Monday Book; Fingers on the electronic pulse

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The Independent Culture
HOW WOULD Moses have felt if he had brought the tablets of stone down from the mountain, only to find the commandments not clearly laid out in a reader-friendly one-to-ten, but concealed in the guise of a wilfully obscurantist Wordsearch puzzle? Much like the reader of Kodwo Eshun's alternately brilliant and infuriating defence of hi-tech black music - his Artificial discontinuum for the Futurhythmachine - does on first acquaintance with some of the most impenetrable prose ever published.

In his opening salvo, "Operating System For The Redesign Of Sonic Reality", Eshun sets out his stall as a one-man resistance movement against the "troglodytic homilies" which characterise conventional writing about black music. Railing against the Good Music Speaks For Itself school of non- criticism as "Great British cretinism masquerading as vectors into the Trad Sublime", he rejects what might be tanned the tyranny of the essence - "the live show, the proper album, the Real Song, the Real Voice, the mature, the musical, the pure, the true" - in favour of an unapologetic celebration of the machine, of "the artificiality that all humans crave".

Techno's electronic pulse is widely portrayed as an aberration in the history of black music - a regrettable break with affirmative tradition, which forsakes soul's eternal verities for the hollow thrill of the modernist metronome. Yet Eshun sees it as a new beginning: the dawn of the "Post- Soul Era". The fact that techno is "the first explicit case where white music is the origin", while black American musicians are "the adulterators and the bastardisers" then becomes an opportunity, rather than a shameful secret.

It wasn't just the synthetic musical texture of European electro-pop that appealed to black techno-pioneers in the post-industrial wilderness of early-1980s Detroit. The disembodied weediness of its voices was a perfect vehicle for their alienation from the society in which they found themselevs. And the founding principle of Eshun's post-soul era - that "the human is a pointless and treacherous category" - sounds a bit scary, but doesn't have to be.

Eshun makes great capital out of this idea, overturning tired and restrictive notions of authenticity with an infectious sense of liberation. If the music of Kraftwerk is "the Delta blues of techno", he explains, then "A Flock Of Seagulls are like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Depeche Mode are like Leadbelly". Unfortunately, this sense of fun rather dissipates as he connects up the spinal column of his central conceit to an endoskeleton of "Afro- diasporic futurism": that is, the anti-humanist tradition of the black avant-garde, which stretches from the science-fiction writings of Samuel R Delany and Amos Tutuola to the science-fiction music of Lee Perry or Sun Ra.

In his determination to find a language worthy of his thoughts' futuristic drift, Eshun weighs them down with the sort of portentous technical jargon beloved of Terry Pratchett fans and Star Trek obsessives. We encounter Sampladelia, Skratchadelia, Cryptogrammatrons, Psychopathogenetics, Anachronic Cybernetics, Insectile Texturhythms... "I can't squeeze any more oot of her, Captain, she's breaking up!" Is this a manifesto disguised as a textbook, or a textbook disguised as a manifesto?

If the music he describes can, as Eshun claims, "build a new psychomotor from the old you", there's no reason why his writing shouldn't do that as well.

Sometimes, as in his exquisite description of the music of A Guy Called Gerald ("The derealised wraith rhythm ride throughout the digital foliage") or a visionary explanation of the mechanics of sampling, More Brilliant Than The Sun achieves actual warp speed. All too often, though, the alarm bells sounded by an author's biography informing us that Eshun is "not a cultural critic or a cultural commentator so much as a concept engineer, an imagineer at the millennium's end" reverberate for longer than the text itself. The fragrant rosebush of the author's aesthetic vision is lost in a choking bindweed of self-indulgent verbiage.

The closing chapter, an interview transcript in which Eshun addresses what he is trying to do in more informal language, is a precious lapse into accessibility. But why is it that - armed with a central thesis that is brilliant in its simplicity, that turns conventional ways of thinking about black music on its head and joins the dots between different fields of creative endeavour with devastating elegance and wit - Eshun should so often eschew clarity's snub-nosed revolver in favour of obfuscation's rusty halberd? It can only be that nightmare of all true intellectuals: the fear of being understood.