The Digital Now, The Changing Same
[ 01 ]
In the Winter 2021 issue of Logic, a conversation between the editor J. Khadijah Abdurahman and poet, translator, and transdisciplinary scholar SA Smythe unfolds a series of questions and provocations on the ‘technologies of Black freedoms’. The preface to this discussion situates two important lines of inquiry with regard to race and technology: Despite increasing recognition of the intersections between exclusionary racialising regimes and digital technologies, analyses largely ‘treat race as an afterma of technology, as a downstream effect’. In this equation, race is presented as a problem, as ‘the way to add up the bad things that technology does to people’, as ‘a way to measure harm’.1
Abdurahman and Smythe draw out the binds of these premises, which situate such technologies as some kind of apolitical inevitability, operating outside of the regimes which inscribe power relations and through which racial categories are produced to serve particular interests, ghoulish desires and coffers. Instead, racial techno-regimes ‘centrally shape the design, development and deployment of the computational systems that govern our lives. And the obsession with calculating race as a function of harmful impact institutionalizes Black people as objects of suffering without agency or political subjectivity that extends beyond advocating for social remedy.’
In the framing rubric for our research fellowships with the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) – the Digital Now – I read the word ‘now’ as serving to both locate us in time and charge us with urgency. But I am mwana wevhu2, a child of Zimbabwe and thus a ‘daughter of the soil’, where time is non-linear, folded in on itself, and often stretched so thin out of limited resources, necessity and ingenuity, that you see right through to the other side. Now is a fraught time in Zimbabwe. Here, now, now now, right now, and just now, can all denote different and overlapping temporalities.3
‘Now now’, is used to connote something that may happen immediately, or the next ten minutes, or in a few hours, and possibly never. The rules of immediacy, timeliness and predictability are reconfigured accordingly here which, as I have written about elsewhere, pose a serious confrontation to violent, extractive, profiteering logics. The elastic temporality of now now – or perhaps it could also be ‘now, now’ – disrupts the dominance of presence, the anticipation of something likely to occur very shortly, now.
Repetition – or ‘reduplication’ as it is termed in linguistics – is a phenomena of many Bantu languages, in which repetition transforms a word into a ‘frequentative’ verb, indicating an action which repeats and highlighting emphasis. Now now, in this echoed temporality, we are released from the present: simultaneously ‘now’ has already happened, is with us, and is yet to come.
Smythe poses a question which has echoed many of my own in this first phase of the CCA fellowship: ‘How do we think about technologies [otherwise] as various techniques, tools, or modalities for collective liberation, or for black freedoms?’ Much of my research focuses on this question, situating it in relation to a particular Southern African geography in my individual work, and more broadly on the continent in dialogue with Miriam Hillawi Abraham (and then Tabita Rezaire and Heba Amin in our joint work). I have further extended Smythe’s question, situating it ‘Now’, as the title of this research project calls on us to do, and now-now as the contexts of my individual work and their attendant temporal-epistemic realms require. Taking the Digital Now, Now, requires a long multidirectional view of technologies, opening up the potential of what constitutes a technology and when it might be appropriate for it to be deployed.
In doing this, I am engaging technologies that operate outside of, and in active contestation to, contemporary digital systems which enforce and encode logics of racial capitalism. This is not a project of Luddite disavowal, though Ruha Benjamin draws our attention to the fact that Luddite protest was not with the technology but rather the socially constructed exploitation through which it was presented, citing Imani Perry: ‘To break the machine was in a sense to break the conversion of oneself into a machine for the accumulating wealth of another.’4 My ambition is to seek out insurgent technologies, by their very definition Black, forged as ‘techniques, tools, or modalities’ by and for liberation, unleashing them on the very digital networks conceived with our death, our conversion into machine, in mind.
I focus the scope through my research on African Space Programmes, taking a necessarily broad perspective on what technologies allow for access to the other worldly atmospheres, beyond the ‘law of the land’ and the rules we are dealt ‘on the ground’; and with this, what constitutes a Space Programme too. The dominance of non-African private sector stakeholders in the African Space community makes this especially urgent. This is driven by global dynamics too, as the imaginary of Outer Space is increasingly dominated by a few billionaire figures. Their techno-capitalist ambitions and aesthetics reign, quite literally, over us.
In my work to date, the insurgent Black technologies I describe above have included: spaceships made of metal barrels; anti-gravity rope swings; guerilla ‘bush telegraph’ whisper networks; wails, sonic signatures and rhythms in early Chimurenga music; and the disobedient behaviour of now defunct satellites in graveyard orbits. Some common dimensions (methods? Or in Smythe’s words ‘techniques, tools, or modalities’?) are emerging within these technologies – performance, props, speech, sound, music and mediumship – serving to rupture time and place and recompose it otherwise, generating movement (a manoeuvre I have elsewhere termed ‘Black flight’) out of stasis and in the face of foreclosure, and overcoming enormous force and pressure.5
Smythe and Abdurahman call for a reconsideration of, or perhaps a reckoning with, the way ‘race’ is considered in relation to oppressive technologies. Heeding this, beyond a condition of abjectness and a way of measuring harm, my work engages Blackness as a necessarily emancipatory and insurgent condition, as the Luddite spanner in the works, as the space of possibility. Perhaps too, this project engages with the work of those for whom race itself can be understood as a technology (Benjamin, Coleman, Chun, et al).
1.We Be Imagining x Logic, BEACONS, Logic, Issue 15, winter 2021
2.I choose not to italicise non English terms, a move which exoticises what are everyday terms for me and for a large constituent of the intended audience of this work.
3.South Africa, Zambia and likely further in the region too
4.Benjamin, Ruha. Race After Technology (p. 37). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
5.Loewenson, ‘A Taxonomy of Flight’, Commissioned film, The shape of a circle in the mind of a fish, Serpentine Galleries, December 2021, and also ‘Black Flight’, and a design studio taught at Carleton University, Winter 2021
[ 02 ]
The Digital Way
In a recent episode of David Harvey’s Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, Harvey’s gentle and reassuring lilt introduced me to a footnote in the chapter on Machinery and Modern Industry in Capital Volume 1. Footnote 4 deals with the origin of spinning machines and Darwin’s fascination with the ‘history of nature’s technology, i.e. the formation of the organs of plants and animals, organs which serve as instruments of production for sustaining life.’ Marx asks: ‘Does not the history of the productive organs of man [‘very imperfect’ spinning machines included], of organs that are the material basis of all social organisation, deserve equal attention?’
Harvey is particularly fascinated by one sentence within this elaborate footnote:
‘Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them.’
Buried in footnote 4 of chapter 15, this one line does much to peel back layers within capitalist social order. Entangled within one another are five key ‘moments’ or ‘activity spheres’ (in his somewhat rambling style, Harvey then concedes there are maybe actually six… and then a bit later, seven): Technology, the relation to nature, the labour of production and reproduction of labour power, mental conceptions of the world, social relations and categorisation, and the state (which defines the market and the operations of money).
Seemingly recorded without any notes, Harvey’s show is 29 minutes long and lands more like a long Whatsapp voice note or a voicemail (perhaps because these are only really left by older relatives these days) during which one forgets why they had called in the first place. Nonetheless, I am particularly gripped by one moment. Harvey draws our attention to the language Marx uses: Technology ‘reveals’, it ‘discloses’ and ‘lays bare’. By starting from the lens of technology, all the other ‘moments’ and ‘activity spheres’ in the capitalist social order in which it is imbricated and entangled are brought into the frame: relation, re/production, imaginaries of the world, states and markets too.
Harvey’s use of language is also pertinent. These are ‘moments’, ‘activity spheres’ or ‘elements’, operating in a lively, interactive and concomitant manner, like organisms inside the human body. Echoing Marx, Harvey speaks of their ‘becoming’, changing over time in a non stationary or static manner. Therefore, it is the interactions between moments – how they intersect, collide and affect one another – that their potency is to be understood.
With the roar of a lion, Episode 2 of the Mhondoro Marauders Show begins. This episode, The Digital Way, touches base in Watamu, Mhangura, and Mazowe in search of the ‘Digital Way’, an elastic and expansive term that, in its intersections with the particularities of place, stretches the ‘digital’ yet again.
We begin again where we left the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, in the mining town of Mhangura, Zimbabwe, where another giant of Chimurenga technics (Mapfumo, Simone), Zexie Manatsa would liberate two guitars from a hotel they’d been booked to play and establish a band called The Green Arrows. Like Hallelujah Chicken Run Band (the ‘acid band’ in Episode 1), The Green Arrows put these two electric guitars to work. Translating mbira music with its haunting, conjuring effect for a new age. Thomas Turino breaks down the construction of the sound:
‘Guitar-band mbira music is based on the 12/8 metric rhythmic structures of mbira pieces, with the drummer strongly accenting beats 1,4,7 and 10 on the kick drum and playing hosho like triple patterns on the high hat. Guitar band renditions range from moderate to quick tempos (120-150BPM).. Throw into this mix the use of Shona vocal techniques such as huro (high yodelling) and mahonera (low, soft, vocal singing)…’
This might sound innocuous. Interesting to listen to, complex, polyphonic music but it is extremely important when you consider it, as in this part of the world, amongst the technics of temporal disjunction. Mbira songs, and later guitar band mbira music, invoked spiritual possession. As Mhoze Chikowero and Tafataona Mahoso write, they summoned the ancestors from a living past, to overcome the tyranny of the time (as well as the tyranny of time) and build transgenerational solidarity. In Madzimbabwe cosmologies, death signifies the end of one’s physical being, opening up to a form of space travel to nyikadzimu, a metaphysical realm of spirits.
Chikowero writes that this terrified the colonial church and state – in its ‘defying of Cartesian, western linear time and [rejection of] notions of individual justice and rights over stolen property’. The coloniser was terrified of this ideology but also of these spirits themselves. Rhodes is said to have been haunted by the ghost of M’limo, writing in 1915 that if the spirits persuaded the people to rise they would, without question, do so. I invite listeners to consider the potency of this when they hear The Green Arrows perform Musango Mune Hangaiwa (the Doves are in the Forest), referring simultaneously to guerrillas fighting for liberation hiding in the bush and to the disquieted spirits they were calling on to assist them in the struggle.
It is a three hour drive from Mhangura to Harare; a journey that The Green Arrows (Zexie Manatsa and Jealous Siyagwaja) took with their stolen guitars, on the hunt for more favourable wages. I thought of them as I took the same road earlier this year en-route to Mazowe Earth Station, with their early simanjemanje records playing out the car radio.
The Earth Station comes into view as you weave down the mountains into the Mazowe basin. One of the first mining sites in the country, colonisers digging for gold on appropriated lands, and also, one of the first sites of the anticolonial movement, some of the early miners killed and thrown down the shafts in a violent uprising led, in part, by the powerful spirit medium of the area Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana.
Now, again, this is a site of reconciliation between the realms of land and sky, as the home of the country’s young Space Agency and its main telecommunications hub. Huge white satellite discs capture the local imagination, with all manner of speculation of what takes place here. The reality is more magical and surreal than any rumour I’ve heard yet. Chikowero writes how it was central to the ‘colonial episteme [in Zimbabwe] to create new African identities…orphaned, ahistorical, disempowered [people] severed and alienated …from the memory and history of their ancestors.’ Part of the way this was done was through the tight control of communication and public media: what could be discussed and shared, when, how and by whom.
During the liberation struggle, as Episode 1 already touched on, subversive music provided one technology of circumventing these strictures, of keeping other epistemologies and cosmologies alive. The Smith regime invested huge sums in building a 400-000 watt transmitter nicknamed "Big Bertha", to jam the signals from the BBC and other smaller transmitters used by exiles in neighbouring countries; what the President of the Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation called at the time “a barrage of hostile propaganda over the air". Following independence, a regime of surveillance and control continued as the country’s communication systems were all routed through neighbouring apartheid South Africa.
One of the first acts of the independent Zimbabwe government was to wrest back sovereignty over communication through Space. This is probably one of the country’s most digitally advanced pieces of infrastructure and yet, when Chief Telecoms Technician Mr Mupeti shows me around, I am struck by how much it recalls the technologies of polyphony, subversion and conjuring of the likes of Mapfumo, Zexia Manatsa and The Green Arrows.
Here is a piece of Space Infrastructure, enabling the connectivity and communication of millions, that relies on constant monitoring, tweaking the position of the dishes nearly every day, and goading decades old equipment into dialogue with systems and servers which quite literally speak another language. Power is unstable and unreliable and so a series of Nippon Sharyo diesel generators are regularly powered up to keep a country online. This is done by hand. Usually by Mr Mupeti himself, who is always keeping a constant eye, listening out for a trip like the high hat, the shimmer of a satellite off sync like the hosho, that triggers an action, a call and a response. “When you rely on Western technology”, says Mr Mupeti “It’s very difficult to speak”, but looking around I am moved to wonder how Western this really is anymore.
Just a few days prior, I was on the back of tuk-tuk in the Kenyan coastal town of Watamu. I had spent the day trying to find the San Marco platform, now something of a black site obscured on Google Earth, but which I know to be nearby. Don’t ask me how. This was the site from which the Uhuru satellite was launched into space on Kenya’s 7th Jamhuri or Independence Day, under the remit of NASA and the Italian Space Agency. Uhuru was a satellite of many firsts: the first to document a comprehensive all sky survey, to produce evidence of black holes and the first US satellite launched by a foreign government. Uhuru was launched in living memory, 52 years ago, but everyone I ask has no knowledge of it. Instead what has taken hold are the gelato shops, the cafeteria, the resorts, the countless Italian tourists who come to holiday, and to stay.
On this particular occasion we didn’t find San Marco, and that’s a story for another episode anyway, but I was introduced to a new concept by the tuk tuk driver Anthony Kevin Otieno. Here on the coast, in the shadow of the Uhuru satellite, is the ‘digital way’. The term speaks of a shift in the ways in which things used to be done – once out of soil, now out of cement and blocks – but instead of signifying a particular form, performance or materiality of technology, instead it speaks more to the complex temporality in which Black life exists as a result of multiple, complex, colonial and capitalist forms of encounter, their material effect and metaphysical affect.
David Harvey speaks about how technology reveals and discloses dimensions of the ‘activity spheres’ of capital’s social orders. I’m interested in this work how a shift in understanding technology – thinking the digital ‘now, now-now’ and the digital ‘way’ as I have done in Episodes 1 & 2 – disclose readings of those activity spheres in which emancipatory practices of life are revealed which refuse to be controlled by capital and cast as abject.
Hold tight for