African Afro-futurism: Allegories and Speculations

Steingo, Gavin

In his seminal text, More Brilliant Than The Sun, Kodwo Eshun remarks upon a general tension within contemporary African-American music: a tension between the “Soulful” and the “Postsoul.” While acknowledging that the two terms are always simultaneously at play, Eshun ultimately comes down strongly in favor of the latter. I quote him at length:

Like Brussels sprouts, humanism is good for you, nourishing, nurturing, soulwarming—and from Phyllis Wheatley to R. Kelly, present-day R&B is a perpetual fight for human status, a yearning for human rights, a struggle for inclusion within the human species. Allergic to cybersonic if not to sonic technology, mainstream American media—in its drive to banish alienation, and to recover a sense of the whole human being through belief systems that talk to the “real you”—compulsively deletes any intimation of an AfroDiasporic futurism, of a “webbed network” of computerhythms, machine mythology and conceptechnics which routes, reroutes and crisscrosses the Atlantic. This digital diaspora connecting the UK to the US, the Caribbean to Europe to Africa, is in Paul Gilroy’s definition a “rhizomorphic, fractal structure,” a “transcultural, international formation.” […]

[By contrast] [t]he music of Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra, of Underground Resistance and George Russell, of Tricky and Martina, comes from the Outer Side. It alienates itself from the human; it arrives from the future. Alien Music is a synthetic recombinator, an applied art technology for amplifying the rates of becoming alien. Optimize the ratios of excentricity. Synthesize yourself. […] From the outset, this Postsoul Era has been characterized by an extreme indifference towards the human. The human is a pointless and treacherous category. (Eshun 1998, 00[-006]-00[-005])

The debate that Eshun outlines—along with its rich lexicon of terms— has a formidable history, both preceding More Brilliant Than The Sun, and following that book’s publication. Taking a cue from Eshun, in this paper I examine a related—although not identical—tension within Afro-futurism, namely the tension between allegory and speculation. While these terms correspond roughly to the Soulful (humanism) and the Postsoul (posthumanism) respectively, shifting the discussion to allegory and speculation enables me to detect a crypto-humanism within posthumanist discourse. And it allows me, furthermore, to offer a somewhat different take on the Postsoul—a speculative version that pushes the Postsoul to its limits.

In order to situate the discussion and render it less abstract, I examine the allegory/speculation tension through selected examples from Africa. I will argue that African-based Afro-futurist production heightens the tension while veering towards the speculative pole. But in order to understand how and why that is the case, it will be necessary, first, to more carefully theorize how allegory and speculation function within Afro-futurism and then, second, to more fully contextualize Afro-futurism in Africa.


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October 22, 2018