Janelle Monaé Dirty Computer

[Bad Boy/Atlantic; 2018]

Styles: cyberfeminism, Afrofuturism, interpellation
Others: Prince, bell hooks, Nettrice Gaskins

The boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.
– Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1984)

If a system is but a collection of functions, and a function is a normative, predictable operation, then the ability of computer systems to produce useful, predictable outputs (i.e., to function) is guaranteed by sterile, predictable inputs. We speak, too, of non-normative operation sets that corrupt computer functions as “viruses,” because we know the analogous relationship between computers and living creatures: viruses corrupt cells’ genetic makeup to render them non-functional vessels for the reproduction of deviant nucleotide sequences — ditto sequences of computer code.

But there’s a level between these two “systems” — neither biology nor software, but wetware — that’s similarly defined by normativity and predictability. Our psychology is mediated by culture, a collection of functional customs that maintains and reproduces the social system. We are not born with it, but into it: indoctrination is a wetware virus, and Janelle Monaé is a hacker.

Judith Butler famously describes gender as “a stylized repetition of acts,” a function within a system but itself a system of operations that produce masculine/feminine subjects. By strategically reproducing sets of “feminine” acts, Monaé disrupts this program from within. Dirty Computer is a feat of interpellation: rather than subverting expectations of femininity per se, it finds Monaé retaliating against misogynistic discourse by frequently assuming the subject standpoint of “woman” in order to reclaim that identity. Just as — to use the famous example — turning to a police officer who shouts “hey, you!” makes “you” the subject of ideologies of democracy and law, the track “Pynk” and its music video responds to the performative experience of “woman” as a subject to normative ideologies of gender, which begins as early as the announcement that “it’s a girl.”

In a sense, then, Monaé appears to harmonize with hegemonic gender discourse by signaling “feminine” motifs throughout Dirty Computer. Monaé’s ulterior motive, however, is to subvert the way in which femininity is read — as negative. Compare, for example, the positive connotations of “manly” (confident, firm) with the negative connotations of “girly” (frivolous, vain); if nothing else, “Pynk” stresses that “girly” can mean assertive, serious, powerful. But that’s only the most rudimentary implication in question. Crucially, Monaé enunciates the physiological fact of the vagina throughout the record, most obviously to subvert the culture of disgust around women’s physiology in popular discourse and to reclaim women’s sexual agency. In this sense, Monaé’s “I Got the Juice” is functionally similar to sexually effervescent Nicki Minaj tracks like “Anaconda.”

However, the vagina’s most important consequence in these types of works follows its symbolic relationship to humankind’s intrinsic animality, as Simone de Beauvoir writes. Building upon de Beauvoir’s work, anthropologist Sherry Ortner sought to explain the universal subordination of women across human societies by arguing that, since sacrificially self-effacing elements of women’s physiology and its functions (e.g., menstruation) serve no other function than reproduction and caregiving, they socially affix women to roles that fulfill “merely” survival functions, which are thereby devalued as not contributing to the culture process. Because women’s physiology renders their animality more explicit, in other words, their contribution to the development of culture is often obscured; meanwhile, men’s physiology “frees [them] to take up the projects of culture” (Ortner 1974). No wonder textbooks continue to credit the evolution of the species to men with hunting spears and never women with, say, gathering baskets.

Although a recent wave of mainstream women artists — including Minaj, for instance — is working against this discourse to reclaim women’s sexuality and physiology, Monaé’s association of “woman” subjects with cybernetic bodies is particularly effective and inclusive. Just take Monaé’s cyborg motifs throughout her Metropolis suites, which obscure the boundaries between the artist’s own physiology and futuristic technology to exchange women’s animality for their centrality within the culture process. In fact, these cyberculture themes allow Monaé to decenter physiology in her construction of femininity altogether, particularly on Dirty Computer. Ultimately, Monaé employs the symbolic vagina as a pragmatic reply from the subject standpoint of “woman” as it emerges from gender discourse; as a mere pivot of sociopolitical mobilization, this symbolic use makes space for the representation of transgender women as in, for example, the women not wearing the genitalia-shaped unitards on “Pynk.”

At the same time, however, the threatening hybridity of the cyborg woman’s physiology mimics the threat of women’s animality. In Haraway’s cyborg feminist theory, the “monster” that pollutes our identities (e.g., Centaurs in Ancient Greece, hermaphrodites in early modern France) plays a decisive role in defining the outer limits of community. And just as women’s animality pollutes the boundaries between humankind and its past (i.e., our primate origins), so cyborgs’ hybridity breaches the narrowing limits between humankind and its future (i.e., singularity, AI takeover). Both exist outside the community of humankind — daresay mankind — that, ultimately, is strictly, necessarily, and even semantically male. Fittingly, this discursive opposition between women and technology drove the cyberfeminism movement to reimagine women’s bodies as subversive matrices at the center of modernity in the 90s; Monaé’s oeuvre is only a further step in this direction.

On Dirty Computer, similarly, the woman is at the center of modernity. However, Monaé is mobilized further by her intersecting identities as a queer Black woman to develop her earlier cyborg symbolism to include the many other “deviant” identities — “monstrous,” indeed — that similarly exist on the margins, upsetting the delicate equilibrium between the past and the future in which the United States is presently suspended: While the Black body, for example, has been marked as “primitive” (i.e., too close to nature) via stereotypes about physical strength and sexual endowment, the queer body — the same-sex relationship in particular — has been marked as “unnatural” (i.e., too far from nature) for transcending the species’ reproductive functions and necessities.

By polluting these boundaries, it’s no surprise that, in the “emotion picture” that accompanies Dirty Computer, the free-spirited Monaé and co. are targets of the hegemonic White securocracy; their conduct is a set of tainted operations that disrupts — infects, indeed, as a virus — the prescribed social program of state apparatuses that conduct conduct. Consequently, when captured, Monaé must verbalize her deviance by repeating that she is a “dirty computer” — her deviant programming must be wiped away in order to decontaminate the boundaries of community itself.

Ironically, her indoctrination is itself a form of contamination, a “modding” of the brain whose imminent analogues include everything from conversion therapy to “talking white.” For Monaé, that’s key. Because those modifications — whether imposed or adopted — are premised upon the alienation of the “monster” Other; it’s precisely the system against which she works. In fact, although Monaé is one such “monster” that must become “human” in the film, in the record she asserts her humanity with celebratory lyricism that, more broadly, asserts the centrality of these “monsters” in the contemporary social imagination: “I’m not America’s nightmare,” she sings on “Crazy, Classic, Life.” “I’m the American Dream… I’m the American cool.”

And, really, after navigating complex matrices of identity under an indulgent, accessible veneer, Dirty Computer is ultimately — even “simply” — a cathartic assertion of self in a hostile system. In the film’s final scene, Monaé and co. successfully escape their imprisonment as the record’s closing track, “Americans,” flares over the credits. Nearly brainwashed, these once-monsters escape over the lines, “I’m not crazy, baby/ I’m American.” In a system that emphasizes the unity and equality of its members while assiduously delimiting the bounds between members and non-members, Monaé’s closing statement mobilizes patriotism in self-defense. But it’s patriotism nonetheless: We belong here, she sings in joy.

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