Book reviews, Culture

“The sound of culture”: Not for beginners

It has some crucial analysis of the roots of white racism and its overlap with technology, and the portrayal of blacks in sci-fi. This book by Louis Chude-Sokei, begins with a trenchant expose of 19th century racism but ends by being absorbed in sophisticated cultural studies while remaining above the dirty realities around us all.


Graham Douglas


As a beginner myself some sections provoked the image of a horse race where each jump is an ‘-ism’ or an ‘-etic’, or just a sentence with five subordinate clauses and three citations.

When I am particularly impatient I fall at the first jump, which would be a pity in this case because the book has much to recommend it, both in its accounts of little-known historical facts and its insights into black resistance to colonial culture.

I will not comment on the third of its four chapters, which for the non-academic reader could do with an editing according to George Orwell’s criteria for accessible English.

The book’s subject is the relation between black slavery and the machine: in terms of slaves reduced to human machines for white exploitation, and white anxiety about a revolt of the slaves.

In “The sound of culture: diaspora and black technopoetics” Louis Chude-Sokei says that it is important to recognise the existence of a connection between the way slaves and machines, especially robots were perceived by white culture well before 20th century sci-fi emerged. Victorian Gothic, such as Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein”, and Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon” are early examples.

And I was shocked to read about the case of Joice Heth, an old black woman, blind, partially paralysed, and with four-inch nails, exhibited in a freak show by the notorious P.T.Barnum in 1835, as if she were a machine.

Alongside her in later shows was The Turk, a chess-playing ‘automaton’ later revealed to have masked a small team of human players, in a display that meets the classic criterion of surrealism of juxtaposition and defamiliarisation, and at the same time illustrates how insufficient it is as a tool for consciousness-raising.

Surrealism is also a theme in the book because of the links between Andre Breton and the Martinican writer Aime Cesaire, but Chude-Sokei quotes J. Michel Dash describing Breton, Sartre and Levi-Strauss, despite their public and influential commitments to anti-colonialism as ‘romantic racists’, a way of saying that they had fallen into the trap of idealising and romanticising black culture instead of engaging with difference.

It is easy to say this now, but at the time their work was important in changing the white mindset that viewed blacks as inferior by nature.

Chude-Sokei says his book is also an introduction to a number of Caribbean writers, but a critical review would be a better term, because their work is not easy to digest.

It considers a number of writers, such as Sylvia Winter who are particularly interested in the creolization of West-Indian culture and its relation to science fiction, robotics, the history of slavery and post-modern and post-colonial culture.

He provides evidence for the way black slaves and by extension all blacks were viewed in some fiction like machines (that is exactly what a slave is for its master).

And that fiction also expressed the masters’ anxiety about a revolt whether by slaves or by robots.

But just pointing out that the words ‘master’ and ‘slave’ became standard terms in robotics, and that industrialisation went hand-in-hand with the use of slavery does not seem sufficient to argue that therefore whites still unconsciously view blacks in general as if they were machines: both subhuman and potentially super-human, while lacking a soul.

White culture certainly viewed itself as superior because it was technologically advanced, and also felt itself morally superior to the people it had enslaved and actively under-developed.

Rastus Robot, the mechanical cleaner with a black voice designed in 1930 may have been a way for robots to be humanised and made ‘safe’, literally domesticated.

The author points out that in Japan robots were viewed as quasi-friends, domestic helpers, rather than threatening usurpers, and relates this to the Shinto tradition of regarding all beings as having souls, and the absence of slave trading.

Creolization is a keyword – occurring 202 times as my clever Kindle tells me – but I had to go to Wikipedia for a definition.

Chude-Sokei highlights the way cultural creolization has the power to move beyond the oppositions between human and sub-human that were the correlates of slavery and western colonization, to form the basis of a new concept of humanness. This is where black techno-poetics overlaps with sci-fi but the key issues did not come across to me. The word ‘sound’ in the title does not refer to music or lyrics, but to the whole production process and its important place in Jamaican cultural life.

Chude-Sokei has written many articles about these issues, but here the book was disappointing, as they are treated mostly through comments and citations of very academic discussions. And where there are issues that have reached the mainstream press Chude-Sokei is silent.

He criticises Rastafarianism for its belief in a roots culture, but does not address misogynous terms like ‘bitch’ in Rap lyrics, or the use of drones and electronic surveillance by Jamaican police.

Despite the image on the book’s cover, the special forces – known as Ninjas – are not considered. The militarisation of police forces is an issue in many places, the USA and Brazil especially, and the technology of drones is replacing justice with murder. It will take more than creolization to change it.

*“The sound of culture: diaspora and black technopoetics”. Wesleyan University Press, December 2015.

(Photos: Pixabay)



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