Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity


Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: Published: May 2005

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Cultural Studies, Music > Sound Studies

Phonographies explores the numerous links and relays between twentieth-century black cultural production and sound technologies from the phonograph to the Walkman. Highlighting how black authors, filmmakers, and musicians have actively engaged with recorded sound in their work, Alexander G. Weheliye contends that the interplay between sound technologies and black music and speech enabled the emergence of modern black culture, of what he terms “sonic Afro-modernity.” He shows that by separating music and speech from their human sources, sound-recording technologies beginning with the phonograph generated new modes of thinking, being, and becoming. Black artists used these new possibilities to revamp key notions of modernity—among these, ideas of subjectivity, temporality, and community. Phonographies is a powerful argument that sound technologies are integral to black culture, which is, in turn, fundamental to Western modernity.

Weheliye surveys literature, film, and music to focus on engagements with recorded sound. He offers substantial new readings of canonical texts by W. E. B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison, establishing dialogues between these writers and popular music and film ranging from Louis Armstrong’s voice to DJ mixing techniques to Darnell Martin’s 1994 movie I Like It Like That. Looking at how questions of diasporic belonging are articulated in contemporary black musical practices, Weheliye analyzes three contemporary Afro-diasporic musical acts: the Haitian and African American rap group the Fugees, the Afro- and Italian-German rap collective Advanced Chemistry, and black British artist Tricky and his partner Martina. Phonographies imagines the African diaspora as a virtual sounding space, one that is marked, in the twentieth century and twenty-first, by the circulation of culture via technological reproductions—records and tapes, dubbing and mixing, and more.


“In this outstanding book, Alexander G. Weheliye combines sound ‘phono’ and writing ‘graph’ in the classic texts of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and W. E. B Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to create Phonographies : Grooves in Sonic Afro-modernity. This book is an original examination of sound (often comparing it to visual representations), music, music technologies (from the phonograph to iPods) and disk jockeying. Phonographies includes a multitude of well-researched references to key writers in African American studies, music history, literary criticism and cultural studies, drawing upon the work of Althusser, Derrida, Deleuze, Freud, and Lacan, amongst others, to inform views. . . . [Phonographies is] definitely worth reading more than once; it is a highly significant text for the field of African American Studies.” — Emma Louise Kilkelly, Journal of American Studies

“The biggest contribution of Phonographies, however, is neither these fresh and welcome readings nor the discovery of modernity’s black leitmotif but rather its invitation to read anew these and older texts with one’s ears open.” — Mendi Lewis Obadike, American Literature

"Phonographies is often original and challenging . . . strong interdisciplinary connections are made and new insights emerge, and the seamless manner in which he does it startles most of all." — The Wire

Phonographies is extraordinary. Its acute, brilliant, and unprecedented attention to technology and its relation to music, literature, and Afro-diasporic subjectivity and citizenship make it one of the most important and significant contributions to black studies, cultural studies, and aesthetic theory in the last ten years. Phonographies demands, and will abundantly repay, the careful attention of its readers and listeners.” — Fred Moten, author of In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition

“A glorious and important contribution to the literatures on music technologies, black music, black writing, and race studies, Phonographies is unique. For the first time, we have a theory that suggests how powerful black culture is in the course of modernity and that accounts for the almost global dominance of black modes of musicality in world cultures since the advent of recorded sound.” — John Corbett, author of Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein

“Exacting, incisive, and stylistically engaging from start to finish, Phonographies is the most far-reaching reconfiguration of the vexed relations between Afrodiasporic modernity, phonography, aurality, and subjectivity published to date. Alexander Weheliye stages a rich set of encounters between DuBois and Ellison, Tricky and Gilroy, Derrida and Armstrong, Glissant and The Fugees in order to open up the entangled topography he terms ‘sonic Afro-modernity.’ In so doing, Weheliye has produced a discursive intervention that is thrilling in its detail, rigorous in its arguments, and profound in its implications. A deeply considered, important volume.” — Kodwo Eshun, author of More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Alexander G. Weheliye is Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at Northwestern University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Intro: It’s Beginning to Feel Like . . . 1

1. Hearing Sonic Afro-Modernity 19

2. “I Am I Be”: A Subject of Sonic Afro-Modernity 46

3. In the Mix 73

4. Consuming Sonic Technologies 106

5. Sounding Diasporic Citizenship 145

Outro: Thinking Sound/Sound Thinking (Slipping into the Breaks Remix) 199

Notes 211

Works Cited 257

Index 279
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Winner, William Sanders Scarborough Prize, Modern Language Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3590-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3577-1
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