The Other Butler and the TechnoAfrocats

“Good morning cyboys and cyber girls! I’m happy to announce that we have a star-crossed winner in today’s heartbreak sweepstakes! Android # 57821, otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather, has fallen desperately in love with a human named Anthony Greendow. And you know the rules! She is now scheduled for immediate disassembly. Bounty hunters, you can find her in the Neon Valley Street District, on the 4th floor in the Leopard Plaza Apartment Complex. The droid control marshals are full of fun rules today! No phasers; only chainsaws and electrodaggers. Remember: Only card carrying hunters can join our chase today. And as usual, there will be no reward until her cybersoul is turned into the Star Commission. Happy hunting!.”~~Janelle Monae, “March of the Wolfmasters,” (2008)

“I think Janelle Monae is a little bit of amazing. Yay! for the post-human black girl genius.” ~~Lex, Facebook status

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble is a feminist and women studies standard. The theory of performativity continues to trouble the way feminist activists approach movement building and the way historians approach “women” in the archive. However, it is not without its own problems, and I don’t feel that the merits of the theory outweigh the possibility of its use retrenching privilege, whiteness and the same issues in mainstream feminism Butler claims to write against. Instead, I argue that black feminists and radical women of color offer more complicated and comprehensive ways of understanding the performance of gender. Their analysis makes experience, subjectivity, community, material realities and the dialogic all crucial to working and unworking the meaning of gender in the context of race, class and patriarchy.

However, I don’t feel that the work of black feminists and radical women of color aren’t without their own problems. While women of color recognize the importance of language and “I” to a resistive subjectivity, Butler’s attempt to labor with masculinist language is appropriate, if less effective. Moreover, it is important to remind ourselves of Christian’s emphasis on the “hieroglyph” as the symbol of power and the structural forces that made this less of a choice. As Alexander Weheliye notes, “black subjects did not have the same access to alphabetic script as white subjects” and could not claim “reason, disembodiment and full humanity” as ruled by the Enlightenment and modernity. This does not apply to all black subjects, or all people of color, but it does ask us to question the role of language, and in particular writing, in the experience and history of women of color. Does Kitchen Table Press also create a kind of privilege whereby only literate can engage the radical writings or women of color? How to deal with access, subversion, subjectivity and identity within a language that already structures so much? Particularly when these issues bolster academic hierarchy

In 2006, Octavia Butler, perhaps the preeminent African American female science fiction and fantasy writer passed away. While Judith Butler theorized away language, this Butler sent African American female characters in jumps backwards through time to save their white rapist forebears, having imagined apocalyptic worlds eerily reminiscent of the one we live in today, and having created entirely new solar systems where humans are genetically engineered by transsexual aliens and gender is turned so completely upside down that the word has almost no meaning. Her main characters were almost always women of color, at least visibly African American, placed in impossible and non-utopian situations. Her challenge was to create women that the reader understood but beyond the American grammar

I find Judith Butler’s theory of performativity troubling but I find Octavia Butler’s ability to explode the importance of those repetitive little acts into tiny bits integral to how we must begin to now grapple with race, class, sexuality, and gender. But how does she do it

I can offer no solutions at this time, but I wonder if the answer lies in the 21st century transition from the written page to the digital screen. A decade ago, Alexander Weheliye, Paul Miller, Samuel Delaney, Nalo Hopkinson and others were suggesting that use of technology in art, music, literature, and theory could begin to trouble our understanding of the subject, the plot, and the human as imagined by the West. Called Afrofuturism by some and Afro-modernity by others, at its heart lies the trouble with the (white) (male) subject and the use of technology to continue to trouble it. As Weheliye writes:

“Locating the subject in the sonic grants a quite a different notion of this concept—which does not mean that the subject as a linguistic category is null and void; it just relocates it to a new analytical neighborhood without losing its ties to old friends—one that does not posit meaning and/or intelligibility as its teleological end point but enable “[o]pacities [to] coexist and converge, weaving fabrics.”

This means much more than analyzing African American music genres. This means exploring how digital diasporas of all kinds are created and the possibility of digital spaces to facilitate multilayered identities. Is there a post-human and can it be found in the use of digital media? If so, what does this mean for people of color, who, despite—or perhaps because of–economic inequality, obstacles to political institutions, and a stereohyped media, are some of the most active users of technology around the world? And how do we write that way? August 30 to May 3, 2008, a conference entitled “Digital Diasporas: Digital Humanities and African American/African Diaspora Studies” was held at the University of Maryland in College Park to address these issues. More questions were asked than answers found but it seems an example of how academia, movement building, politics and identity can intersect very fruitfully while still addressing the very important questions Butler asks about how to subvert the subject.


Janelle Monae, “March of the Wolfmasters,” Metropolis – Suite 1: The Chase (Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy Records, 2008).

Alexander G. Weheliye, ““I Am I Be”: The Subject of Sonic Afro-modernity,” boundary 30 (2003), 102.

For these perspectives and more see the Afrofuturism website:

Alexander G. Weheliye, ““I Am I Be”: The Subject of Sonic Afro-modernity,” boundary 30 (2003), 104.

2 thoughts on “The Other Butler and the TechnoAfrocats

  1. loving this! Just want to put a lot of “yes” here and to say keep on. I think the question of access and the meaning of “writing” is really really on point. I look forward to an ongoing conversation about how we deal with our access to the alphabet…and how we two in concert can find ways to transform evidence, sound new freedom songs and…make history or maybe a womanist recording studio….

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s