The future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed.
-- William Gibson.
I live in a place where the progress of time is distributed as a fractal. It's complex, really. Or, as they say in mathematics, it's irreal, outside the cartesian geography of the real. Poses aside, there's no hope of keeping it real in this windswept city by the sea. Paul D Miller's alter ego, DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid and creator of the sound called 'illbient', has always professed to like keeping it surreal. He might like it here. But he might easily get bored with the ponderousness of a city powered more by the whim of sea currents than the steady pulse of electricity. The rhythm of this city measures the weight of the past rather than the lightness of the digital now, the unburdened flow of the current.
Cape Town, says a friend writing postcards from the suburban edge, is a state of mind. Not quite: it defies the seriousness of states, whether legitimate or illegitimate. Southern cities by the sea are where people come on holiday, to play. In altered states, the structures of class and race coalesce out of fractures and mirages like ships coming in from the sea. Even in this state the city is a rhizomorphic one, in Gilroy's sense. You must understand, my city is a port city. It exists not as a place with roots in the soft earth of a continent, but as a point drifting along the routes that span oceans: oceans of sound, borrowing notes and rhythms from the trade winds.
In four dimensions, this city is not a port, nor a point, but a vector: that which Miller describes as a "relation between a determinate and an indeterminate property". The vector, which has fixed dimensions but no fixed position, is the idea which can be recalled into any position in the geography of thought. The vector is the technology that transforms graffiti into wildstyle, that typographical art which Kodwo Eshun calls the "Escherization" of graffiti. The vector is the concept-tool of Mille Plateaux, or the beat pulled seamlessly into the mix. Rhythm Science is a vector: a DJ tool, ready to be played.
In this manner too the city drifts in the mists of time and histories, waiting to be activated. It is without stated intentions, a city at play. Press play, and let the flow of histories coagulate into a mix. DJ Spooky names the track: "The virtual dimension to any vector is the range of possible movements of which it is capable. This is the wildstyle. Check the flow."
Paul D. Miller tells us right at the beginning of his book what he's going to do. "Dig beneath what lies on the surface only to arrive where you started", he says. The author as trickster, the mad professor: he's going to lead us in circles, without letting the stylus trace a linear expedition from circumference to centre. "It's a circular logic, a database logic", he tells us. "Think of this book as an exploration of the cold logic of the surface."
I think also of rhythms sacred and secular, like the clave in santeria, candomblé and salsa, repeated even in the break of funk and hip-hop, and the rolling Caribbean-inspired rhythms of the atchars who march once a year during my city's carnival. A faint beat that echoes perhaps even in the japhtal metre of the raga. These rhythms have spread across oceans, riding the current. The beat goes on, 3 against 2 its defining signature like a watermark on a digital file you can't rip. Think of it as continental drift, if you catch my drift. From the fractal coastline of my city, mining the beat, I have difficulty telling inside from outside, surface from infinite depth.
Rhythm Science wants to give W.E.B. Du Bois' double consciousness an update into the digital era, turning it into multiplex consciousness. "This is a world where all meaning has been untethered from the ground of its origins", says Miller, "and all signposts point to a road that you make up as you travel through the text." Identity is skinnable, like a winamp player: download the source. "Identity," says Miller, "is about creating an environment where you can make the world act as your own reflection."
But multiplex consciousness is already encoded into the fabric of culture. Globalisation, fractured identity, and the commodification of the body precede the wired world. These things have already created the wandering I, double visions of centre and circumference. The web is just a new way of sending postcards from the edge.
So it's not that simple, and it's not that complex. As the phonograph animates the motion captured in the groove, the dance stirs the memories of the body. In dance, from hotnotsreel to hip-hop, mutiplicity becomes unity. As the old poet //Kabbo told his scribes: "the alphabet of the bushmen is written in their bodies/the letters talk and vibrate/the letters move the body of the bushman/they order everyone else to keep quiet." This is the wildstyle.
Check the flow. The DJ cuts the tracks, constantly interrupting the record. The flow of the archive is subjected to pause and rewind. The ties between past and present are severed, and the future leaks in. This is both necessary and inevitable: according to Miller, "[t]he twenty-first century started like a bad cut-up video: too much of everything all the time." There is too much shit.
Rhythm Science dances around all this information and tried to keep it falling in on itself; as the spinning record keeps circumference from centre, outside from in. "Mass as quality becomes an abstraction of the human environment, emblematic of hyper-commodfication. Walk into a record store, look around, and there's so much shit that your memory just implodes." DJ Spooky keeps his record collection in storage, all 30,000 of them, and when he looks at them he describes this familiar feeling of dizziness. I get it in record libraries, book sales, newsagents, video outlets: as if everyone is running wild in Babel. Too much shit. Except Miller's rhythm science flips the script: it's an information economy, and "in an information economy it's all about how information creates identity as a scarce resource. As my mom used to say, "Who speaks through you?""
Information overload in a developing world city is a weird thing, the economics at least. At record sales there's only shit on sale. Pop bands who imploded under their own pretentious weight. Booksales are worse. Unread books are untold narratives, they make me think of unburied ancestors, crisp pages like unsoiled burial sheets. I buy them if I can, reading last rites where I can, but there's too much shit to read. Unburied ancestors plead silently: "can we speak through you?"
There's a mass of information, but I can't help wondering whether the density is caused by the shit. Under the weight of waste matter, memory faces collapse. "What would we do if that place where all the stories come from suddenly vanished like a mirage in the desert of our collective dreams?" asks Miller. "What would happen if it just vanished and the lights went out?" One can only imagine silence, the exponential pull of the gravity of dark matter, imploding multiverses.
When Warrick Sony of the indigenous-dub-ambient group Kalahari Surfers called his release Akasic Record, he was referring to the akashic records of which mystic talk. Like the collective unconscious mind, these record all actions, thoughts and words: past, present and future. The etheric material on which the records are imprinted, akasha, is also the material from which the four elements are formed. Warrick Sony wants to play this record like DJ Spooky wants to play the datastream. But the datastream is becoming the stream of consciousness of the idiot, constantly forgetting, leaving a wake of shit (and pop-up windows, and infomercials, and house records). Similarly, the akasic record has become a palimpsest, memory overwriting memory. It's what Lee Perry might have called turntable terranova. Unburied ancestors plead, blankly.
The "archive fever of open system architectures" that Miller describes is the deleriousness of the delete key. Forgetting because there's too much shit to tell what's shit. In the south, archive fever is as tropical an affliction: delusions of false origins and mirages of tradition mask the amnesiae of the colonial network.
Long ago, genocide replaced genealogy. Forgetting drifts along the trade routes. We track the silences, looking for patterns. We call this rhythm, and use it to count time.
The constant forgetting is like the dub version of the digital ontology. All disembodied echoes and disrupted rhythms, it is the viral thriving of a digital world whose source code has been deleted. As Miller aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid aka Ad Astra said in an interview: "Africans been doing this for a long time... we're from a culture of reconstruction, so there's no rules about what I can take and put into my mix zone."
I admire and envy Spooky's freedom of movement through the ether. I am simultaneously haunted by the deep structures in the database.
Here's one such recurring structure:
Here in the Cape, a mujician like Garth Erasmus declares himself to be "Searching for Diä!kwain", composing this search on the 'pannebrak', a homemade array of percussion, pots and pans fastened to a large wooden framework. Diä!kwain was one of the last of the /Xam Bushmen, the people who lived and hunted on these lands for thousands of years before the expansion of Dutch farmers from their foothold at the tip of Africa. The /Xam language and culture were extinct by the end of the 19th century.
Erasmus' pannebrak becomes a search engine for origins, even while it is named a 'brak' -- a mongrel, lineage lost or forgotten or not worth remembering. Miller notes that the experience of African-American slavery/genocide created "a milieu where everything, down even to the words that were spoken, were the equivalent of a "found object". So too on the b-side of the Atlantic experience. Like the found sound of the turntable and the sampler, the pannebrak plays the music concrète of identity.
The /Xam might number amongst my ancestors, but it's impossible to tell, what with the infusion of Dutch blood, English blood, Malay blood, German blood, Jewish blood, Xhosa blood, Mozambiquan blood. Flow my blood, the DJ said. Blood stained are the crimes of passion that created this mix, and sharp and bloody are the hands that cut the record. We illuminate bloodstains in our search for traces of the source.
Diä!kwain was the son of a rainmaker, and a murderer himself. He had stolen sheep from a settler, Jacob Kruger. Kruger threatened to kill Diä!kwain's family in retribution, so Diä!kwain killed him first.
because they've broken the stringI no longer hear the ringing sound through the sky
warns Diä!kwain through the mouth of a modern day poet.
These are ancient tracks, spinning silently on the wheels of steel that pump blood through our chests. Like black holes, absence and silence are more dense than datastream.
Diä!kwain and //Kabbo and the last of the /Xam were recorded by a German ethnographer just before that particular history implodes into nothingness. Perhaps the recording of their voice was the cue for the final break, the spiralling record reached its end; a Faustian exchange in which the voice was captured and the soul let free. No rewind, just the infinite blackness of the cold Karoo night.
And the stars say 'tsau'.
1915. A white supremacist named D. W. Griffiths records Birth of a Nation, which Miller describes as "a recruitment film of the Klu Klux Klan" but also hails as a masterpiece of cinema. Griffiths' work with the full length feature film has been likened by some to the invention of the wheel. With Birth of a Nation he invented a new lexicography of time -- the 'cut-in' and the 'cross-cut' -- preceding the dj mix by simultaneously telling four different stories set at different times.
On the one hand this technological bomb was propaganda, reflecting what Miller names as the "paradox of [Griffiths'] cultural stance versus the technical expertise that he brought to film", a disjunction that "is still mirrored in Hollywood to this day". (There are other paradoxes that reveal themselves meticulously.)
On the other hand the Birth of the Nation was also the birth of film, and of the mix. Miller recalls that President Woodrow Wilson compared the film to "writing history with lightning". For Miller, this wildstyle writing engages directly with the problematic of representing time. "Filmic time" as Miller describes the new technologies of the cut and the mix deployed in post-World War cinema, "conveyed the sense of density that the world was confronting."
Jazz was at the same time telling the world about the importance of timing: that it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. Miller spots the moment that film begins to make sense of time: with the introduction of sound. He contrasts the silence of Birth of a Nation with the 1927 movie The Jazz Singer, the first "talkie" to achieve mass popularity. In that movie Jakie Rabinowitz runs away from singing Jewish hymns to a life as Ragtime Jakie. Flipping the script, he becomes jazz singer Jack Robin; he is a subliminal kid who tries to break the ties between past and present and let the future seep in.
Drenched in racist overtones like its silent predecessor Birth of the Nation, Rabinowitz was played by Al Jolson, who claimed the title of superstar before the word was coined. Jolson's roots were in minstrelsy, and in The Jazz Singer he dons blackface to sing a song called "Mammy".
Here in Cape Town the movie was popular in the working class cinemas of mixed (pre-apartheid) areas like District Six. Al Jolson's music became so popular that it became standard to perform his songs during carnival celebrations each year. Carnival performers would smear their black faces with blackface, in a strange tribute to the blackface minstrelsy which had influenced them via African-American jubilee singers (more black faces performing blackface). Al Jolson, born Asa Yaelson, also erased/extended himself into an alter ego. Not only did he anglicize his name but he chose his own birthdate. An immigrant from Russia without an official birth certificate to contradict him, he celebrated his birth every 26 May, apparently because he liked the idea of being born in the spring.
This is the weird logic of the surface: what Miller calls, in a different context, "the 'changing same' bounced against itself on the cold surfaces people create when they name themselves, cool as Kool". Here is the recursion of minstrel and mask, and recursion always the question mark of self-awareness, the never-ending paradox like mirrors reflected in mirrors. Check the flow. Miller deploys his personae as shareware:
[w]hether you're logging in under a new name, or you're a Dj trying out a new persona, the logic is an extension rather than a negation. Alias, a.k.a.; the names describe a process of loops.
Rhythm Science wants us to dance to the endless looping spectacle of culture. The book begins with the idiot, and ends with the prostitute. These two archetypes, idiot and prostitute, are like bookends, or rather entry and exit points for the loop. The idiot in his mythscience is the "processing device, slave to the moment, outside of time because for him there is only the moment of thought." The idiot constantly fails the Turing Test, reading in the datastream and spewing out shit and fading memories. This is "[t]he person without qualities who cannot say "I". The person whom others speak through, who has no central identity save what he or she knows. And what they know is that they know there is nothing else."
Thr prostitute, on the other hand, is saturated with I's. Under the constant scrutiny of the I, the prostitute is the Turing Test, making sense of the stream and the shit. Miller breaks it down:
Messages need to be delivered, codes need to be interpreted, and information, always, is hungry for new routes to move through. That's the agency thing, that's the prostitute's role. The stripper takes off her clothes to put on her audience, the prostitute looks at you and says, "Who do you want me to be?"
The datastream speaks through both the idiot and the prostitute. The idiot becomes the constant erasing flow of the datastream, because he has no self-awareness; the prostitute opens herself to it willingly.
Let me splice a third character into the narrative: the minstrel. The minstrel subjects truth to the show. Identity is a carnival, ambiguous, at play between the record's grooves. Time dissolves into show time. Simultaneously idiot and prostitute, the minstrel dons the mask in order to be free, in the paradoxical transaction that has come to define Hollywood and all our forms of entertainment today. The figure of the minstrel highlights identity as the spectacular, the self subjected to the strange economics of the totem.
Miller's latest project as DJ Spooky is to give a soundtrack to Birth of a Nation -- I wonder what it would be like to re-soundtrack The Jazz Singer. Perhaps one element in the mix might be the Song for John Walker, a piece performed by Anticon and DJ Krush. Miller describes being backstage with the musicians before they perform the piece:
Krush's wife walked in and handed him a samurai sword before his set, and everyone in the room was... ummm... kind of silent. In a moment like that, the strangeness (strange-mess) of global culture, hip-hop, and of operating as a DJ on a global level crystallised before my eyes.
Anticon and Krush were singing for John Walker Lindh, the kid from American suburbia who was captured fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. According to news reports:
At some point in his mid teens, John Walker is said to have stopped visiting hip hop internet sites and to have begun exploring Islamic ones instead. ... His parents believe his interest in Islam may have been sparked by the autobiography of Malcolm X, which he read when he was 16.
So he switched to the other side, throwing out his collection of hip-hop CDs and joining the Taliban. What does it mean for pop culture and global conflict to share the datastream? What are the economics of that sharing?
Today, we choose which side we fight, but we continue to fight. This DJ's hands are growing weary of the relentless rhythm, the changing same.
Unburied ancestors multiply. Who's counting?
 All /Xam poetry as adapted by Antjie Krog.
First published in www.sweetmagazine.co.za.
Published in CTheory with permission of the author.