Analysis: Janelle Monáe and posthumanism – the cyborg

Janelle Monáe and posthumanism – the cyborg.

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American artist Janelle Monáe has been in the music scene for a relatively short time despite already carving out a niche for herself. Monáe already has her own team of creatives surrounding her in The Wondaland Arts Society based in Atlanta, and it was in 2007 when she released her first EP Metropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase).

Monáe introduced to us her own blend of futurism and created a universe in which she explores it, through a character and alter-ego named Cindi Mayweather, a cyborg in a dystopian future who represents the ‘new other’.
Inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Monáe literally dreamed about Cindi Mayweather after watching the film. Her love for science-fiction inspired her to continue to expand on the Cindi Mayweather universe with her début album titled Archandroid (released in 2010) and her latest album The Electric Lady (released in 2013) all in the perspective of the protagonist.

All of Monae’s work attempts to explore human identity by placing human civilization in the future. Understanding human interactions of race, sexuality, class and gender through the contemplations of a ‘female’ cyborg and in a future, that is in some ways not yet reached, is intriguing and thought-provoking.
With no past to speak of, as a cyborg who was created by man, Cindi Mayweather calls into question our modern ideas of self-identity; identity as image, where the ‘self’ is replaced by ‘identity’, and identity as a ‘collage of cultural scraps’. Identity becomes ‘cyborg-like’ – nomadic, a hybrid.

“I’m a cybergirl without a face a heart or a mind,
(a product of the man, I’m a product of the man),
I’m a saviour without a race (without a face).”
Janelle Monáe on ‘Violet Stars Happy Hunting’, from her debut EP ‘The Chase’

Monáe places the narrated future in an amoral light, a fear that posthumanism brings to many people. How do we maintain liberal-human values when the human advances through technology and science; and will this maintenance of human values be at the risk of creating new class divides? The human versus the cyborg is presented as the new class divide in Monáe’s universe with storylines such as Cindi Mayweather falling in love with a human and being hunted down because of its forbidden nature.

The rejection of the cyborg could be seen as another type of human modernist need to hold on to grand narratives. The cyborg is created by humans but rejected at the same time to maintain human superiority. This paradox is a great example of modernism’s grand narratives that continue to reassert themselves into postmodernist culture; Man as God.

Some could argue that human identity itself is a grand narrative, as in Baudrillard’s words, the fake becomes real. Our 21st century lives are already controlled by technology; the simulation of our lives online through Facebook to more obvious examples such as Second Life. Identity is fluid and cannot be defined by our reality, simulacra thwarts our ideas of representation and true historical knowledge.

Cindi Mayweather is the representation of the fears and intrigues of an exaggerated posthumanism. How civilization will cope with fast-paced technological progress whilst coming to grips with an identity, is a life-long struggle. (Bionic technology has already enhanced the lives of many humans from robotic limbs to electronic eyes). Monáe proposes no solution in her concepts but encourages empowerment and belief in equality. These forms of encouragement are meant to be transferable to present-day too, where racism and sexism is still highly prevalent. Humanity has a way to go until a cyborg-based world. But when the cyborgs do arise, and when bionic technology becomes more of the norm in prolonging human life, where does human identity sit?

References:

Calvert, J. (2010). Janelle Monáe: A New Pioneer Of Afrofuturism . Available: http://thequietus.com/articles/04889-janelle-mon-e-the-archandroid-afrofuturism. Last accessed 10th Jan 2014.

Pareles, J. (2013). ‘What Would the Electric Lady Think?’. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/arts/music/janelle-monae-taps-her-inner-cyborg-on-the-electric-lady.html?_r=1&. Last accessed 10th Jan 2014.

Ward, G (2010). Understand Postmodernism. 3rd ed. London: Teach Yourself.

[Helen Brown]

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