Getting Lost in “Wondaland”: Political Worldbuilding and Timeless Affects in Janelle Monáe’s Metropolis

Mathilde Fauteux explores the political spaces of Janelle Monáe’s work, concentrating on both the diegetic spaces that make up her recent projects and the transmedia spaces those projects occupy and create.
[Ed. note: this post is part of our Student Voices section. In this issue all posts in the section come from papers given at the 2019 SCMS-U Conference. For more background on these posts and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Transmedia storytelling can be simply defined as the elaboration of a narrative across media platforms. The ways in which this narrative spreads and weaves into its varying instances, the media forms employed, and the depths the story reaches depend on an important relationship between creators and audiences. This codependency implies thorough engagement and participation into the narrative from everyone involved. That is to say, a narrative’s existence presupposes a willingness to enter its world, to engage with it profoundly. As such, it seems difficult, almost impossible, to write of storytelling without implying an act of world-building. To create a story means to create its world, the people that populate it; the social, cultural and political systems that govern it, the power relations that define the interpersonal relationships that drive its plot further; the ethics, morals and values that motivate people’s behaviours, its rules and regulations. To engage with a world means to resonate with it and relate to it tangentially. Entering a narrative world, however briefly, implies a relationality that transcends the virtual aspect of fiction. To a degree, whether in its genesis or its reception, a narrative world always has a relationship to the real that shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s in this indexicality that story-worlds find their true potential for political expression.

Taking this into consideration, my aim with this paper is to explore alternative models of political participation through understandings of transmedia and world building practices, especially as I analyze Janelle Monáe’s Afrofuturist re-working of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. For the purpose of this research, my involvement in Monáe’s world went from casually enjoying her music to somewhat obsessively considering every detail in the case that would lead me to understand it better. Although fan engagements are not necessarily the focus of this discussion, the ways in which people might interact with cultural texts like Monáe’s is especially important to understand the power of world-building as forms of political participation. Given that a lot of scholarship on the intersection of political engagement and transmedia or world-building has focused on fan practices, it is only fair to take these expressions into serious consideration.

As such, this paper gleans from fan studies the insights it generates about imaginative and participatory political action and pairs them with insights about world building and political theory. This is to better assess how storytelling might manifest as a form of activism, which can be understood as “intentional action to challenge existing hegemonies and provoke political and/or social change.”1Brough, Melissa M., and Sangita Shresthova. “Fandom Meets Activism: Rethinking Civic and Political Participation.” Transformative Works and Cultures, 10, (March 2011): 2. This also allows me to probe the ways in which world building produces projective spaces that have the potential to challenge dominant perspectives and through which we may rewrite the past, better understand the present, and imagine the future. This becomes especially important as I consider Monáe’s work from the past 10 years . Monáe’s incessant use of transformative and appropriative strategies as well as an emphasis on collective trauma and memory allows her to reframe and critique historical and cultural master narratives through the science-fiction genre and afrofuturist themes.

World-building: between fact and fiction

World-building, according to Marta Boni, is a complex practice that implies different, yet interconnected sets of relations. These relations exist namely between the individual and the collective, but also between the ‘human’ and the technological. She writes that “transcending individual perspectives and localized exploration possibilities, a world is built by networks of speculations, interpretations, and social uses…”2Boni, Marta, “Introduction: Worlds Today,” in World Building, Transmedia, Fans, Industries, ed. Marta Boni (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017), 10 Evidently, a narrative world cannot be described as self-contained, and it is always open to transformation. Its unfolding depends on external engagements that work to excavate its logic and explore its terrains. Once again, Boni writes that “worlds as artificial constructions are also dependent upon their explorers who, in turn, become world- builders.”3ibid. As such, worlds extend beyond their creators and are commonly understood as dynamic and co-constituted narratives.

But how does a world grow beyond a single imagination, and perhaps more importantly, how does it come to invade the everyday of its curious explorers? Many, like Henry Jenkins, believe that a transmedia approach must, in some ways, be embedded into a world’s mapping. That is to say, the only way to truly make sense of a world’s existence and its potentials would be to explore it across media and therefore capture the various ways in which one can not only engage with, but also inhabit the world in question. Both a narrative and consumerist strategy, transmedia implies that the information necessary to a deeper understanding of the world be spread out across media forms. As the information is dispersed across books, films, social media networks, albums (or other possible pairings), spaces and temporalities of engagement open up. Their activation depends on the individual’s willingness to participate in the world’s creation. 4Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 95, 114, 123. This active stance towards narrative consumption can be isolated or come to represent something larger as it becomes part of webs of collective knowledge that extend beyond fictional coordinates.

Hassler-Forest comments on the political nature of world-building, noting that these narratives have strong roots in what we would call the ‘real’ world. For him, it is not only naïve, but also reductive to believe that narrative worlds, and specifically the ones that register as fantasy or science fiction, are divorced from our day-to-day experience of the world. Fictional words are, in his words, “a reflection of a specific organization of historically grounded social relations.”5Hassler-Forest, Dan, “Worlds and Politics,” in The Routledge Companion to Imaginary Worlds, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf. (New York: Routledge, 2018), 307. Therefore, fictional worlds become interstitial spaces wherein personal and/or collective experiences of a specific assemblage of socio- historical and political circumstances can be negotiated through imaginary representations. Then, “fantastic story worlds provide pleasurable ways of negotiating tensions that are social, economic, and cultural—and therefore political.”6Ibid, 308. Elitist notions of taste have long dismissed popular culture texts as works worthy of consideration, especially in relation to their political potential. This is in part because of their entertaining value and the pleasure associated with escaping the everyday for a little while. However, I find that this previous quote reminds us that pleasure, as an affective expression of our desires, is more often than not political. Coupled to a pop culture cachet, futurist projections and sci-fi speculation become ways to narrate and investigate modern systems of power and identification.

Afrofuturist time-building, or the exploration of space within the cracks of history

An excellent example of such political worldbuilding would be Afrofuturism which, from the 1960s and onwards, has been a tool to express the Afrodiasporic experience. Aesthetically speaking, the style uses, on the one hand, intergalactic space, extraterritoriality and science-fiction tropes, such as alien abductions, to express a shared experience of displacement, objectification and segregation. On the other, this genre uses futurist themes and technocratic projections of the future as a way to speculate on the many possible tomorrows.7Eshun, Kodwo. “Further Considerations of Afrofuturism.” CR: The New Centennial Review, 3, no. 2, (Summer 2003): 298-99. Or, as Mark Fisher puts it in “The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology”:

The concept of Afrofuturism has always done double work. First, it liberates
futurism from the master narratives of white modernity […] Second, Afrofuturism unravels any linear model of the future […] Time in Afrofuturism is plastic, stretchable, and prophetic—it is, in other words, a technologized time, in which past and future are subject to ceaseless de- and recomposition.8Fisher, Mark. “The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology.” Dancecult, 5, no. 2, (2013): 47.

Afrofuturism then welcomes a “hauntological” model of history in which teleological master narratives lose their primacy as historical events are displaced, re-assigned value and re-assembled as a way to negotiate power dynamics, historical perspectives and speculate on future possibilities.
The concept of the “hauntological”, coined by Jacques Derrida in his book Specters of Marx, implies a different understanding of time and, in consequence, of experience as well. The experience of time that hauntology describes is perhaps best described as paradoxical; neither the present, the future or the past, but rather the non-places and non- times that sit at their interstices.9Ibid, 44. Often described as ghostly, a “hauntological” temporality identifies the juxtaposition of these time-spaces and the challenge it poses to a unified sense of history and identity, all the while never committing to resolve these tensions. Fisher believes that Derrida’s model “is the proper temporal mode for a history made up of gaps, erased names and sudden abductions”.10Ibid, 52. The haunting of a distant, yet so viscerally felt, past is reflected by Afrofuturist aesthetics in which historical periods, subjectivities and experiences overflow into each other to resist the colonial urge to essentialize blackness and welcoming instead liminality as a way to challenge fixed, but most importantly, external identification and definition.11Gilroy, Paul, “Sounds Authentic: Black Music, Ethnicity, and the Challenge of a ‘Changing’ Same,” Black Music Research Journal, 11, no. 2, (1991): 134-35. Stressing these juxtapositions and pluralities thus becomes incredibly important to an Afrofuturist aesthetic, in which spatio-temporal metaphors are ways to actualize alternative worldviews and historical timelines.

The ways in which hegemonic representations, dominant narratives, and numerous efforts at cultural suppression and erasure are turned on their heads through appropriative strategies is for Mark Sinker “the triumph of black American culture.”12Sinker, Mark, “Loving The Alien: Black Science Fiction—A Secret Musical History,” The Wire, no. 96, (Feb. 1992), n.html. He writes that “forcibly stripped by the Middle Passage and Slavery Days of any direct connection with African mother culture, it has nonetheless survived; by syncretism, by bricolage, by a day- to-day programme of appropriation and adaptation…”13Ibid. This is perhaps particularly true for Afrofuturism which places these strategies at the heart of its expressions, whether they be music, visual arts, clothing or otherwise.

Taking this into consideration, Janelle Monáe’s work then makes for an interesting example of Afrofuturism as political world-building. Across ten years and through multiple albums, numerous live performances, many music videos and short films which she calls emotion pictures, and paratextual material like narrative treatments, websites, interviews and the like, Monáe keeps feeding her complex critique of America. Staging social and economic tensions through an urban dystopia in which an android named Maria serves as a catalyst for the revolution, Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis stands as a main inspiration for Monáe’s own take on the future. However, by including different spatial coordinates, historical periods, characters, and narrative arcs, it’s fair to say that Monáe’s world has now outgrown Lang’s original text. For English and Kim, Monáe “has undertaken a musical, lyrical, visual, performative, and theoretical investigation into, and destabilization of, not only race and gender, but also sexuality, color and class.”14English, Daylanne K., and Alvin Kim. “Now We Want Our Funk Cut: Janelle Monáe’s Neo-Afrofuturism.” American Studies, 52, no. 4 (2013): p.218. In doing so, her ongoing science fiction generates a critical space in which to reflexively engage with contemporary social and political issues.

Although quite complex and spread out, central themes and motifs work to define the contours of Monáe’s world. One of them, and possibly the most important of them all, the experience of alienation or the impression of being perceived as other is eloquently communicated through the figure of the android. Through her character Cindi Mayweather (also known as Droid #57821), whom she performed for years, Monáe wished to represent positively and in an empowering way the people too often marginalized. In an interview with the New York Times, she says that “you can parallel the other in the android to being a black woman right now, to being a part of the L.G.B.T.Q. community.”15Wortham, Jenna. “How Janelle Monáe Found Her Voice”. The New York Times Magazine, Apr. 2018, Looking at her work chronologically, one can observe the progression of her rhetoric from a comment on the traces of slavery in Metropolis Suite 1: The Chase (2007) and an exploration of black power and rebellion in The Archandroid (2010), to what slowly transforms into a critique of surveillance as well as censorship in The Electric Lady (2013) and an exploration of rigid identity politics and ways to resists them in Dirty Computer (2018). Through her many characters, most notably Cindi Mayweather and Computer Jane #57821, Monáe explores the range of her power as a public persona which, in its numerous variations and alter egos, clearly refuse a fixed identity.

As such, not only does Monáe mobilize transmedia strategies as a way to create a narrative world that is mysterious, engaging and entertaining, she extends this gesture to herself as she playfully cultivates the mystique of Cindi Mayweather (and her other iterations), in turn leaving room to modulate her persona as she wishes. In this way, Monáe fully embraces Gilbert Simondon’s figure of the transindividual, who rather than aspiring to clear cut and rigid identity markers chooses to embrace the transitional and relational aspects of identity formation.16Arroyo, Brandon, “An Amplification of Being: Chris Crocker and the Becoming of a Transindividual Porn Star,” Porn Studies, 4, no. 2 (Apr. 2017): 194. The transindividual welcomes the non-linear process of becoming, rather than impatiently waiting for the end result. Monáe’s transindividual quality is manifested in the ease with which she puts on her various characters and cultivates their ambiguity, but also in the ways she mobilizes multiple media forms in order to mediate her public persona and private life through speculative narratives.17Ibid, 197.

In interviews, on her social media platforms, in the way she interacts with her fans, her commitment to her creation is impressive. Her mainstream media appearances seem to serve the sole purpose of maintaining the illusion. Through them, Monáe consistently cultivates her futuristic world through her clever use of technological metaphors. In an interview with radio host Ebro Darden, she likens herself to a computer full of viruses, using this comparison as a way to discuss feelings of inadequacy and alienation all the while maintaining a certain anonymity. Her fembot persona then becomes a way to negotiate between her personal experiences with discrimination and feelings of alienation, and the greater range of experiences that might not be covered by her own.

As Monáe resists clear identification through a transindividual logic that is multifaceted and fluid, fact and fiction come to dialogue with one another. It is precisely through maintaining this liminal play between Monáe, Cindi and Jane that she creates space for political activation and collective identification. With her use of social media, Monáe tightens the gap she created in order to further engage with the issues brought up in her story world. She creates connections with her audience and encourages community by sharing fan work, supporting fellow artists, and bringing attention to issues important to her. As delicate balancing acts, these displays of affect and care may contradict her delicately crafted persona, yet it somehow makes the fiction seem that much more real by introducing her persona into the everyday, and as such, rooting her android figure into the lived present.

In his look into Monae’s world, Hassler-Forest prefaces his analysis by taking a look at world-building in relation to what are considered primary worlds. Drawing on Mark J.P. Wolf’s suggestion that narrative worlds are subcreations linked to the real world, Hassler-Forest contends that a fictional world’s perceived secondary position to the real generates a productive tension. This tension “can serve to destabilize absolute distinctions between past and future, subject and object, history and myth.”18Hassler-Forest, Dan, “The Politics of World Building: Heteroglossia in Janelle Monáe’s Afrofuturist WondaLand,” In World Building, Transmedia, Fans, Industries, ed. Marta Boni (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017), 380. For him, it is important to keep in mind that “these secondary worlds are always projections of tensions, desires, anxieties, and contradictions that define our own material world and its social and economic organization.”19Ibid, 305. Echoing him, Stephen Duncombe in his book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy writes that “Reality needs fantasy to render it desirable, just as fantasy needs reality to make it believable … categories and metaphors allow us to translate hard information and direct experience into a conceptual form familiar and comfortable to us.”20Duncombe, Stephen, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, (New York: The New York Press, 2007), 9-10. If anything, this is something Monáe is hyper-aware of. When asked about science fiction, and why it became her preferred genre, she notes that “It doesn’t make people feel like you’re talking about things that are happening right now, so they don’t feel like you’re talking down to them. It gives the listener a different perspective.”21Thompson, Eliza C., “Janelle Monáe: The Year’s Most Intriguing Pop Star,” BUST Magazine (Aug/Sept, 2013), Clearly, by displacing contemporary issues into speculative futures which are filled with drama, hopeless love, but also a celebration of difference, Monáe creates political opportunities disguised as spectacles.

“Dreampolitics” is the name Stephen Duncombe gives to his political project based solely on the negotiation of dreams and desires through spectacle. Historically, spectacle has been the discursive tool of fascism and capitalism, but he believes that commercial culture, its products, and logic can come to the service of a progressive political project, as long as its ethics are realigned.22Duncombe, Stephen, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy (New York: The New York Press, 2007), 15-17. In doing so, he calls for a transformation of “spectacular capitalism into tools for social change.”23Ibid, 16. This is to “build a politics that embraces the dreams of people and fashions spectacles which give these fantasies form—a politics that understands desire and speaks to the irrational; a politics that employs symbols and associations; a politics that tells good stories.”24Ibid, 9. If anything, Monae’s world in which making music, dancing, singing are the ultimate celebrations of life, but also its greatest subversive tools.

In Dirty Computer, her Afrofuturist vision broadens to include the disenfranchised of contemporary America, making clever jabs at her country’s rigid identity politics and incessant policing of racialized or marginal bodies (which comes to include women, the LGBTQ+ community, and people with disabilities). Although most commonly presented as a break in character, I’d like to argue that in Dirty Computer, Monae reprises her cyborg persona as Computer Jane #57821. Admittedly a perhaps more truthful representation of herself, this new iteration reflects a trend in her work to reinvent herself and adapt her narrative to mirror the contemporary political climate. Here, Computer Jane belongs in a totalitarian society in which “dirty computers” must be wiped clean. During the process of cleansing, we get to experience Jane’s memories, all of which makes her dirty. Her memories (which are in essence music videos) are about love, music, and celebration as forms of resistance to the oppressive state she and her friends are under. The music video for the song “Screwed,” which appears about a third into Dirty Computer, reflects this perfectly. In an effort to escape the surveillance drones that target them, Computer Jane and her friends wind up in an abandoned building. Throughout, three main scenes are cut in a nonlinear manner. The first is the group discovering the building, the second a huge party and performance sequence, and third, them watching violent newsreel footage. As Monáe sings “I, I, I hear the sirens calling, and the bombs are falling in the streets, we’re all screwed. And ah, ah, ah, it’s your birthday, baby, but we go sex crazy, but we feel so screwed. I, I, I hear the sirens calling, and the bombs are falling in the streets. We’re all screwed.” Celebration serves as counterpoints to a tense political climate. Placed within the context of the storyworld and its hypernormative state, Monáe’s lyrics and visuals come together to reiterate that being on your own terms is a way to resist power. Arguably naïve in sentiment, the emotion picture still reads as a visceral celebration of difference and imperfection in a world that clearly seeks to homogenize its population.

Used to describe her earlier work, English and Kim’s following passage still rings true, and identifies an important aspect of Monáe’s work yes, but also to political world- building more broadly:
Janelle Monáe’s and Wondaland’s new, multivalent version of Afrofuturism, that is neo-Afrofuturism—expressed via highly technologized music and vocals, dance, website manifestos and blogs, interviews, clothing, videos, extraordinarily dynamic live performances, and even commercials—provides us with a fresh, funky optimism that promises not so much to ‘remove’ as to move us.25English, Daylanne K., and Alvin Kim, “Now We Want Our Funk Cut: Janelle Monáe’s Neo-Afrofuturism,” American Studies, 52, no. 4 (2013): 229.

The emphasis on movement is important here, as affective registers are considered by many as essential to political participation and engagement, but, also, in terms of how world-building requires moving across time and space, different media and technological affordances, and various modes of engagement. Across her work, Monáe progressively sheds the mechanical exterior to reveal the more fleshy parts of her. By sustaining an emphasis on hi-jacking a commercialized public sphere through musical performance, and on depicting marginalized and stigmatized bodies taking up space, moving, and collapsing into another, Monáe asks of herself and her viewers to consider acting on and through our desires, hopes and dreams, as an essentially revolutionary act.

Admittedly utopian, Monáe’s politics gain from being read in line with Duncombe’s “dreampolitics”. Part of his argument entails that the spectacles of capitalism and/or fascism have worked so well in the past precisely because of the ways in which they produce reality. That is to say, by tapping into our deepest desires and moving us into consent.26Duncombe, Stephen, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy (New York: The New York Press, 2007), 8-9. He argues that given the success of the former, progressive politics should then also speak to dreams and learn to embrace entertainment as a rhetorical space. As Monáe puts it, “the conversations might not happen with people in the position of power, […] but they can happen through a movie, they can happen through a song, they can happen through an album, they can happen through a speech on TV.” 27Spanos, Brittany, “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself.” Rolling Stone, 26 (Apr. 2018), What is emphasized here, is that the conversations should happen between people, rather than through institutional pathways. What Monáe and Duncombe advocate for is a grassroots approach to political participation in which a strong importance is given to fostering communities of care, and change.

Rather than a unidirectional communication line, the kind of spectacle that best describes “dreampolitics” is one that is open and participatory.28Duncombe, Stephen, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy (New York: The New York Press, 2007), 17. World-building, in a way fits perfectly that model wherein we are asked to dive deeply into a story-world, to engage with its spread out topologies, but also to contribute in its creation. In interviews, Monáe insists that her world is for the people too, and that it is never closed off. Her Wondaland is an opportunity to create a community bound by its heterogeneity. She says: “I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you…”29 Spanos, Brittany, “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself.” Rolling Stone, 26 (Apr. 2018), Her art is a refuge of sorts and Wondaland becomes a great example of a virtual space that employs creative, dreamy and affective strategies to shift hegemonic discourse and representation of race, gender, sexuality and everything in between.

As social movements move from the political to the cultural (as a site of contestation, and what is being contested), “the behaviours and skill sets typical of popular media fan cultures … are increasingly relevant to contemporary modes of collective identity formation.”30Brough, Melissa M., and Sangita Shresthova, “Fandom Meets Activism: Rethinking Civic and Political Participation,” Transformative Works and Cultures, 10 (Mar. 2011): 3. The appropriative and transformative impulses of Afrofuturism resonate with activities that have come to typify contemporary entertainment cultures and its increasingly participative ethos. Through it, new forms of cultural and political resistance emerge, namely through the frame of a multitext spectacle. As Brough and Shresthova note:

the centrality of content worlds to fan cultures pushes us to rethink storytelling as a collective activity in which individuals and groups contribute to the telling, retelling, and remixing of stories through various media platforms. In doing so, they help shape the contours of content worlds that may serve as effective resources and organizing structures for the mobilizing of collective action.31Ibid, 15.

This is a necessary reminder that modes and spaces of reception are equally as important, if not more so, than the original texts. Digital spaces are obviously thought of quite often, as they facilitate the spread of content worlds beyond specific locales, and allows its messages to be spread further, but physical spaces are just as important.

Inka Salovaara’s query into affective activism in “Spaces of Emotions: Technology, Media and Affective Activism” makes for an interesting take on the ways in which performance, transformative culture and affect are changing the ways people engage politically.32Salovaara, Inka, “Spaces of Emotions: Technology, Media and Affective Activism” In The Routledge Companion to Global Popular Culture, ed. Toby Miller, New York: Routledge (2015), 471–503. Although this goes beyond the scope of this paper, looking at the links between transmedia artistic productions like Monáe’s, collective and open experiences such as concerts or fandom, and the production of politicized space (either on or offline) that are rooted in spectacular imaginations could elucidate further how story-worlds and their manifestations generate alternative spaces for political participation and activism. As such, this is an issue that deserves further consideration.

For the time being, however, this paper was an opportunity to explore the political potentials of storytelling, especially as it spreads across different media forms and travels across various spaces of engagement, physical or digital. Although the ways in which Monáe’s texts are received and transformed by the communities that aggregate around them have only been briefly looked over, my hope is that the paper showcases how Janelle Monáe utilized storytelling and world-building as tools for political discussion that engage with her experience as a black and queer woman in America. Her futurist world negotiates the tensions between lived experience and desire as a way to communicate hope for the future. Between utopian dreams and dystopic visions, Monáe’s universe moves us in many ways.


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