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The ArchAndroid: The posthuman, the utopia, the conclusion

ALYSSA FAVREAU, AUTHOR OF JANELLE MONÁE’S THE ARCHANDROID, ON THE POSTHUMAN SUBJECT

One of my favorite things about this book is that it gave me the opportunity to put The ArchAndroid into conversation with a wide range of ideas and thinkers. The album is not only a musical masterpiece, it also lends itself very well to being read like a work of literature.

In the book, I talk about how Monáe’s persona, Cindi Mayweather, is a perfect example of the cyborg as conceptualized by Donna Haraway in her “Cyborg Manifesto,” and I also touch on the idea of Cindi as a posthuman subject, primarily through Alexander G. Weheliye and his writing on Black music production. But I didn’t get to talk too much about what “the posthuman” really is, so I’d like to take the opportunity to do so here, and to give some final thoughts on The ArchAndroid, its enduring power, and what the album has meant to me.

In her work The Posthuman, philosopher Rosi Braidotti kicks off her discussion with the assertion that “not all of us can say, with any degree of certainty, that we have always been human, or that we are only that. Some of us are not even considered fully human now, let alone at previous moments of Western social, political and scientific history.”  Therein lies the crux of the posthuman: When, by reason of racism, sexism, homophobia, or all other injustice, we are denied full humanity, what other possibilities open themselves up to us?

“We need to learn to think differently about ourselves,” writes Braidotti. “I take the posthuman predicament as an opportunity to empower the pursuit of alternative schemes of thought, knowledge and self-representation. The posthuman condition urges us to think critically and creatively about who and what we are actually in the process of becoming.”  In many ways, Cindi is the perfect posthuman subject, created both to transcend the bounds of the human, and to comment on how the “human” as a category has for so long been forbidden to someone like her, and like Monáe.

Over the course of the album, Cindi moves from outlaw commodity to legendary messiah, becoming so much more than what Metropolis could have expected. Her world is one that would have been content with Cindi doing only what she’s told, but The ArchAndroid is where she realizes that she’s destined for more, that she can be the leader with the power to “see beyond tomorrow” (“BaBopByeYa”). Like any good posthuman, she’ll transcend her origins and redraw the boundaries of what’s possible, leading the people of Metropolis “back to one” (“57821”), back to a place of unity.

Posthuman subjects are, for Braidotti, “forward-looking experiments with new forms of subjectivity,” able to become and create something never before seen. By embodying what is outside of the human, the known, there is so much imaginative potential. But though existing in the realm of the posthuman allows us to create new worlds, the question remains as to whether those worlds will be utopias or dystopias.

When asked how she classifies her science fiction in an interview with Stephen Colbert, Monáe replies that though “it has started out as dystopian,” she tries to “give hope through those dystopian worlds.” It’s that interplay between the hopeful and the hopeless, the utopia and the dystopia, that lends to The Archandroid its particular flavor.

Claire P. Curtis, in her work “Rehabilitating Utopia: Feminist Science Fiction and Finding the Ideal,” writes that it is crucial to see utopia not as an attempt to build a perfect human society, but as a concept capable of both being “critical of current society” and outlining “a direction in which we should go.”

For Curtis it’s a skeptical utopia—or, put differently, a hopeful dystopia—that is crucial for our continued survival: “We need [utopia] for the creative impulse that it embodies and for the way that such visions allow us to wholly rethink our assumptions about ourselves and our world.” Neither a tyrannical, cookie-cutter utopia, nor a despairing, pointless dystopia will do. We need something that combines the two.

Monáe is Curtis’s “true utopian” who “sees her project as both a critical reflection on the flaws of her society and also a prescriptive outline for the possibility of a better future.” Ultimately, the story of Cindi Mayweather shows a deep ambivalence about the concepts of utopia and dystopia, choosing instead to live in the middle spaces between the bad and the possibility for better.

As far-ranging as Cindi’s story is, The ArchAndroid is the moment in which she questions herself, not knowing whether she has the strength to do what needs to be done. And that’s what has always fascinated me about Cindi’s story, particularly as it’s told in this album. The ArchAndroid is the journey of someone who doesn’t yet know how to step into their power. Someone who knows, intimately, the flaws of their world, but doesn’t necessarily know how to become a force for change.

It isn’t a linear journey, and not one that has a simple answer. The ArchAndroid shows that ambiguity. You see the acknowledgment of injustice in “Locked Inside,” the desire for escape in “Mushrooms & Roses.” You see defiance in “Come Alive” and a search for guidance in “Oh, Maker.” There’s real struggle with the self in “Make the Bus” and then a recognition of the sacrifices that will have to be made in “BaBopByeYa.” That process of becoming great, of acknowledging one’s power and using it, becoming it, is something I’ve needed to return to at different times in my life, for different reasons, and I don’t think I will ever not need it.

I appreciate an album that takes its time to dissect all of the different ways in which this process is difficult, all of the different stumbling blocks and doubts and easy ways out. The ArchAndroid acknowledges all of the hardships but knows that in the end greatness can be achieved. I’m very grateful to have that message to come back to.

As rich as The ArchAndroid is, as many layers, and references, and themes as it has, at the heart of the album lies a fundamental message: What do we need to do to become great? What do we need to do to build our future? At the end of the day, that’s what it’s always been about.

Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid cover

Alyssa Favreau is a Tiohtià:ke/Montreal-based writer. Her work has appeared in HazlittAutostraddleThemPopular Science, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She also cohosts the Broad Science podcast.

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