Janelle Monáe’s Spiritual Android

Posted: May 12, 2015 by keasp1 in AI, Fiction, Film, Posthumanism, Religion

Janelle Monáe is an American singer and songwriter whose concept album series, The Metropolis Suite, portrays androids as sentient beings enslaved by industrial masters. Monáe’s android avatar, Cindi Mayweather, is the mediator between hands and mind, between human and robot. This time-traveling android holds out a spiritual promise of love and triumph. In this mix, we can ask what motifs or myths adhere in the idea of artificial intelligence (AI)? And is religious thinking antithetical to political resistance?

In an interview with OKP TV, Monáe speculates that the android will become, like women, blacks and gays, another target of marginalization and exploitation. She pursues this political theme in her music video for Q.U.E.E.N., which stands for queer, untouchable, emigrant, excommunicated, negroid. The video’s narrative is set in the future, where a museum director introduces Q.U.E.E.N. as “a musical weapons program in the 21st Century.” The video shows that Monáe’s politics are resolutely anti-essentialist and intersectional:

In this coalitional politics, the android Cindi Mayweather is a figure of in-betweenness who blurs the distinction between robot and human. Though she is a savior of mythic proportions, Mayweather is caught up in the mode of technological production. Monáe addresses this question of whether a rebel android can entirely resist the constraints of her making. As Mayweather sings in “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”, “I’m a product of metal, I’m a product of metal, I’m a product of the man.”

In the OKP TV interview, Monáe says that Ray Kurzweil’s idea of the technological singularity was an inspiration for her work. Like Monáe, Kurzweil is sure that a computer’s performance of consciousness will be indistinguishable from the human variety. As he discusses in his book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Kurzweil (2006) refers to the acceleration of technology’s progress as the “essential nature of an evolutionary process.” He assumes that artificial intelligence is the necessary next step for biological evolution and predicts that the singularity will give humans immortal life in the form of technologically supported consciousness. Kurzweil also maintains that the singularity is, by definition, equitable in that information technologies always become increasingly accessible and affordable.

Computer scientist Jaron Lanier argues that Kurzweil and other AI proponents risk effacing the mode of production and mythologizing AI: “The notion of this particular threshold—which is sometimes called the singularity, or super-intelligence, or all sorts of different terms in different periods—is similar to divinity” (Lanier 2015). By mythologizing the singularity, Kurzweil diverts critical attention away from the context of technological production and the power differential between industry and the body politic.

The Cindi Mayweather mythology brings out tensions between religiosity and artificial intelligence instead of making the latter a covert stand-in for the former. She uses religious motifs alongside affective continuity between humans and androids. This brings her discourse of AI back to a genealogy between past oppressions and future ones. As the ArchAndroid, Cindi Mayweather blends the Christian message of a divinity working through humans and the trope of cyborgs being constrained: “Let it use you… just let the spirit lead you” (“Ghetto Woman”). The freedom here lies in the idea of an afterlife, which seems to take away from the explicitly political worldly character of Monáe’s story. There is nonetheless a relation of the legal-political struggle to the rebel’s emotional resistance—emotion that takes up spirituality. The human-android continuity Monáe evokes by giving androids spirituality gestures toward the idea that humans themselves are as constrained as androids are by modes of production.

The obverse interpretation of the continuity between androids and humans is a kind of nihilism in which freedom is not intelligible in the first place. In her short film, “Many Moons,” members of the elite bid for Cindi Mayweather, a.k.a., the Alpha Platinum 9000, in a scene that is reminiscent of slave auctions. Lady Maxxa introduces the android: “Who built you? Angels or demons? God or a computer? It’s a simple question, isn’t it? But who cares what the answer is, as long as it’s beautiful?” Monáe here points to a total instrumentalization of both android and human at the point where the marketplace is the only intelligible reality.

Finally, Mayweather is not a figure of transcendent immortality. Instead, her position as a rebel and mediator is grounded in historical political struggles. She upholds spiritual affect without the ahistorical or monolithic thinking that adheres in other AI myths. Rather than depoliticizing or mythologizing technological production, this spirituality sets the android against nihilistic capitalist exploitation.

By Cate May Burton. Cate is an MA student in the Women and Gender Studies Program of Mount St Vincent University and Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, NS

Works Cited

Lanier, Jaron. “The Myth of AI: A Conversation with Jaron Lanier.” Interview by J. Brockman. Edge, Nov. 14, 2014.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin Books. 2006.

Monáe, Janelle. Many Moons. Music Video. Youtube. 2007.

— “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!” Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). Atlanta: Bad Boy Records, 2007. EP.

Q.U.E.E.N. Music Video. Youtube. 2013.

— “Ghetto Woman.” The Electric Lady. Atlanta: Wondaland Arts Society and Bad Boy Records, 2013. Studio Album.

— “Janelle Monáe Says ‘Q.U.E.E.N’ Is for The ‘Ostracized and Marginalized’.” Fuse TV, Sept. 18 2013.

— “Janelle Monae Answers ‘The Questions’ for OKP TV.” OKP TV, June 2014.

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