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Chude-Sokei, Louis. The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics.

Chude-Sokei, Louis. The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2016. 268 pp. Softcover. ISBN 978-0-8195-7577-7. $27.95.

Race criticism in sf continues to thrive as a field of inquiry. Louis Chude-Sokei boldly enters the field with The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics. Chude-Sokei explores the race/technology dyad through a Caribbean-influenced critical practice demonstrated by such scholars as Aime Cesaire, Wilson Harris, Edouard Glissant, and Sylvia Wynter, among others. Chude-Sokei's cross-cultural analysis thus includes creolization, creolite, and dub music as well as cyborg theory, cyberpunk, and Afrofuturism. This tripartite study examines race, technology, and sf from IP T. Barnum, automata, and the early nineteenth century through William Gibson, Rastafarianism, and the late twentieth century. Along with the introduction, the book contains four chapters, a playlist appendix, acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, and an index.

In his introduction, Chude-Sokei presents his key ideas in relation to the analogous cultural histories between race and technology in the New World as a constructive scholarly dyad shaped by slavery, providing both history and context for the entwinement of race and technology in literature, popular culture, and thought. He examines the cultural responses to changing technologies and how such changes are eventually expressed in sf, and argues that race becomes the template for how the western world constructs its relationship to technology because race is central to the industrial era in America. Using the terms "master" and "slave" in relation to the fields of robotics, cybernetics, and engineering, Chude-Sokei cements his point about how technology has always been racialized: machines become naturalized ciphers for both racial and technological angst. He reminds us that "robot" intentionally means "slave" as Karel Capek defined it in his 1920 play R.U.R., and then explains the importance of both Donna Haraway's cyborg theorizing and Afrofuturism to his critical enterprise. He also clarifies how black music operates as the site of critical intervention in terms of the race/technology dyad across the transatlantic and insinuates its role in the cyberpunk subgenre, thus explaining his main title, The Sound of Culture. The subtitle Diaspora and Black Technopoetics refers generally to the innumerable black cultural uses for technology throughout the African diaspora, but more specifically to its incorporation by black thinkers, writers, and musicians. Chude-Sokei also explains how the Caribbean critical influence emerges when he links minstrelsy and artificial intelligence, dub music (instrumental remixes of existing sound recordings), and creolization (racial mixing resulting from colonization) in rethinking the idea of the posthuman.

In chapter 1, "Modernism's Black Mechanics," Chude-Sokei examines the juxtaposition P. T. Barnum made between his black slave woman Joice Heath and the fake chess playing machine known as "The Turk" in his display of oddities. Chude-Sokei makes this race-and-technology association from the nineteenth century to demonstrate how this dyad continues to reverberate in discussions of race and technological progression, and then discusses the cultural phenomenon of minstrelsy and the uncanny feeling, in the Freudian sense, it produces in relation to technology as either racial fear or humor. Chude-Sokei follows this with an extended reading of R.U.R. and the embedded nature of racism within technological narratives. The chapter concludes with an examination of early black music's role in modernist conversations concerning race and technology as mediated by the phonograph and jazz.

Chapter 2, "Humanizing the Machine," explores how race and technology combine in the Victorian Era and proto-science fiction as a naturalized way of thinking about the racialized meaning behind technological relationships. To accomplish this, he traces the master/slave metaphor as an engineering term in the early twentieth century through the scholarship of black mathematician Ron Eglash for its social resonance and its reflection in the earlier cybernetic work of Norbert Weiner. Chude-Sokei then reaches further back to trace his argument in Herman Melville's antebellum-era fiction, which critiques both slavery and industrialization. Chude-Sokei ends the chapter with an extended analysis of the race/technology dyad in the sf genre's DNA from its Victorian beginnings through the lost race tales of proto-science fiction and the early pulp era in America, with a particular focus on Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872).

With chapter 3, "Creolization and Technopoetics," Chude-Sokei shifts his focus to the techno-organic blending of humanity and its machines in the postmodern moment of cyberpunk, best represented by Gibson's monumental Neuromancer (1984), and cyborg theory, as in Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto" (1985). Chude-Sokei argues that techno-organic mixing stands in as a metaphor for colonial race mixing. He notes how so much attention has been paid to these separate traditions through the notion of hybridity that most people miss how race and racism manifest in them, and he suggests this may have given rise to the Afrofuturist movement in the early 1990s. He then uses creolization to examine the cyberpunk subgenre by focusing on the scholarship of Samuel R. Delany and Wilson Harris and applying it to the Rastas of Neuromancer and their dub music. Chude-Sokei concludes by arguing for creolization as a valid example of a black technopoetics extending to posthuman subjectivities such as artificial intelligence.

Chude-Sokei continues to historicize creolization in chapter 4, "A Caribbean Pre-Posthumanism," by reflecting on technology as it dates back to decolonization in the Caribbean. He situates Sylvia Wynter's work at the center of this posthuman examination that places Wynter's creole politics and poetics into conversation with the work of Samuel R. Delany to offer a substitute Afrofuturism not abrasive to hybridity. He closes the chapter as well as the book by attempting to contemporize Wynter's technopoetics, placing them in dialogue with robotics and artificial intelligence, which necessarily represent the end of humanity as a privileged category.

Overall, Chude-Sokei provides a trenchant, invigorating reading of technology as race and race as technology in the cultural history of sf, uniquely flavored by Caribbean scholarship. He convincingly argues that "the relationships between blacks and technology are structured as colonial oppositions between whites and blacks" through the process of creolization (130). His reading of Glissant's scholarship in particular sparkles because technology and race fuse in a complex mix, a synthesis that keeps these cyborg beings unequal in posthumanity--unequal to white men. He offers a compelling reading of Barnum's Joice Heath passed off as a machine and connects this concept to black blackface minstrels such as Bert Williams as "machine simulacra of something other than human being" as a mediation between the otherness of race and the otherness of the machine (77). But Chude-Sokei misses an opportunity to connect with the later twentieth century here in terms of how Ishmael Reed uses a blackface Talking Android in Mumbo Jumbo (1972). Nevertheless, Chude-Sokei expands nicely on Kodwo Eshun's thinking on sonic fictions by peppering in a critical music theory related to dub as a sonic technology. If only Chude-Sokei had also chosen to engage with Tricia Rose on music--since she was also a part of the foundational Afrofuturism interviews--in the same way he engages Samuel R. Delany.

Readers might also notice that Chude-Sokei insists on hyphenating Afrofuturism throughout the book as a means of problematizing the term in its black American specificity. However, Afrofuturism allows for multiple black futures including the creole ones that he wants to see. Chude-Sokei also claims that nobody else has ever recognized the race/technology dyad or its slave/machine configuration, which is simply wrong: Ben Williams, Sherryl Vint, Alondra Nelson, Mark Bould, and Britt Rusert, among many others, have done so in varying degrees. But these scholars do not approach the subject through a Caribbean-inflected critical practice, which is what makes Chude-Sokei's volume stand out. He spends eight full pages on the complexity of the Rastas and Zion dub in Gibson's novel as he probably should to make his claims, but he fails to highlight actual Caribbean sf writers such as Nalo Hopkinson, Tobias Buckell, and Karen Lord. He spares one sentence in the entire book for Hopkinson, arguably the most important black Caribbean sf writer, and just one sentence on Midnight Robber (2000), a Caribbean cyberpunk novel if there ever was one. These are arguably strange moves in an otherwise fascinating book.

Some readers will find this theoretically dense book difficult and its writing style inaccessible. The book thus seems best suited for a serious academic audience and university libraries. Although I would not recommend this book for use in lower division undergraduate courses for these reasons, I think it would be useful in upper division electives and graduate seminars. Seasoned scholars will appreciate the The Sound of Culture because Chude-Sokei astutely provides several missing links in the study of the race/technology dyad.
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Author:Lavender, Isiah, III
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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