Beware the Talking Android

6 Nov

Wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away; where it crusts, they dissolve it; wherever it drips, flowers, or clings, they find it and fight it until it dies. – Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

In Ishmael Reed’s great Mumbo Jumbo, he hits upon a key concept for our political moment. The plot involves an outbreak of “Jes Grew,” a complicated mixture of counter-modern cultural elements–ragtime, jazz, and other vital energies–that the ruling classes (The Wallflower Order) suppress. Jes Grew has quite a bit in common with the passage from The Bluest Eye I cited, and stands as the obverse of Funkadelic’s faith that if you free your ass your mind will follow. The ruling order is not interested in attempting to rule a bunch of free minds, so they must “knock it dock it co-opt it swing it or bop it.”

The two strategies are to collect and destroy Jes Grew’s Text (read the novel), and the other is to create a Talking Android:

The 2nd Stage of the plan is to groom a Talking Android who will work within the Nego, who seems to be its classical host; to drive it out, categorize it, analyze it, expell it, slay it, blot Jes Grew. A speaking scull they can use any way they want… In other words, this Talking Android will be engaged to cut-it-up, break down this Germ, keep it from behind the counter.

You see, the J.G.C.s [Jes Grew carriers] have no control over who speaks for them. It’s in the hands of the press and radio. What we will do is begin a magazine that will attract its followers, featuring the kind of milieu it surrounds itself with. …Here we will feature the Talking Android who will tell the J.G.C.s that Jes Grew is not ready and owes a large debt to Irish Theatre. This Talking Android will Wipe That Grin Off Its Face.

the 2nd phase of the Wallflower plan, that of creating a “spokesman” who would furtively work to prepare the New Negro to resist Jes Grew and not catch it

As James Brown would later put it, “You can be like a tape deck you know, they plug you in, make you say what they want you to say.” I add JB to this mix to re-mark the funk, and because I can’t resist the coincidence that “Get Up, Get Into it, and Get Involved,” Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow, The Bluest Eye, and Mumbo Jumbo all come out within two years (1970-1972), and feature exhortations, from different perspectives, chip away at the veneer of a certain kind of respectability politics.

Reed’s articulation of this problem seems concerned with the ways professional respectability fits into a larger political regime and consumer culture, where anti-funk politics is explicitly a chauvinistic Eurocentrism.His faith in the “eruption of funk” is perhaps the greatest, even as his temporal scale is the longest. Having heard in the last few days of those black spokespeople or would-be spokespeople for Stop and Frisk and other obviously anti-black policies and behaviors, I recalled the Talking Android. For him, too, the solution, as in Morrison’s depiction of respectable women, is to “get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness f nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions”: a new social and spiritual death in the name of survival.

Nor is this just a black issue. The logic of the Talking Android brought us Ronald Reagan (“the great communicator”) and our current age of cynicism, where we all dutifully pretend that political problems come down to “tone.” The Talking Android shapes “debates,” if I can call them that, surrounding higher education, including the risible notion that a good actor could take the place of a good teacher, or that a good message can take the place of good politics.


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