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Wednesday, February 6, 2008.


By Matthew Somoroff

No Western modernity without (sonic) blackness and no blackness in the absence of modernity” —in a nutshell, this is the big idea in Alexander Weheliye’s new book, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity.


Crucial to his project are a wide definition of “the sonic” within black cultural production and a belief in the centrality of aurality (and/or orality) to twentieth-century black culture.


Weheliye’s engagement with the sounds of black cultural production (sonic Afro-modernity) owes a significant debt to Fred Moten’s In the Break (2003), in which Moten privileges the sonic and aural within black performance and propounds a theory of black culture as inherently performative and black performance as inherently radical.

Weheliye departs from Moten in his meditation on the intrinsically technological nature of sonic Afro-Modernity. In the exciting introduction to this volume, Weheliye notes how the sound technologies and listening practices associated with black music have not received enough critical attention.


My interest was piqued when I read that Weheliye proposes to “establish a dialogue between literary texts and current popular culture to conjecture how sonic technologies and black cultural production have fruitfully contaminated each other”. This is a book about the agency of black cultural producers as practitioners and innovators of Western modernity.

This is also a book about the nonlinguistic power of sound, about the ability of sound to act as both “writing” (in the sense that it signifies in an abstract and systematic way) and something beyond “writing”—something more embodied and sensual.


In his first chapter, Weheliye posits the phonograph as a site where the ostensibly separate categories and writing and sounding were collapsed, thus challenging the prevailing Western discursive bias towards the visual and the written.

Weheliye approaches his subject matter from the perspective of a literary or cultural critic; that is, his ideas and theoretical stances mostly build off of his close readings of cultural texts. A benefit of this volume is Weheliye’s refreshingly eclectic choice of texts and their juxtapositions.


Weheliye not only positions readings of texts by canonical authors such as Du Bois and Ralph Ellison beside the practices of DJs and a recent Hollywood film, respectively, but he also structures his arguments to highlight the merits of reading these pieces of black cultural production in tandem.

Weheliye juxtaposes Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk with the artistic practices of DJs in Chapter Three. Just as DJs create rupture by fragmenting musical materials while forming new musical wholes through the juxtaposition and/or combination of erstwhile separate recordings, Du Bois’ text can be seen as one of the first “mixes” in twentieth-century black culture in its use of contrasting literary forms and modes, and its inclusion of fragments of spirituals in musical notation.


Reading this chapter, I detected Weheliye’s satisfaction with his own feat of DJing in his “mixing” of Du Bois with contemporary DJing practices. The conception of Du Bois as proto-DJ and of contemporary DJs as Du Boisian sound-smiths struck me as one of Weheliye’s more successful expositions of how sonic Afro-modernity is “a series of compounded materiodiscursive echoes in and around black sounds in the West” , or put differently, an aurally centered cultural mode traversing the boundaries of supposedly discrete historical periods.

Yet for all Weheliye’s talk about exploring “sonic Afro-Modernity,” I found a strange dearth of sound in the book, or at least a dearth of close engagement with the kind of materiality of sound he seems to celebrate.


He analyzes the recordings of the Haitian/American rap group the Fugees, the Afro-/Italian-German rap group Advanced Chemistry, and the black UK musician Tricky to show how all three articulate what Weheliye terms “diasporic citizenship” with the aid of sound technologies (see Chapter 5).


When he thinks about the Fugees, he thinks more about their lyrics and the visual content of their music videos than the sound of their music (though he observes certain notable musical features: the use of acoustic guitar, the combination of rapped and sung lyrics).


When he discusses Ralph Ellison’s essay “Living with Music” (Chapter 3) and Darnell Martin’s film I Like It Like That, Weheliye shows the reader how an important African-American writer and the first African-American woman to direct a Hollywood film both conceive of sound recordings in the construction of urban spaces (Ellison plays his LPs louder to drown out annoying singing from a next-door neighbor; Lisette, the protagonist of I Like It, uses technologies such as the Walkman to create a sonic space of privacy).

These analyses show how sound technologies either facilitate the dissemination of black music (in the case of the Fugees) or appear within the daily lives of musical black people (in the case of Ellison and I Like It).


However, they do not really seem to theorize exactly how sound technologies figure in the experiencing of black music (at least not the way the book’s opening rumination on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody” suggests Weheliye is capable), or explain how “these [sound] technologies have been significantly shaped by black music” (20).

In his chapter on sonically constructed “Afro-modern” spaces, Weheliye mentions the paucity of “studies that analyze how sound articulates space” (108). While he cites the work of Jonathan Sterne (The Audible Past) in his discussion of the early years of the phonograph (Chapter 1), Weheliye’s thoughts on sonically constructed spaces could have been informed by Sterne’s 1997 article “Sounds Like the Mall of America.”


This article explores how “Muzak” is used to structure of the spaces of a large US shopping mall; different styles of music delineate boundaries between various stores and hallways, much in the same way Ellison and Lisette create bounded spaces for themselves with music of their choosing.

Weheliye’s vision of “sonic Afro-modernity” is an idea, a frame in which to think about Black America's cultural production in the twentieth century and beyond, which is full of potential because of its recognition of the importance of technology in the aurality of black culture.


His call to consider “(sonic) blackness” and modernity in symbiotic proximity deserves our attention. If phonographies only lays out the groundwork for Weheliye’s ambitious conceptualization of black modernity, it has still served a valuable purpose.


Hopefully future work by Weheliye or others will extend these theories into new practices for the study of the African diaspora.


With thanks to Dr Mark Anthony Neal at The New Black Man.

Phonographies : Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity
By Alexander G. Weheliye
Duke University Press (2005), 304 pages

Matthew Somoroff is a PhD candidate in the Music Department at Duke University. He can be reached at matthew.somoroff@duke.edu

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