Afrofuturism & the Expression-Scriber; or why Amiri Baraka thinks a typewriter is corny

[By Howard Rambsy, II]

Some years ago when I began participating in Alondra Nelson’s “afrofuturism” online forum and as I worked to gain a clearer understanding of AF as a framework, I started looking out for works that I had previously overlooked or under-studied concerning technological ideas and speculative narratives.  No doubt one of my greatest finds or re-discoveries was Amiri Baraka’s essay “Technology & Ethos,” which appeared in Amistad 2 (1971) edited by Charles F. Harris and John A. Williams.

Baraka covers several intriguing ideas, but I was especially moved by his elaborations on the point that “Nothing has to look or function the way it does.” In his most fascinating example, he notes:
A typewriter?–why shd it only make use of the tips of the fingers as contact points of flowing multi directional creativity. If I invented a word placing machine, an “expression-scriber,” if  you  will, then I would have a kind of instrument into which I could step & sit or sprawl or hang & use not only my fingers to make words express feelings but elbows, feet, head, behind, and all the sounds I wanted, screams, grunts, taps, itches, I’d have magnetically recorded, at the same time, & translated into word–or perhaps even the final xpressed thought/feeling wd not be merely word or sheet, but itself, the xpression, three dimensional–able to be touched, or tasted or felt, or entered, or heard or carried like a speaking singing constantly communicating charm. A typewriter is corny!!
An expression-scriber? A “word placing machine” that would utilize more than just fingers and even more than just body parts? An instrument that would represent three-dimension ideas and feelings?
Baraka’s musings on the possibilities of moving beyond familiar, corny typewriters revealed something of a vibrant inventive mind at work. In retrospect, his “Technology & Ethos” was a useful addition to my developing AF reading list, and more importantly, the essay provided me with a powerful example of a poet-essayist utilizing speculation to imagine new realms of technological possibility.
Baraka’s old-school essay reminded me to continually identify and question the limits of even the most modern technologies. Like, what’s corny about that newest iPad?