Cruising Utopia with Janelle Monáe

This is an essay I did on afrofuturism and queer futurism in Janelle Monáe’s song “Dance or Die”. It is lengthy, but interesting (if you’re into this kind of stuff..) Amazing song here:

Monáe’s Cruise

In his book Cruising Utopia Jose Muñoz seeks to make a case for utopian, queer thinking. This not only in the personal thought-act, but in aesthetics as well. The concept of utopian critical thought has received a lot of resistance, but Muñoz counters this with “My investment in utopia and hope is my response to queer thinking that embraces a politics of the here and now that is underlined by what I consider to be today’s hamstrung gay pragmatic gay agenda.”[1] Thus, Muñoz is attempting to find a way to imagine new worlds/utopias that are not constrained by our current conceptions of sexuality and gender.

In this essay, I want to look further into how Muñoz’ theories can be applied to an afro- and queer futurist project, that of Janelle Monáe’s debut album The ArchAndroid[2], and specifically her song “Dance or die”.

I will, for simplicity’s sake and to better serve the purpose of this essay, treat the song as a poem, and not go into the rhythmic and tonal properties of the work, although I am sure this endeavor would be fruitful.

I will specifically look at Monáe’s use of the trope of hope, queer performative acts in the sense of “fleeing” a normative and destructive present, and reparative ways of dismantling an oppressive world.

Lastly, I will take a look at some of the critique that has been leveled at Monáe for constructing an escapist futurity that “… can encourage us to forget that outer space will not save us from injustice and that cyberspace was prefigured upon a “master/slave” relationship”[3]


Muñoz’ not entirely leisurely cruise

In the introduction to his 2009 book Cruising Utopia, José Muñoz makes a case for potentiality. For having the audacity to in art and the world see not only what is there, but also the promise of something that is not there yet: “A potentiality is a certain mode of nonbeing that is eminent, a thing that is present but not actually existing in the present tense”[4]. Knowing that most of our way of thinking, talking, and being in the world are governed by structures that limit this thinking to modes we are already familiar with, Muñoz sees an opening in art where these limits can be crossed; the potential for quotidian thoughts, things and acts to mean something so new that it does not even exist yet. Dormant in these everyday instances is hope. The drive that is imbued in potentiality is hope, and with hope comes the bittersweet sense that hope can be disappointed. This, however, is a risk we, according to Muñoz, must take in order to let ourselves imagine a world that is not just a recasting of the one we have know, but something based on radically different streams of thought.

An important step in this (non-linear, non-traceable) direction is the syntheses of the singular and the plural. Munoz tries to distance himself from both the classically relational school and the classically antirelational one by using the concept of the singular plural as figured by Jean Luc Nancy: “… an entity registers as both particular in its difference but at the same time always relational to other singularities.”[5] It is essential to the notions of hope and futurity in Muñoz to understand being queer as a movement and a thought process in the single mind that engages the collectivity.

In order to imagine the utopian, one must inhabit what philosopher Ernest Bloch called the no-longer-conscious, which “… enabled a critical hermeneutics attuned to comprehending the not-yet-here”[6]. This state of mind makes possible radical thought where knowledge of the past and hope for the future can be utilized to see worlds of ontology outside presentist logic.

While this may seem to be some sort of almost naïve dream-state, it should rather be interpreted as a critical dream-state that is “profoundly resistant to the stultifying temporal logic of a broke-down present”[7]. It is a constant moving forward of thought towards the horizon of the queer ideal.

Muñoz uses the metaphor of the horizon in order to describe a clearly visible sight of extreme beauty, characterized by the fact that the closer you get to it and try to reach it physically, you cannot. Thus, the horizon remains beautiful, but its position is always equally far away from you. The horizon is an ideal and can, by definition, not be achieved or reached, but it can be reached for.


Expanding negation towards infinity (and beyond)

While critical thinking must, somehow, always entail a rejection of concepts and other streams of thought, Muñoz argues for a type of negativity that can lead to a practice that furthers reparative hermeneutics in the Sedgwickian sense.[8] In order to do this he introduces a form that can have negative affects “… be reshaped by negation and made to work in the service of enacting a mode of critical possibility”[9]. This would construct a negativity that negates but doesn’t create a following binary of rejected/accepted. Aligning with Shoshana Felman’s theory of radical negativity, the negation manifests as the “scandal of nonopposition”[10] This gives us the possibility of using negation as an opener of experience and theory instead of a closer and rejecter of lived experience and thought. In fewer words: by saying no to every possible conception of the current, you say yes to every impossible conception of the future.


Dance; or die a lonely, sexist, racist, heteronormative death

We find Cindi Mayweather, the protagonist of Janelle Monáe’s concept album The ArchAndroid, in a world where “zombies” roam the streets, lies a-plenty disillusion the population, and as gun-violence leads to ghetto kids killing ghetto kids. The situation is described in fragmented sentences indicating a chaotic, inexplicable state. “And if you see your cloning on a street walking by/keep a running for your life cause only one will survive” signals a general confusion of identities and appearances, from which you can try to flee by running. “War is in the street and it’s an eye for an eye/run on for your life or you can dance you can die”: the individual is left with very few possibilities for escaping the dire situation in the apocalyptic world, even dancing still leaves open the possibility of death. No concrete enemy is identified, and there seems to be a fluidity between people fleeing and contributing to the violence, both figuratively and literally. The perpetrators are not notably different from the victims, the only mentioned group are “the wiser simians” who have “the bombs and the guns”, though it is unsaid if they are using them for good or evil.

The verse ends with the fleetingly hopeful encouragement that “you might as well keep dancing if you’re not gonna run”. Dance, apparently, is a tolerable escape from the destructive truth of the streets, akin to the bliss of running away from it all. The use of the words “might as well” has an a distinct correlation with Muñoz’ idea of hope and optimism in the face of the anti-utopian argument of “how will that help?” If you are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, but feel yourself unable to run, you “might as well dance” because either way that act would contain a non-defeatist stance, even though it might be futile.

Let’s examine closer the role of dance in the song. A singular act performed in the plural, along with the other “freaks” (queers).

Uncoreographed dancing is a staggeringly singular act. Most people have a distinct “move” or characteristic scheme that they use when encountering a setting where dance is required. It is the space for uninhibited personal expression. In “Dance or die”, the act of dancing is juxtaposed against the act of running, casting dancing as actively escapist. Running is a wholly repetitive act, setting one foot in front of the other in order to get to a certain already existing point. While running can get you out of a situation, physically, it will only place you in another place in the same world. You can only run to a place that you are able to imagine, seeing as you make conscious choices on your way there.

Dancing, however, figures in this song, as the queer, performative act of what Bloch called “no-longer-conscious”. In the chorus, the act of dancing, while already in the first verse mentioned as an alternative to running (running in the sense of escaping), becomes intermixed with the act of dreaming. An unidentified woman/state/utopia that cannot be named, in the current language: “A long long way to find the one/We’ll keep on dancing till she comes/these dreams are forever” is wished for as an unutterable goal of the dancing. This corresponds with Muñoz’ idea of the horizon/utopia: the dream of the perfect state (both in political and mental terms), is forever, as in can-never-be-reached. However, closer proximity to it can be attained by the manifestly singular act of dancing. Thus, dancing induces the dreamlike state that makes you able to wish for something not-yet identified. A quotidian act with unimaginable potential.

Dancing on your own will never do it, though. In order to engage the queer potential of collectivity, the dancer can never be an “I” but must always be part of a “We”: “We’ll keep on dancing ‘till she comes … it’s still a war in the streets and yes the freaks will dance or die[11]”. The dance floor, made up of literally infinite modes of interpretations of the notion of what dancing, or living, entails, becomes the plural that signifies the possibility of a non-hierarchised, diverse space. A dance move is always called a dance move and gains its value by being unique instead of gaining its value by being similar. The strength of a dance floor is always directly correlated with its amount of diversity and unpredictability. And still, the nomer “dance” can be used to describe all imaginable movements with the physical body. This makes dance the perfect metaphor for unpredictable, personalized, liberating movement while still being an act that can be described within the bounds of our current language.

The dance floor as the futurist, singular plural breeding ground for utopian hope and limitless potential.


But NO!

Central to Muñoz conception of utopian hope is the way in which we must negate for it to become possible. In “Dance or die”, this type of negation figures as a seemingly senseless relation of words. This construction appears twice in the song, at the very beginning and right before the last verse. Here is the last one “Angel, blossom, gunshot, dodging, dream, bright, beat, light, breathe, live, help, give, focus, trance, wake up, dance!” By stringing together these words, they seem to together create an answer to unasked questions with wildly different answers. Posing only the answers and not the questions blur the lines of what part of a conversation is a rejection of a concept and what is a support of it. This gives us the possibility to invent the questions ourselves and opens the concept of the negation to be able to mean anything. It is a “No!” without a corresponding, binary “Yes!” Thus, imperatives like “breathe, focus, wake up” and substantives like “decoy, cyborg and android” completely tear down the classical structure of rejection; creating, in Felman’s words, the scandal of non-opposition.


The anti-antirelational surplus

At the beginning of the last verse, we have the first one-on-one encounter between Mayweather and another person. The person is “without much time” indicating an age, and also a squarely temporal existence, perhaps unable to enter the non-temporal being of the dance floor, excluded from the revolution. She says that she is “praying” for him. Praying for a person usually indicates the wish for the person’s salvation in the face of death or insurmountable struggle. In the face of Mayweather’s unstoppable hope for a different world, she will unavoidably destroy the world that is his familiar domain. The paragraph vibrates with both empathy and a sure fire knowledge that striving towards hope will still be worth it. But instead of rejecting him as an outcast and “snap into the basically reactionary posture of denouncing a critical imagination that is not locked down by a short-sighted denial of everything but there here and now of this moment”[12], she advocates for a reparative stance of “praying” as in the essentially Christian values of forgiveness and understanding, while simultaneously vigorously arguing for change through “sharpening him”, “giving him a motto” and teach him “not to hate”, and lastly, “keep rebelling away, you gotta dream it away”. This creates the surplus of potentiality in their relation to one another that does not exclude the old man’s lived experience and person for being of import in the hopeful (dance)quest.

The response to the man is therefore not one of complete rejection of his values, but instead a reparative emphatic stance that vibrates between acceptance and full throttle towards utopia.


And on a queer note…

This analysis is in no way an exhaustive analyses of either Muñoz’ book, nor Monáe’s song. Rather, it is a tentative experiment on how the utopian wish for a radically different world can manifest itself in a commercial piece of art. While the concepts of radical negation, the “no-longer-conscious” and queer futurism might seem like esoteric concepts hidden away in the annals of academic seminar notes, they can be articulated in quotidian concepts such as dance, conversation and rhyming. The everyday can be radical and stay radical.

Monáe has come under critique for imagining a fantasy world that does not take seriously the concrete measure and obstacles that are still in the way of an egalitarian society. That the notion of outer space, time travel and other mind-bending escapes are more depressing than hopeful: if we want equality and social justice must it be on another planet? Must we recast queer people, people of color and women as aliens in order to make them fit in modern society? Are we so alien, so other?


[1] Munoz, José, Cruising Utopias, New York University press, pp. 10

[2] Wondaland Arts Society, 2010


[4] Muñoz, pp. 9

[5] Ibid. pp. 11

[6] ibid. pp. 12

[7] ibid.

[8] Sedgwick, E. K, Touching Feeling (2002), Chpt. 4 “Paranoid reading and reparative reading”

[9] Munoz, pp. 12

[10] Ibid. pp. 13

[11] My emphasis

[12] Muñoz, pp. 14