20th century telescopes? How? And why? And from my perspective, from that of a mythos that might extend far beyond its current descriptors, aesthetics, socio-political coordinates: how far back does Afrofuturism extend, insofar as it claims to embody First Contact?

All questions destined to undermine the credibility of an academic career. Excellent.

afrofuturism on ice

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Frostbitten fingers not included—Paul Miller's The Book of Ice

In my hands now is Paul D. Miller’s latest project, the Book of Ice, a collage-work of manifestos, stories, photographs and texts on the southernmost point of this planet, that ice-bound and all-but uninhabited pole, Antarctica. This is something of an artist’s book, a kind of anti-book that collects exappropriated objects from elsewhere. In this context, by exappropriated I mean an act that samples without stealing, that takes part without taking away from the whole. So, like all of DJ Spooky’s work, images of Amundsen and Scott’s voyages are sampled much the same way that Spooky remixed D.W. Griffith’s founding racist myth of US history in Rebirth of a Nation. Though details of Antarctica’s history, discovery and exploration are provided, this beautifully designed and illustrated hardcover from Mark Batty Publishers is much more a meditation on ice through the sampling of Antarctica’s recorded history alongside Spooky’s exploration of design imagery in the melting/consumption of Antarctica.

The Book of Ice includes “Osmotic Strategy Machine—The (Flawed) Unfolding of Afrofuturism,” an interview I conducted with Paul for my forthcoming edited volume on Afrofuturism (Wayne State UP). The version presented here is somewhat staccato, but to the point through its brevity (the volume will include a remixed exchange and sampladelic text). This interview presents insightful reading, as it is one of the few times in which Paul has openly reflected upon his involvement with the 1990s email list and website, as well as situating his interpretation of Afrofuturism within historical, political and aesthetic contexts. I believe Paul includes this interview as part of the ethos explored elsewhere in the Book of Ice, where he talks about “thawing-out” the cold muthafucka’ aspects of black ice, as well as warming up the ice-cold brittleness of stark whiteness. Paul continues to forge a global aesthetic of remix culture that melts the divisions of colour, and in this respect, Paul remains an exemplary Afrofuturist—whatever he might say otherwise. Paul Miller is remarkable for creating bridges between disparate cultures, and in The Book of Ice Paul puts into perspective the greater forces at work in the melting of Antarctic ice, reminding us that the collapse of our polar regions also calls for the thawing of cold hearts and cultural antagonisms. We are like penguins caught in the flow of the impending great melt, and to move outwards, upward to the stars, we need to begin with swimming together through the thaw….

Osmotic Interview Strategies

Osmotic Interview Strategies

In 2008, Paul Miller spent four weeks in Antarctica, conducting sound recordings for his compositional work Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica. It is unfortunate that this book does not include a DVD of the multimedia work (understandably, it was probably not cost feasible for a book already colour printed on quality stock). Miller’s first book for MIT Press, Rhythm Science, included a CD mix which reflected his ideas through his DJ mix—I wrote a lengthy treatise on that book over on EBR. In any case, as Terra Nova is a full-fledged multimedia work that interrelates many of the cold concepts explored in The Book of Ice, here’s an insight:

What I like about The Book of Ice is how it rethinks what this cold space could be otherwise—a place, perhaps, of unclaimed exodus. What then, when it melts? When its resources will undoubtedly become exploited by competing interests, corporate and nation-state? Miller explores the dream of a “People’s Republic of Antarctica” through a series of campaign posters that alternate between early 20th century revolutionary modernism and monochromatic symbolism awash in blue penguins. The print posters call for a manifesto of Antarctica in different languages and national iconographies, from the Arabic half moon to the Chinese Communist red star.

Manifestos of a people's icepublic

The compositional method of Terra Nova is also explored here with a visualization of the score. Miller turns the elements of traditional sheet music into bubbles of chaos complexity, with the notation juxtaposed and carved into circular objects, as if spattered with the geometric shapes of water droplets from Antarctica’s melting ice caps.

Sheet music for snow & ice

Sheet music for snow & ice

Questions of climate change arise throughout the text, as Miller explores the economic, emotional and data landscapes of Antarctica through cartographic mappings of ice flows to dataflows. Aspects of this territorial mapping are reminiscent of Situationist détournement. Along this line, the visual icons of sell-by capitalism are explored in the juxtaposition of consumer-packaging barcodes and the increasingly ubiquitous QR squares with various linguistic scripts. Implicit among these image mixes is Miller’s interrogation of “hyperconsumerism:” is Antarctica for sale? If it can be mapped, can it be scanned and sold?

Antarctica 4 Sale

Antarctica 4 Sale

Ice maps and Antarctic cartographies

Ice maps and Antarctic cartographies

The closing section of the book is filled with full-bleed, full-colour images from expeditions mapping the great unknown ice, with double-page spreads of mountains and icebergs, explorers in ice-encrusted parkas and numerous penguins. Black-and-white imagery is contrasted with the subtle blues and grays of monochromatic colour. Night photography of modern research stations revels in the similitude between the neon-lit lighting of science and the southern aurora borealis.

Ice routes abound...

Ice routes abound...

Yet why this obsession with Antarctica? As Miller writes, ever playing the trickster, ice resonates with black culture. As Paul puts it,

Black culture loves ice. We name ourselves after it: Ice-berg Slim, Ice-T, Ice Cube. . . . So, yeah, there’s a long history in black culture of being a “cold muthafucka.” It’s about being a “frigid” person: the ice grill, bling bling, bounce off the light of diamonds in your teeth. Yeah, that’s ice (Book of Ice 10).

If urban black culture tends toward ice, then DJ Spooky aims to thaw it out with sinfonic soundwaves capable of collapsing cultural ice into global flows. If climate change is melting Antarctica, then the melting of ice presents an intersection between the geosphere and the sonosphere, between the axes of black and white ice, cityscape and icescape. Two compositional tools guided Spooky’s process in creating the Terra Nova sinfonia: repetition, on the one channel, and R. Murray Schaefer’s soundscape, on the other.

My concern here is how do we make music out of it, how do we thaw the process, thaw people out, and see the paradox of hyperconsumerism that this kind of stuff celebrates, while at the same time tying the conceptual issues of sound and contemporary art. It’s a Sisphyean task, but considering there’s not much more going on this planet than the ecosystem, I thought it was a worthwhile one. Hip-hop is always considered the soundtrack of the city’s geometric landscape. The grid of most American cities carries what I like to call an “orthogonal” logic. I wanted to take the “urban” concept of repetition and apply it to a different landscape, and see what would pop out of the collision. After all, music is patterns. And so is landscape. The common denominator here is pattern recognition.

And that’s what brings me to Antarctica (Book of Ice 10).

Explorers on ice/

Explorers on ice/

This Is What You Made Me

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Spinnin' in the cloaked.

This interstellar sonic object, black ring warrior, and rotating slanguage carrier arrived courtesy of eminent photographer and thoughtful scribe of revolutions-yet-to-come Dave Pires. He found it in a record shop basement in Japan (or something like that) while seeking powder and enlightenment through cataclysm and radiation. Or perhaps vice-versa. This is the 2003 Japanese release of This Is What You Made Me on Tri-Eight. The label’s first release, for that matter. Most of the production is by DJ KeNsEi and D.O.I.. This be spaced out, rough and raw beats, stark and uncompromising, interstellar alien transmissions from the one and only RAMM:∑LL:Z∑∑.

“Look at the Girl!” is the vocoder-killin’, tone generator track here, the one on rewind, while DP, the mystic CP and I downed a bottle of Chateau de Fieuzal 1978. It’s like being in orbit around Planet RAMM:∑LL:Z∑∑. This is the greeting message to space aliens… and he’s looking for Afrofuturist spacewomen. I think. If you can decipher. Codes are in effect. Multiple listenings required.

Unlike RAMM:∑LL:Z∑∑’s Bi-Conicals of The Rammellzee on Gomma, this Tri-Eight jam is nearly indecipherable, less concerned with lectures of clarity concerning slanguage, and much more despotic in its rhyme (it also doesn’t feature any early ’80s throwback jams: this is Afrofuturist hip-hop thrown forward). A few exceptions, certainly—”My Horizon,” “Here We Go,” “Soldier,” all possibly heard as translation. The stark production of KeNsEi’s repetitive rhythmachines—deadpan tight beats & samurai percussion—propel each track like nuclear fission. A constant burn. Ears melting. Beats broken through pulsating veins of cypher dynamics. The RAMM:∑LL:Z∑∑ overtakes speakers. This is what the microphone is for. Four voices at least. Soundwaves bow & obey, bow in & out, to forever and ever vision, the price of strife reports: revolts! The dictionary tree lies!

A few of the tracks are warrior codes, letter races with ignitors, armed, and firing.

Ha! I told ya/So that soldier!

Multiple voices in effect—at least six or so Garbage Gods in the Slanguage Wars voicing themselves here. Much to listen deep within.


This is also New York hip-hop, right from the start. No bling, no cars. Sonic surrealism from Afrofuturist acanonism. R.I.P. RAMM:∑LL:Z∑∑. To the stars from whence you came. The message is now ours to decipher and transmit.

Decoding The RAMM:∑LL:Z∑∑.


slice & dice

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

I'm almost there, JS.


Wordplay is a gamble. You think I ain’t playing with you right now. I am surgical with you. I will make sure everything counts.

—RAMM:ELL:ZEE, from How to Wreck a Nice Beach (281)


head down, arms up, hands out

Monday, September 13th, 2010

What is it with hip-hop and the arm wave? Why wave arms side-to-side in the air? Is this a gesture of unity? Like crowds of the mid 20th century, the arms aligned in position, all are become one, in the movement of movements….

But why the arms? Why are emcees so concerned with aligned arms? Why should we not care about it, or rather, why are emcees telling us not to care about it?

Hands in the air, the transcendance of care.

Watching Kool Keith I would expect Dr. Octagon to ask us to wave anything but arms in the air. Or, if waving arms, to signal with inventive and improvised semaphore the coordinates of the next landing, infrasonic investigation of orifices, or otherwise booty call for the Black Elvis.

But he too (and all his selves) are concerned with the unity of an arm wave set to regulation appeal.

In 1998, in San Francisco, Black Elvis does not call upon an audience to wave. The audience waves itself (according to footage).

In 2007, Kool Keith unmasked in hoodie, still holding spit but seemingly no longer split into conscious costume (or is he?), requires ultramagnetic inflection to wave arms at his behest, of an audience now almost exclusively white.

Heads down bop up, beatdown backpacks on – arms up, salute? Wave like you just don’t care?


Insurrection & Slave Rebellion in Civil War America

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

Black union soldiers taking aim.

In The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, Stephen Hahn makes the case for insurrection – if not a rethinking of rebellion – among Southern slaves during the American Civil War. The title of chapter two places this claim within the context of American history on the subject: “Did We Miss the Greatest Slave Rebellion in Modern History?” Hahn’s casually inclusive “we” invokes the primarily white American scholars who have sculpted something of a glorious history of the Civil War as America’s struggle against slavery. In this narrative – somewhat whitewashed – the Union North took up arms against the slave-owning Confederacy South, if not at first over slavery, then at least by the end of the war broadly claiming emancipation as its raison d’être.

As Hahn is at delicate pains to point out, what this narrative presupposes is the passivity of the slave class (58; 160-161). Slaves have little or no agency in regards to their emancipation. While Northern African-Americans as well as freed southern slaves fought in the Civil War, southern slave plantations did not rise up against their white masters en masse. Why was this? Of course, Confederate mythology, exemplified in films such as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, depicts a rose-tinted relationship between benevolent white masters and singin’ & dancin’ black slaves, both who view the Civil War as an invasion. Even among centrist, Abolitionist or integrationist accounts of the War, slaves were often praised for not rising up against the South. In their passivity, the Southern slaves demonstrated civility in this “white man’s war” — a war which was nothing less than a struggle over the fate of black labour.

Hahn poses an alternative reading to the simplism in which passivity marked black patriotism. By contrast, Southern slaves were knowledgeable enough of the conditions of the War, as well as the tricky political terrain in which the War was fought – in short, aware of the ideological role of emancipation, and suspicious of the North’s apparent “freedom” – to carefully navigate between full-scale rebellion and widespread insurrection:

Together, the evidence suggests that slaves could be acutely aware of conflicts that erupted between white people and nations ruled by white people; that slaves often imagined a set of possible allies and enemies; that slaves could be cognizant of the national and international struggle over slavery and the slave trade and, depending on where they resided, of momentous emancipations; that slaves often became conversant with institutions and issues of local and national politics and might develop sophisticated understandings of how the American political system operated; and that slaves fashioned interpretations of what seemed to be afoot, at times in ways that moved well beyond the intentions of the political actors. (Political Worlds 75)


exodus & afrofuturism

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

interstellar tones transport Sun Ra offworld

But in reality, it is the inherent failure of representation, both in the visual and the political sense, that continually leads activist-artists to abandon their works and their familiar skills, and to dissolve once again into the intersubjective processes of society’s self-transformation.

This moment of dissolution is where one could locate exodus, not as a concept, but as a power or a myth of resistance. On the one hand, exodus is a pragmatic response to the society of control, in which any widespread political opposition becomes an object of exacting analysis for those who can afford to invest major resources in the identification, segmentation and manipulation of what we naively call the public. In the face of these strategies, exodus is a power of willful metamorphosis: the capacity for a movement to appear, to intervene and to disappear again, before changing names and recommencing the same struggle in a different way. (Brian Holmes, Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Essays in Reverse Imagineering @ 185)

Exodus is a movement — defection from the State, exit from the state of things, toward the formation of a “new republic” (as Paolo Virno puts it). While Virno and other Italian-based theorists of the Autonomia/Operaismo movement have traced exodus as a response to the factory regime of Fordist labour that saw its dismantling in the ’70s and ’80s, Brian Holmes has placed exodus within the artistic lineage of interventions and occupations, in which the fluidity of art, and of art as an occupation or role offers an exit strategy from institutionalized engagement. Holmes’ historical references are those of the alterglobalization movement, notably the public sonic occupations of Reclaim the Streets and the deployment of carnivale tactics in general, but also in specific art projects such as Nikeground. Here, art (and the artist) move through an interzone of activism and art, a zone in which intervention and representation are no longer distinct sides or sites of the work.