Conversations in Black: Alexander G. Weheliye

Monica Miller and Christopher Driscoll talk with Alexander G. Weheliye about the world of Man, racializing assemblages, and the black body.


Conversations in Black Update
This interview series, hosted by Drs Monica R. Miller and Christopher M. Driscoll of Lehigh University, highlights prominent voices, books, and avenues of thought emerging from the study of black culture, religion, politics, and identity, with an eye towards trends in the academy and society.

Alexander G. Weheliye

Dr. Alexander G. Weheliye is Professor of African American Studies and English and Director of Graduate Studies at Northwestern University and where he teaches black literature and culture, critical theory, social technologies, and popular culture. He is the author of Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Duke UP, 2005) which was awarded the Modern Language Association’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize in 2005; numerous articles, and more recently, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Duke UP, 2014). Currently, he is working on Feenin: R&B’s Technologies of Humanity, a project offering a critical history of the intimate relationship between R&B music and technology since the late 1970s. Find him online at his personal website and on Twitter.

Dr. Weheliye is one of the leading contemporary theorists of identity, whose work delicately balances the most up-to-date social, cultural, and political topics and issues with avant-garde critical theoretical perspectives. He is as adept discussing DuBoisian double consciousness and Ytasha Womack’s Afrofuturism as he is at unpacking the continued significance of Saussure, Derrida, or (notably) Deleuze and Guattari’s useful dexterity where questions of social identity are concerned. He agreed to take some time out of his summer to answer some questions about his work, particularly his latest book, Habeas Viscus. In a current moment where scholars of race and identity are simultaneously more convinced than ever of the import of their efforts, but are also seeing their ideas put to the test daily in an increasingly complicated US and globalized social world, Dr. Weheliye brings wisdom and nuance to the table for this installment of Conversations in Black.

MM/CD: As a scholar working at the vast intellectual intersections of popular culture, black culture and literature, social and information technologies, engaging a variety of areas of thought from Afrofuturism, biopolitics, to popular music, tell us a little bit about the sorts of queries engaged and questions emerging in your scholarship.

AGW: Overall, what animates my work is to understand and explore how Blackness or Black life is simultaneously fundamental to what it means to be human in modernity at the same as it is continually disparaged, violated, expropriated, appropriated, and killed. I theorize the survival strategies and creativity borne from Black cultures while also amplifying the unrelentingly violent being-in-the-world of Black life in the modern West. In Phonographies I focused on how technology and sound frame Black life and, thus, what it means to be human in western modernity. Because technology is still imagined as antithetical to Black life, while sound, speech and music appear as the prime accomplishments of Black culture, their intersection provides a fruitful entry point into these questions. Similarly, Habeas Viscus homes in on some of the most significant theorizations of modern humanity from, on the one hand, the archives of Black Studies and Black feminism, and, on the other, from the canon of recent western European thought. My current research extends this line of inquiry about Black life and humanity. Though all these projects may seem dissimilar at first glance, they analyze different components of this fundamental problematic.

Alexander G. Weheliye, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity, Duke University Press, 2005, 286pp., $24.95
Alexander G. Weheliye, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity, Duke University Press, 2005, 286pp., $24.95
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MM/CD: Phonographies, your first book, explores the technologies that underpin blackness and modernity not as antithetical so much as co-constitutive — we couldn’t have one without the other, as it were. In it, you spend time exploring black musical expression and expressive black culture and people. And you take a look at the hip hop group The Fugees. Could you say something about why you turned to The Fugees, what they represent for either the book or for popular culture today? And then, taking a step back, could you give us a sense of how you come at hip hop culture generally, and talk about where it fits into afro-modernity?

AGW: Black music and technology have been fundamental to modern culture — both the art and industry of popular music would be unthinkable without Black sounds; yet Black culture is still perceived as being anti-technological. In fact, one way in which Black people are imagined as not-quite-human is through the emphasis on the “natural expressivity” of Black music at the cost of its technological accomplishments.

Phonographies unearths the historical, conceptual, cultural, and technological grounds that sanction Black music’s functioning as a foundation for modern consumer culture and a hub of identification for Black populations across the globe.

The Fugees  — as well as the Afro-German group, Advanced Chemistry, and Black British performers Tricky and Martina — were important for my argument because they drew attention to the globalization of Hip-Hop within their musical texts. The three groups wrestled with the implications of hip-hop as a focal point of identification for Black populations around the globe. They also insisted on addressing how national borders and citizenship rights continue to shape Black life in ways that were more fitting than the often too celebratory rhetoric about the decline of the nation-state and national borders found in 1990s globalization discourse.

Black popular music is less a field to be mined or rescued by academic discourse than one of the most important venues for theorizing and knowledge production. In fact, academic discourse would often benefit from listening and learning from popular music, which is why I keep returning to it.

Though I’m not nostalgic for that time in hip-hop, The Fugees combined a deft pro-Black and hemispheric political rhetoric with extremely appealing beats/rhymes/hooks in ways that not many other artists have done since; they are to this day also one of the few hip-hop crews that featured both male and female MCs. But I would also be careful not to over value the group’s political message at the cost of more current music, since they emerged in a very particular cultural context. The group was important to me personally because I really enjoyed their music, the way Lauryn Hill combined singing and rapping, for instance, which has now become the norm; the “positive political messages” were a nice add-on, bonus beats so to speak. It was also significant that The Fugees centered on how Haitian immigrants were treated by US law and public opinion.

If I were writing the book today, my examples might include Nicki Minaj, K’naan, Rihanna, Skepta, or ILoveMakonnen, all of whom negotiate multiple layers of Black diasporic belonging.

For me, Black popular music is less a field to be mined or rescued by academic discourse than one of the most important venues for theorizing and knowledge production. In fact, academic discourse would often benefit from listening and learning from popular music, which is why I keep returning to it.

MM/CD: Your scholarship is marked beautifully by a theoretical and methodological interdisciplinarity and analytical edge — thinking with discourses from diaspora studies, and from postcolonial studies to critical ethnic studies and critical theories more generally by engaging with, and forging a conversation among, a chorus of scholarly voices and sources seldom seen together in a single text. From Phonographies to Habeas Viscus, can you give us a sense of the theoretical and methodological trajectories, developments, and shifts your work has taken over the years and the importance of black feminist theories for the study of modern notions of humanity and of the human?

Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, Duke University Press, 2014, 224pp, $23.95
Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, Duke University Press, 2014, 224pp, $23.95
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AGW: Thank you for the generous description of work. My training is in Black literary and cultural studies as well as critical theory, in addition to my on-going interest in popular music and social technologies. My formative encounters with Black feminism are two-fold. First, when I was a teenager I participated in the beginnings of the Black German movement, a movement initiated and led by Black women such as May Ayim and Katharina Oguntoye. And, although the movement was not framed as explicitly feminist (much in the same way as #BlackLivesMatter, by the way), it did highlight how questions of gender and sexuality need not be add-ons to think movements organized around Black Life. I doubt that I would have taken the same intellectual path without this formative exposure. Second, my mentors in graduate school were largely Black feminist writers and thinkers such as Abena Busia and Cheryl Wall, who taught me about the history of Black feminism but also exemplified the insights from Black feminist texts in their teaching and interactions with students and other faculty members.

Much of the important work done by the first generation of Black feminists in the mainstream US academy remains invisible, because it did not take on the form of books, articles, or essays — these do exist, of course — but happened on the lower frequencies through the mentoring, etc. There’s a generation of Black scholars who would simply not exist without the pioneering work of Black feminist academics in creating new structures and lineages. It forcefully highlights the frequently unacknowledged labor of intellectual and professional mentoring that is nevertheless so fundamental to the workings of our profession, especially in “young” and underrepresented fields of academic inquiry such as Black Studies.

Habeas Viscus pays tribute to these efforts as well as the work of Black German feminist activists and thinkers, since there exists no institutional memory of this intellectual and affective labor in the mainstream academy. I also wanted to highlight Black feminism’s role in shaping and maintaining Black Studies institutionally and intellectually by reclaiming the radical intellectual-cum-political dimensions of the Black Studies project with feminist thought at its center to stave off the neo-liberalization that has come along with incorporation into mainstream academy.

Outrage and public grief are often channeled through only male bodies but not trans- and cis-gendered Black women, showing an investment in traditional notions of masculinity.

MM/CD: To expound on the previous question, Habeas Viscus makes extensive use of Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter, two towering black feminist intellectuals. And doing so seems to give a kind of validity or authentication — a “keepin’ it real “feel,” so to speak — that might otherwise have been difficult considering the also sizable attention given to old (dead) white men. Could you talk more fully about how turning to these black feminist voices proved vital to the acceptance of the book within the fields to which it is directed, but also at the theoretical level? Also, Sylvia Wynter’s work seems to be growing more popular by the day. Could you give us a sense of Wynter’s concerns as they relate to humanism(s) and human(s), which of her ideas are particularly helpful to you or for making sense of the current social and cultural climate in the West, and why it has taken so long for her to receive this (long deserved) attention?

AGW: The book is something akin to an intellectual and emotional exorcism for me, but also a way to find languages through which to address questions of Black life and humanity differently than I did in Phonographies. Over the years of working in both critical theory and Black Studies, I noticed how Black thought, especially Black feminism was continually “put in its place” as ethnographic and local, if it was consulted and discussed at all, much in the same way that the Holocaust is deemed relevant to everyone but racial slavery and colonialism only concern colored folks.

Then, there is also an experiential aspect that reflects my life experiences as a Black German and my initial encounter with the German academic system. In both arenas, race, and therefore racism, are still an anathema, because German public and academic discourse positions these as problems located elsewhere, which produces a constitutive externalization and misrecognition of non-white Germans as always already distant from Germanness. In essence, though hardly ever articulated as such, it renders Germanness as whiteness.

This logic works in similar ways in France or Italy, both intellectually and politically, and is conceptually reflected in Agamben’s and Foucault’s unwillingness to analyze the constitutive significance of colonialism to biopolitics, as well as the continuing importance of racializing assemblages in the maintenance of European identity and philosophy as de facto white. This, in turn, is reproduced in the politics of critical theory in the US, which, through the conduit of white Europeanness, enables scholars not to deal with non-white thinkers or bodies. The reception of Agamben and Foucault in the US is a clear indicator of this tendency given that so much of their thinking around “bare life” and “biopolitics” works over topics that have been central to Black Studies and other forms of minority discourse. So, Habeas Viscus was a way for me to address the shortcomings of white European theory while also reading these works from a Black Studies perspective that centers on Black feminism. In other words, how does putting Agamben and Foucault in conversation with Spillers and Wynter resituate the principal ideas of white European theorists?

Spillers and Wynter are important figures for a few reasons First, they are both Black feminist thinkers who have also offered the most detailed recent theorizations of Black Studies as an intellectual project and institutional formation in the US academy. Second, Wynter and Spillers have devised global theories of modern humanity and how it is cut by racial and gender differences. I think part of why Wynter was not discussed more widely until recently is that her texts are difficult in terms of their prose and in their insistence on the global human and the significance of the biological, which have been discredited in mainstream academic discourse.

MM/CD: Habeas Viscus is such a rich, complex, and major contribution to fields and discourses on race, blackness in particular, biopolitics, changing conceptions of the human at the level of both the material and discursive, and modern politics — among other notable areas. What was the impetus and vision behind this book? And, so readers can have a sense of the project, in your own words, what major goals or theses did you want to put forth? Specifically, on the concepts of body/flesh and between “fleshly surplus” and the “atrocity of flesh” — what sort of work does the phrase habeas viscus do in this text accounting for alternative modes of life while being intentional about the realities of racialization, incapacity, management, power, and violence?

AGW: The title is a play on the Latin phrase and constitutional writ habeas corpus, which means “You shall have the body.” The de facto suspension of Habeas Corpus had been in news frequently when I first started thinking about the book due to the war on terror and Guantanamo Bay. In conversation with Spillers’s distinction between the body and flesh, I wondered what it might mean for those who have frequently been denied Habeas Corpus and protection by US law in general, to embrace the flesh rather than looking to the legal apparatus to grant us bodies. The flesh represents alternate instantiations of what it means to be human, which are not based on ownership and violent expropriation. In Spillers, the flesh is also gendered and sexualized differently, what she calls “Black female flesh ungendered,” because this is one of the main ways Black folks are barred from the white western version of humanity.

Mainstream culture perceives Black genders and sexualities as either too much or too little. My point is, though, that this is not a necessarily a bad thing, since it represents an opportunity for imaging gender/sexuality otherwise, for embracing and living ungendered flesh. The post-Civil Rights era has so clearly shown that pursuing a respectability politics based on disparaging sagging pants, AAVE, non-traditional social formations, non-normative genders and sexualities, etc., in favor of proper masculinity and femininity, nuclear families, speaking standard English, etc., has not led to Black folks reaping the political, economic, and cultural benefits of full humanity.

MM/CD: Building on this, as carefully developed in such a conceptually capacious way in this text, give us a sense of how habeas viscus engages the shape-shifty ebbs, synchronicity, flows, vibes, and effect of flesh as it relates to the humanist philosophical concept of “man” — the “human.” In what ways does it offer a theoretically rich and conceptually queer account of posthumanism?

AGW: One of the things that happens with posthumanity and, I would say, even earlier in the discourses of antihumanism that arise in late 1960s France, for instance ― that become known as poststructuralism or structuralism in the US ― is that there’s this idea that we need to leave humanity and humanism behind. And in that moment what doesn’t get theorized is that that version of humanity is a very particular one. It is a local humanity specific to the modern West, which is why Sylvia Wynter distinguishes a humanity that would include all humans in their variegated differences from white, bourgeois, masculine, western Man. According to Wynter what happens since the early modern era is that the West equates all humanity with Man and then through colonialism and neo-colonial structures “exports” this idea to the most far flung corners of the globe so that it becomes universal in a very literal sense. This is rendered explicit in theories of posthumanism that begin with this idea: “Now we’ve entered this posthuman stage where we are not in control of ourselves due to our reliance on new informational technologies, thus we are no longer liberal humanist subjects that own ourselves.” Post-humanism’s fundamental problem, then, is that it repeats and fortifies the elision of white, western, Man with humanity.

And my question has been for a while: What happens if we don’t begin with the white, European version of humanity but begin with a version of humanity that is not in control of itself: the slave subject or the colonized subject, for instance? And then you get a very different idea of what it might mean to claim the category of the human. Oftentimes the way that thinkers like Wynter, Spillers, or Frantz Fanon are read when they invoke “humanism” is that they are simply appropriating European humanist discourses. Instead of the moment that Spillers, Wynter, or Fanon claim the human, the category has to change, because they are not speaking from the vantage point of being white liberal subjects. This is one of the many reasons why post-humanism doesn’t work for me, but imagining worlds after and alongside Man does.

What happens if we don’t begin with the white, European version of humanity but begin with a version of humanity that is not in control of itself: the slave subject or the colonized subject, for instance?

MM/CD: In such a political, cultural, and social moment of black death and illegibility that animates ongoing and current social protest around the manner in which exceptional populations are seemingly immobilized, sorted, and filtered out — (and outside of) an equitable and healthy biopolitical society and social arrangements — how does the work done in this text around the human and the theory of “racializing assemblages” speak to, and perhaps challenge, the moves often made in current discourse and social action around black bodies and legibility insomuch as the category/domain “fully human” and the “full” recognition of certain “lives” are rhetorically and ideologically situated front and center? Maybe stated more bluntly, how might you apply the notion of racializing assemblages to the current #blacklivesmatter movement?

AGW: The ideas in the book are definitely in line with the #BlackLivesMatter movements, since the killings of India Clarke, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Mitch Henriquez, Stephen Lawrence, Kristy Schwundeck, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Sandra Bland, Islan Nettles, and Eric Garner brought to light — in the most extreme ways possible — how Black people are still not deemed human by state apparatuses and the white populace in the US and Western Europe. My argument in Habeas Viscus shows the legal, scientific, cultural, and political frameworks that make it possible for Black life not to matter. How can our humanity be recognized by a legal apparatus designed to kill us? This cannot be the path of salvation or redress.

The modern state bestows and rescinds humanity as an individualized legal status in the vein of property. Allocating personhood in this way maintains the world of Man and its attendant racializing assemblages, which means in essence that the entry fee Black folks have to pay for legal recognition is the acceptance of categories based on white supremacy and colonialism, as well as normative genders and sexualities. In other words, in order for individual Black lives to be recognized as full humans by the law, their Blackness must be killed.

What we also see in #BlackLivesMatter, though founded by queer Black women, is that the outrage and public grief are often channeled through only male bodies but not trans- and cis-gendered Black women, showing an investment in traditional notions of masculinity. This goes back to my previous point about how important it is to embrace the ungendered flesh rather than chasing after recognition by conforming to Man’s traditional notions of masculinity and femininity.

The entry fee Black folks have to pay for legal recognition is the acceptance of categories based on white supremacy and colonialism, as well as normative genders and sexualities. In other words, in order for individual Black lives to be recognized as full humans by the law, their Blackness must be killed.

MM/CD: Can you speak to how habeas viscus (as developed in this book) engages and speaks to the paradox that has been black flesh and life flourishing throughout the complex histories of Western epistemologies, philosophies, and theologies, and what it provides by way of imagining and reimagining otherwise social possibilities and arrangements, whereby human life is reorganized in ways that do not reify racialized hierarchies? What do you say to readers that are skeptical that such a thought-experiment (of otherwise possibilities) is only possible on a theoretical level but wholly impossible on a social/pragmatic level?

AGW: Freedom dreams have always been important to Black culture and politics, and Black survival has been dependent on the politics of the imagination. Think, for instance, about the significance of the promised land and/or after-life in slave cosmologies.

My point is they these alternatives already exist, we just have to pay better, or rather different kinds of attention in order to perceive them more clearly. Think, for example, of Maroon societies, ball room culture, the Black Star Line, or Black feminist collectives such as Combahee River Collective or The Crunk Feminist Collective as offering different models for being-in-the-world. I want to hold on to the affect of utopianism without specifying the content for alternatives, since the grand utopian designs of the 19th and 20th centuries have led to disastrous results. Nevertheless, giving up on the desire for something, anything else cedes the ground to how things are.

MM/CD: Finally, we see that you are at work on a fascinating project Feenin: R&B’s Technologies of Humanity — can you tell us a bit more about these forthcoming project, and where your research is currently taking you?

AGW: Feenin continues the intellectual project of Phonographies and Habeas Viscus by reclaiming contemporary R&B as a major site for Black articulation of humanity, an alternative to the possessive individualism of Man. Scholarly work on R&B since the 1980s is scant in comparison to work about R&B music from the 1960s and 70s as well as hip-hop. My question: Why and how did R&B move from being the musical representation of “authentic” Blackness to its antithesis in the 1980s and after? I think it has a lot to with the perceived femininity and upwardly mobile aspirationalism of R&B as a genre in the aftermath of hip-hop. Rather than pitting the two genres against each other, which doesn’t make much sense given how interdependent they have become, I am more interested in how the rise of hip-hop has affected R&B, and vice versa. R&B presents different facets of the practice of Black everyday life under other genocidal conditions than hip-hop, emphasizing the “domestic” interpersonal sphere rather than the street. I’m also investigating how the Black singing voice, as a technology of Black humanity and a major site for affective labor, has transformed over the last 35 years.