SO ALIEN SO VIRAL
"If a virus were to attain a state of wholly benign equilibrium with its host cell it is unlikely that its presence would be readily detected OR THAT IT WOULD NECESSARILY BE RECOGNIZED AS A VIRUS. I suggest that the [dub] is just such a virus." — William S Burroughs, The Electronic Revolution, 1970
"Rhythm is a biotechnology. You are the newest mutants incubated in womb-speakers. Your mother, your first sound, the bedroom, the party, the dancefloor, the rave: these are the labs where the 21st C nervous systems assemble themselves." — Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than the Sun, 1998
The promise of all technology, accurately understood, is not as a means of raising the dead, but rather razing the living: the man-machine, who is already undead, tells you to kill yourself. Nothing human makes it out of the near future. You’ve heard this story before. A mutant strain of a viral technology renders your cell walls gaping and insecure. Subbass emerges through the open floor. A ten-tonne doomsayer croak begins spitting on top. Eyes dilate, humidity rises, pores expand. The dub virus enters you. You become infected. You yearn only to deepen your leprosy. You make your body the ideal site for its mutation. You are part of a counter-biology, a cultural experiment, that not only discusses cultural viruses but understands itself as a viral contagion. The dread beating of the afflicted bass continues into the breaking of a false dawn. The 21st century heralds the advent of the post-human era. The billboard reads: no more solidarity with corpses.
The darkside sound of the dub drop brings with it a form of reckoning, a vision not of the apocalypse but of extinction: nothing human is left in its wake. The dub virus is naturally epidemic in its ambitions. The remains of the new flesh beat on in sly mimicry of their own destructive agent. Just say no to disembodiment! Stand fast around womb speakers. Embrace the hyper-viral! Attempt new states of hyperembodiment… extinction must not be understood as a sense of an ending, but as the ending of all sense.
Searching for the dub virus with one eye closed, you might, at first, confuse the microscope with the telescope. You see Starchild ascend in the Black Ark past the outer rims of World 4 in a revisionist space fantasy. However, the dub virus reveals a secondary sonic vector to you; A movement not outward into the cosmos but inside and in between representations of the body; a microcosmology of haptic experience and cultural infection that underscores the interstellar aesthetics of Jazz, Funk, Dub and Techno. These fictions of mutant beings and audio viruses represent a counter-biology that could be thought of as an Afrofuturist-interior. The dub virus raises the dread spectre of the MC as an “alien incarnation summoned from within”.
In summoning this ‘alien incarnation’ we must first trace a genealogy of afrofuturist cosmologies: Developing on what Sun Ra called ‘MythScience’, a “term for the ideological truth/strategy of how myth informs reality and fiction builds fact”, Kodwo Eshun coined the term ‘Sonic Fiction’ to “magnify [the] hitherto ignored intersections of sound and science fiction”. An intersection occupied at the time by Detroit Techno artists Underground Resistance who conceived of themselves as “digital Ebola guerrilla operatives with reinforced rhythm awareness capabilities… carrying sonic parasites to hijack your nervous system.” In the mouth of the SpaceApe, what was once MythScience and then Sonic Fiction becomes ‘Bass Fiction’: the artist’s own coinage for cultural practice similarly involved in the intersections of myth, science fiction and diasporic music. Bass Fiction draws its cultural influences from Detroit Techno artists and its sonic origins from the processes of Jamaican dub.
Central to both the genres of dub and dubstep is a movement inside the body; a revisionist cosmology of the somatic interior; a sinewave that pulsates through skin and sinew to vibrate your bone marrow. As genre pioneer Lee Perry suggests, “some people call it dub. I call it Xray music”. SpaceApe suggests similarly that dubstep is “the skeletal remains of de new flesh”, a partial revelation of a degraded interiority. Like the shadow of Lee Perry’s abstract corpse, Kode9 and The SpaceApe’s Bass Fiction reveal a similar inside; an X-ray of a 21st-century cadaver where exterior perception is erased and the image of a new inside remains.
Kode9 & the SpaceApe released their first single on the hyperdub label in 2004, a “dub style remake of Prince’s ‘Sign o’ The Times’’’. Previous to this, Hyperdub had existed as an online publication reporting mutant developments within London’s underground dance music scene as if they were strains of “an ‘info virus’ that replicates in both humans and machines”. This original release sees the term itself ‘Hyperdub’ mutate from a journalistic theory-fiction to an active incubation chamber for the nascent audio-viruses that would come to define the sound of dubstep.
The track reimagines Prince’s original within a “glowering, slow motion narration”, with the lyrics rendered into dread talk accompanied by a diseased rhythmic bass pulse. It was originally issued as ‘Sign of the Dub’, but reissued in 2006 as ‘Sine of the Dub’, and when included in their debut album, Memories of the Future, just ‘Sine’. This movement from the semiotics “O’ the time” present in the original “Sign”, to the low-end bass frequencies signified by ‘Sine’, is key to understanding the significance of this dub style re-versioning. What happens when “the imaginal and memorial realm of the sign meets the material vibratory force of the sine?”
Following the heartbeat of the dread bass, SpaceApe, (then Daddi Gee,) made his first sonic appearance, “in France a skinny man / die of a big disease / with a little name”. Whilst the epidemiological context defines both the bleakness of the original and the dread weight of its re-versioning, it is the use of euphemism, the “big disease with a little name”, which conceals the actuality of AIDs, that is of deeper concern as to how both versions approach signification of the virus. This suppression of the word creates an ambiguity where the unit of signification, language itself, is understood as viral. For Prince, this small viral unit, this “sign”, becomes a ‘Sign o’ the Times’, a temporal infection, that not only affects the diseased body but spreads outward to define the era itself. Within Kode9 and the SpaceApe’s original title, this might be extended to an understanding of the viral transmission of the sonic processes of dub. Toby Heys suggests we might understand a ‘viracoustic’ commonality between the operation of the virus and the sine wave:
Viruses like waveforms are difficult to control, map, and direct. As such, both have the capacity to move imperceptibly, to infiltrate and unlock, and to enter without permission, creating networks of affect and unidentifiable bodies of evidence.
As the “big disease with a little name”, passes between actual bodies, the rhythmic bass pulse of the sine wave spreads outwards from the beating heart of the “body of sound” entering the haptic consciousness of all other bodies within audible range: you are infected by transmissions from the soundsystem. Through this process, the signification of sickness and its transverse propagation via sine waves comes to define the time in which the epidemic takes place, allowing for a new approach to semiotics that deliberately confuses ‘sign’ with ‘sine’ and ‘definition’ with ‘infection.’
This elaborate fiction of disease is linked to an understanding of addiction as the lyrics continue, “by chance his girlfriend find a needle / she end up the same way.” The symbol of the needle conjures a further penetration into both the fictional sonic body and the actual diseased body. Symbolically united at the tip of the infected needle; what is the common logic between viruses and addiction? “The human organism has a marked tendency to seek out and identify itself with parasites that debilitate but never quite destroy it.” SpaceApe’s identity as both agent of “audio addiction” and as “alien virus” displays this tendency for identification, this fraught symbiosis, resurfacing to the level of conscious expression.
Description of these intersectional epidemics moves to a depiction of the more modern sense of ‘virality’ as “Turn on the TV / And all you hear 'bout…” The symbol of disaster, here of “Hurricane Annie'', fits naturally within a system of hyper-accelerated viral culture. The transverse propagation, or spread, of an event as an info virus, facilitated locally by sine waves, is enabled globally through the electronic signals of telecommunication technology. The ubiquity here suggested by “all you hear about” prefigures the post-1990s sense of something going viral. Virality appears as a cybernetic conceit for positive feedback loops within the dissemination of information. As with addiction and AIDs, the spectre of disaster has a parasitic grip on the host population that can neither look away nor stop listening.
Beyond the representation of disease, addiction, and disaster, many of Kode9 and the SpaceApe’s early releases present a habit for re-versioning; creating mutant strains of pre-existing Afrofutrist audio viruses - be it seedy mutations of Public Enemy songs or Junior Boys tracks. The sound of dubstep should be understood as a viral experiment in mutating genre forms: both genre and performer realise themselves through this experimentation.
Kode9 and the SpaceApe’s other release at the inception of the label, ‘Bacteria in Dub’, draws on a similarly abject, although more scientific field of imagery as ‘Sine of the Dub.’ The two released together were labelled “death disco for deviant dub fiends.” Language of the ‘deviant’ and the ‘mutant’, more generally a sense of the evolving other, reoccurs frequently as an aesthetic tag within the early dubstep scene. The track is comprised of index-like extractions from Luciana Parisi’s book, Abstract Sex, which was co-launched with the release of ‘Sine of the Dub’ at the infamous Plastic People club on Curtain Road in March of that year.
The song is a dub-style version of Parisi’s academic text, lacking elaborate lyrics and instead replaying key expressions from the book pitched down, drenched in reverb and accompanied by another low and slow infectious bass pulse. The SpaceApe provides a rhythmic and laconic delivery of the book's contents, “21st century / present futurity / machinic desire / viral propagation”. Part menacing incantation, part cybernetic glossary, the song, as with the reversioning of ‘Sign o the Times’, marries speculative abstraction and an understanding of the infected present: now a 21st century that continues to be defined by “bacterial sex” and “viral propagation.” The brevity of the SpaceApe’s expression delivers each phrase as a self-contained viral unit. Parisi argues, “sex is transductive it works through bodies of all sorts”, and so too are ideas, spreading outwards from the soundsystem, wrapped in the protein coat of bass frequencies, passing between membranes, entering new host bodies. The theoretical imagery of the track from, “sexual reproduction”, to “recombinant desire”, to “miosis / transduction / symbiotic mutation”, is in constant reference to the manner in which cells, organisms and bodies come together and exchange information: a cybernetic glossary for charting the spread of the dub virus.
Parisi’s book, Abstract Sex, theorises a “networked coexistence” within “the virtual body” as emergent forms of digital sexual relations are used to “expose the wider layers of organization of a body that include the non-linear relations between the micro level of bacterial cells and viruses and the macro levels of socio-cultural and economic systems.” Similar to an audio virological approach, Parisi’s understanding puts us in a space beyond humanist ‘ethics’; otherwise stated, Parisi provides a “reorientation [of interaction] onto an immanent plane of specific encounters (which can be both constructive and destructive) between bodies”. Parisi launches us away from a ‘transcendent’ understanding of human ‘ethics’ towards a base/bass biological consciousness which considers human operation through a cybernetic lens; one that looks both beneath and above perception through analysing the combinatory influence of micro-biological and macro-cultural structures.
Stephen Gordon’s Bass Fiction of the sonic body, of the super-simian SpaceApe, should be thought of not as a persona, but as a process of becoming: a mutating body continually elaborated through Sonic Fiction. This poetic act of becoming, in tandem with dubstep’s move from emergent to established sound, achieves stunningly dense articulation by 2006 with SpaceApe’s verse that appears both on an eponymous track on Burial’s first LP and on Kode9 and the SpaceApe’s debut LP, entitled ‘Victims’:
Victims themselves of a close encounter
Desperate abducters, constructers become infected, vexed
By an alien virus, so alien, so viral
Living spaceapes, creatures, covered, smothered in writhing tentacles
Stimulating the audio nerve directly
You wanna come flex with me?
“So alien, so viral”, the SpaceApe seamlessly doubles both the Afrofutirist gesture out towards the extra-terrestrial with the secondary movement, into the infected body. “Victims themselves of a close encounter”, can be understood within the dominant narrative of Afrofuturist cultural practice, as an “enigmatic return to the constitutive trauma of slavery”; real abduction reimagined as alien. But it is worth thinking of “close encounter” not only as suggesting an alien advent, but also an idea of proximity, of being within the zone of affect; a potential victim of contagion.
The verse presents multiple points of entry into the sonic body. “Covered, smothered”, made claustrophobic via a series of internal rhymes, “writhing tentacles” suffocate and surround you. You become aware of an abject tactility, a penetration into the sonic body, entering all the way to the “audio nerve.” The fear of penetration, central to the instinct of abjection, is here first rendered in the physical terms of the ‘tentacle’ before the flow continues making it clear that this penetration has already been staged on the sonic level: your very cognition of this lyric means the tentacle is writhing inside; wreaking havoc with your nervous system. Whilst the tentacled imagery of this “Lovecraftian horrordub” might at first seem incongruous with the language of extra terrestriality and super-simians, it flows from The SpaceApe’s own revisionist mytho-poetic conception:
SpaceApe: That’s the Space Ape innit, really. That’s this thing—the alien beneath the sea, it comes up, it’s a hostile alien.
Kode9: So it’s beneath the sea and not outer space?
SpaceApe: Yeah. Beneath the sea.
As with the revisionist biological mythos of Dub-Techno Duo Drexciya, launching an “aquatic invasion” out of the “black sea”, SpaceApe’s origin is from the depths, not from the cosmos. Erik Davis, a self-described theorist of “acoustic cyberspace”, has written about the “distinctly aquatic surroundings” of dub as “a kind of ‘outer’ inner space, a liminal womb.” Opposed to more masculinist space fantasies, these subaquatic sonic fictions appear closely linked with submergence within the female; another movement back inside the body.
This language of submergence might also be used to approach the cross-contaminative linguistic exchange that has occurred across the colonial and post-colonial Atlantic. In the Caribbean linguist and poet Edward Braithwaite’s study of voice, in the chapter where he coins the idea of ‘Nation Language’, he writes:
English was, nonetheless, still being influenced by the underground language, the submerged language that the slaves had brought… It was moving from a purely African form to a form which was African but which was adapted to the new environment and adapted to the cultural imperative of the European languages. And it was influencing the way in which the English, French, Dutch, and Spaniards spoke their own language. So there was a very complex process taking place, which is now beginning to surface in our own language.
There is a complex play of ‘infection’ and ‘vexation’, or more aquatically, of “submergence” and “surfacing.” Languages submerged deep in the bodies of the colonized begin to reemerge and contaminate the colonial tongue. In accordance with Braithwaite’s assessment, SpaceApe spits on another track from the album ‘Quantum’, “The threat to you / You always knew was contact and impurity.” A confrontational dramatisation of linguistic exchange as mutual infection.
SpaceApe’s bass-fiction, or biological counter-narrative, of the ‘alien’ and ‘viral’ sonic body must be thought of as a poetic act of becoming, in line with Fred Moten’s observation of “The reproduction of blackness in and as [the] reproduction of black performance. An ongoing event of an antiorigin and an anteorigin, replay and reverb of an impossible natal occasion, the performance of a birth and rebirth of a new science, a phylogenetic fantasy that (dis)establishes genesis.” In Moten’s writing the metaphor of the sonic processes of dub is intertwined not only with a re-versioning of history into science fictional counter-narratives (‘anti-origins’), but also with an explicitly evolutionary experimentation, a counter-biology, that not only re-imagines the “constitutive trauma” of diasporisation, but also re-imagines the present tense interior of the Afro-diasporic body within these terms.
Kodwo Eshun has warned similarly of how music writing, “still insists on a solid state known as ‘blackness’”, a fiction which he equates to “solidarity with a corpse”; a mortified conception of racial identity. However, it is through taking this morbid solidarity to the extreme, through identification not with a black corpse, but with a Black Atlantic virus, that the SpaceApe effectively “dissolves” this “corpse into a fluidarity maintained and exacerbated” by sonic machines. These practices reveal blackness to be a historic fiction that is perpetually torn apart and reassembled by viral waveforms and mutant becomings. A conception of blackness as elaborated by black performers; where myth informs reality; sonic fiction vibrates against solid reality; affective culture makes itself real.
Audio virology can be understood via two specular motions: firstly that Afrofuturism is understood not only in terms of a movement out toward the extraterrestrial but also a movement in and between sonic bodies; secondly that identification with the audio virus not only facilitates the future tense of an emergent form of post-human subjectivity, but that it also facilitates a historical understanding of the diasporic experience of contagious aurality across the colonial and post-colonial Atlantic.