On Saturday I went to the first Version conference. I went in as my skeptical self and left really amazed at the conversations I was able to listen to from the wonderfully curated panels. I didn’t have any deep thoughts until this morning when my normal train route was not running on my way to work. I’d also forgotten my idevice and headphones so I was reading Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct. Recommendations for Good Scientific Practice and the Consumers of VR-Technology (I’ve not finished it yet, but the deep thought came so here it is, jotted down before my next meeting).
I was very struck by the work of Jacolby Satterwhite. He is using virtual reality to create a world where he is more whole than he can be outside where his myth can be constructed, completed and fully experienced in a way not possible I the real world. In fact, he said as much, vulnerable, on a stage with only a few faces that looked like him in the audience.
These thoughts are so drafty I can feel the virtual wind on my body
I am stuck in this place where VR is the broken mirror stage as defined by a footnote in black skin white masks that I can’t cite because the book is at home coupled with the McLuhan idea of amputation, only it is the ultimate amputation. What this has me thinking, or realizing maybe, is perhaps I was so attracted to the theory of Fanon and McLuhan because they are both talking about the same exact thing/experience. Media amputates us from our embodied selves in various was as it extends who we are. When we other stand the body as a medium in and of itself, when the body is stuck in a place of alienation due to a lack of mutual recognition, which is the case for different bodied people, be it because of race, ability, or other things that might present as a visible or aural difference, there is an amputation from the perceived metaphysical (not sure this is the right word, but the basis for all of this is there is no actual self just the perception… oh damnit this is so theory I’m angry) self. Okay, I forgive myself. The way VR is being imagined right now does not give primacy to embodied experiences. It gives primacy to the plaststicty of the brain and the fact that because of the brains plasticity you can fool the body into disembodying itself and attaching to a virtual analog.
So why race? Well, there is always race. I live in a raced body. Also it is female. I’m a little bit chubby. I feel and experience my inner self and live in a body that is marked and reacted to in particular ways based on things outside of my control that I do not notice until I realize I’m being seen in 3rd person. What the experience of race or marked/unexpected difference highlights, unveils, demystifies is that some of us are never ourselves. We live as a virtual version of who we are because there are things about us that already script how we are read and reacted it. If I am on a train, and people see me all of those markers of difference might or might not make them have thoughts about me that are untrue. Because of the ways I am marked by difference, those thoughts might veer towards negativity (but that is a whole other conversation on perceived mircro-aggressions versus actual ones and the complications of interpreting a space when you are “Other”). So, back to this third person business. Everyone (not everyone but many people) gets mad at me when I use Fanon to speak about existing in 3rds, but I have to because he is the one who is speaking specifically about the broken mirror stage, as mentioned above. The mirror stage, per Fanon, breaks for the black child when the child in pre-adolescence realizes their body, their self is not the one projected by media, history or society.
The plasticity required to reconcile the self already exists for those bodies marked by difference as they already have to exist in third person when they live in dominant societies. They are at once themselves, the person they project and the person others perceive them to be. We see t his in Mamie (and Kenneth) Clarks doll experiment. The black child, seeing the dolls wants to play with the white dolls. The sadness the child has at having to reconnect with the doll they rejected, the doll they said was bad, shows that for many people, they always already live in a state of detachment from their bodies in a meaningful way because that is where society takes them. When I listened, and reflected on what Satterwhite was saying about having to take in the racism of the live audience and how the virtual him could be layered and contain the mythologies and performance that cannot be done in the real world, even as they were still a representation of himself, unchanged, it was meaningful. For me, the black body is one that is, by society and media and culture, amputated from its own humanity. The mask in Black Skin White Masks is a virtual reality where I realize to the world outside I am a monster (at times). It is one I cannot escape. There are no goggles. It is a light field discussed in terms of color and hues. I am sad that the place of empowerment and humanity is a virtual one… but there is another side to this too.
I love Fanon because he says that we all experience this world in 3rds, it is just more obvious to those marked as Other in a way that cannot be escaped if they are to move with other humans. For those in groups of privilege that don’t acutely feel the amputation, VR is the tool that takes them to that space through that wonderful plastic brain of theirs. In the Code of Ethical conduct, seeing the virtual body as the real body was seen as being detrimental and something we should worry about the psychological effects of (in the part that I read). And Yes! Yes! Of course!! but what about all the children who go through this micro-psychological change very time they are confronted with their own image. Every time they choose them self (in a doll or other thing) they are briefly experiencing a moment of disembodiment and radical embodiment… and this is fascinating and I’m still trying to figure out how/what I think and feel about this. I guess the question is, is VR different because on chooses to enter that world, but with race (or other marked difference) choice is removed and there is no world without the goggles (except for the electric one)?
Anyway, to end, because I have another meeting… The danger in VR around bodies and alienation, then, is that those in power and privileged might realize their bodies are meaningless because others have the power to manipulate and define their image (because it is clear that VR is a tool that can radically manipulate those who enter virtual worlds through immersive experiences that cause the body to feel and experience things that are not real outside of the image/sensation created in the mind). In the world of immersive VR that comes as a prepackaged experience the experiencer is at risk of being stuck in the world they entered, unable to change what’s been coded into their lived experience by the machine and the people who control it.
But hey, this is the world I was born into so…
/very drafty thoughts.
Department Colloquium is over. I had some nice questions on why I chose to do a letter and some good feedback on some areas to expand/move forward. The act of putting the first first draft online was good. I thought it might be nice to share how it evolved since people were kind enough to read the first iteration and send me feedback.
For the past few years anytime I’ve read McLuhan it has been while I am in the process of reading Fanon. As a result, their words swirl together in my head as though they are in conversation. While the most common link take McLuhan and Fanon together because McLuhan samples A Dying Colonialism in War and Peace in the Global Village, I am making another connection today. Arun Saldanha briefly touched on this connection in the 2010 article “Skin, affect, aggregation: Guattarian variations on Fanon”, but I am pushing it further as I move towards developing a way to understand the intersection of race, media, and technology, especially as we trace the evolution of this intersection to its present moment of the Digital.
The piece I am sharing with you today is a thought experiment. It is influenced by D. Soyini Madison’s Performing theory/embodied writing. It’s playing with McLuhan’s method of writing as though making a collage, and it’s answering Fanon’s call in The Wretched of the Earth, to use imagination to create a new now. My new now speaks with the both McLuhan and Fanon through the “Playboy Interview” and the introduction of Black Skins, White Masks.
My hope with this piece, tentatively titled “A Letter to Frantz and Marshall”, is that it can eventually move into a larger project that might or might not be a dissertation chapter examining the role of fibre optic cables, light as pure information, and the “net of colonization” to examine how the digital creates a reparative space where we as a society can create explosions that allow us to imagine the body and the human in a new light.
Please note, for the purposes of this piece I will be speaking with both men on a first name basis. Frantz is Frantz Fanon and Marshall is Marshall McLuhan.
=== A Letter to Fanon and McLuhan===
Dear Frantz & Marshall,
I know the two of you never officially met, except for that brief instance where Frantz’s words become yours in War and Peace in the Global Village Marshall. You are meeting now though, in my head, and I am attempting to move that meeting to an external data storage device as words on a virtual page, that will eventually move to ink on paper.
Marshall, you said something along the lines of technology is the extension of the human body in the Medium is the Massage. The entirety of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man also explores this relationship. When I think of this idea in relation to your reflections in “the Playboy Interview”, reflections that lead you to saying black bodies are left outside of technology, I can’t help but smile a little as I remember Fanon’s point in Black Skin, White Masks. The Black man is not fully human. It seems that what you are speaking towards when you speak of the issues of the Black man (and the Indian to a lesser extent) Marshall, are the societal effects of the technologically extension of a Human body that is assumed to be less than Human. This seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, or a bit of a circle because the black man/person being less than human is directly linked to their inability to be seen as fully connected to and through technology.
Frantz, you said something that I am finding myself seeing true about the Human experience, what and who is human is determined by the negation of the black man. If media technologies are all just an extension of the human body, and that which in fact makes us fully human and connected, returning us to the global village without margins or centers, then it stands to reason that to understand the Human we must also understand the relationship between the black man and technology. It is the relationship defined by a technological lack that will show us the blind spots in our Utopian vision.
If we look at technology as the extension of man, it seems we must begin to see slaves as the foundational technology of not just the United States, but the West as a whole as connected through the Atlantic slave trade. If we understand that these bodies were seen as a lack due to their distance from the technologies of the West we can see that they are not human bodies but are rather a media technology like any other media technology. It becomes easier for Black bodies to be subsumed into a system of commerce. As media technology they served as an extension of the body of their owners, increasing the size, scale and pace of agriculture in a plantation economy as machines in the garden. Their bodies, not their humanity, made them central to the process of taming the frontier and cultivating the new world towards a European vision. Their bodies allowed for time and capital to grow at a new pace, across more space in ways not seen before the Atlantic slave trade became a well-oiled machine, delivering raw technology for hundreds of years. If we extend this beyond the Atlantic slave trade to include the colonization of Africa in the 1800s, Jim Crow in the United States, and Apartheid in South Africa, the timeline is even longer. When we look at the issues of Neo-colonialism, the continued territory, protectorate, or militarily occupied status of many formerly colonized African states, as well as the penal labor system that is currently growing in the United States, we might even say that the black body as part of the industrial machine never ended. It is important to note though that black bodies are no longer the only bodies that make up this labor technoloy. That is, however, a separate conversation.
Both of you think an over extension of the body through technology leads to psychosis. The psychosis is predicated on a loss of self in relation to the body. Technology is to be built upon, extended, evolved and, subsumed. For the black man the extension is based on an over association with the White Man. If we are thinking through this with the parameters Marshall laid out coupled with the history of Black slaves as technology, the extension you are illustrating Frantz shows a moment of technology becoming sentient, believing itself to be too Human.
The difference seems to be, if I understand you both correctly, that the causes and results of the manifestation of the psychosis differs from the White man to the black man. The black man’s psychosis is in the realization that he can never be as human as the white man in his quest for more and more technology even as the white man tells the black man to try and catch up. The rhetoric we continue to hear today around digital divide constructs the black man this way. The white man though, in a need to assert his own humanity and recreate centuries of social structuring is compelled to increase the distance between him and those bodies he imagines as closer to raw technology. The White man overextends himself in this quest, losing sight of his body, becoming post-human. In his post-humanity he removes the capability of seeing the Black man as human, even as he, the white man, longs to go back to an imagined before time, a time where he too was Human. The psychoses of the white man comes from the Black mans closeness to his body. His inability to be extended keeps him closer to the human than the flight away that is occurring in the White post-humanism movement. A second layer of psychosis for the white man comes from watching the Black man work through his own psychosis, a psychosis characterized by a compulsion to emulate the White Man in an attempt to be recognized as Human, without access to the technological tools required to do so. No matter how hard a black man tries to reach the world of the white man, his almost human hands can never touch it.
Attempting to understand this psychosis is why I am writing both of you. I think both of you are hinting towards a level of consciousness that is innate to humanity that the black man has better access to perhaps because he hasn’t extended his body outward through technology as much as the white man (his extension, while outward facing, is more internal). Despite the internal nature of this extension, the message received through technological mediation outside of the body causes misunderstanding that blinds and alienates the Black Man from this other level of consciousness because for the black man to have the realization that he can access it on a total scale would be an annihilation of the current social order. Marshall, you said,
“The cultural aggression of white America against Negroes and Indians is not based on skin color and belief in racial superiority, whatever ideological clothing may be used to rationalize it, but on the white man’s inchoate awareness that the Negro and Indian — as men with deep roots in the resonating echo chamber of the discontinuous, interrelated tribal world — are actually psychically and socially superior to the fragmented, alienated and dissociated man of Western civilization,”
Are you not speaking directly to Frantz and his beliefs that that it is the mistake of the black man to not already realize he is the defining instance of humanness and humanity, for it is he who has access to the zone of non-being. I think, Frantz, you can clarify this for me. You said,
Running the risk of angering my black brothers, I shall say that the Black is not a man.
There is a zone of nonbeing, an extraordinary sterile and arid region, and incline stripped bare of every essential from which a genuine new departure can emerge. In most cases the black man cannot take advantage of this descent into a veritable hell.
Man is not only the potential for self-consciousness or negation. If it be true that consciousness is transcendental, we must also realize that this transcendence is obsessed with the issue of love and understanding. Man is a “yes” resonating from cosmic harmonies. Uprooted, dispersed, dazed, and doomed to watch as the truths he has elaborated vanish one by one, he must stop projecting his antinomy into the world” (xii).
While you started with the transcendental consciousness, Marshall, it is where you ended your interview:
“I expect to see the coming decades transform the planet into an art form; the new man, linked in a cosmic harmony that transcends time and space, will sensuously caress and mold and pattern every facet of the terrestrial artifact as if it were a work of art, and man himself will become an organic art form.”
Both of you see this movement towards the transcendental starting with the tribal, or black man. And both of you see the inevitable violence the path of technology leads us on if we continue to see certain Humans as wretched and others as technologically superior. As long as superiority is understood by the ability of a group of Humans to master, contain and control the messages of the mediums, and make them obsolete we will never break society of our racially based psychoses. (As an aside, if we see the black slave as pure technology, and technologies as building on top of each other making previous versions obsolete, the black and Indian man never had a chance.) When I read these lines,
“The one inexorable consequence of any identity quest generated by environmental upheaval is tremendous violence. This violence has traditionally been directed at the tribal man who challenged visual-mechanical culture, as with the genocide against the Indian and the institutionalized dehumanization of the Negro”.
I am not sure who I am reading until I remind myself that Marshall, you were more interested in the Indian. Had it been you Frantz, I think you would have said Arab. Marshall, You spoke of the real possibility of the negro being exterminated through, something that I think can be softly confirmed if we look at statistics showing various ways people are moved from society, through imprisonment, literacy, or lack of access to the tools and technologies needed to be fully Human. As though you saw this on the horizon as well, Frantz, you had already written a response, a call, and a reminder:
I ask that I be taken into consideration on the basis of my desire. I am not only here-now, locked in thinghood. I desire somewhere else and something else. I demand that an account be taken of my contradictory activity insofar as I pursue something other than life, insofar as I am fighting for the birth of a human world, in other words, a world of reciprocal recognitions. He who is reluctant to recognize me is against me. In a fierce struggle I am willing to feel the shudder of death, the irreversible extinction, but also the possibility of impossibility (193).
Where do we go from here though?
I am thinking the three of us can push this a little bit further. If we acknowledge that the black body represents pure technology, and technology is simply a way that we extend our own human bodies, and the medium that we use for this extension has its own message, then I think we can say the medium that represents humanity is the black man. Just as the light is pure information, to understand how we have come to define the human, especially as we try to understand the human through media technology, we must first understand the relation of humanity and humanness to the black body, the body that I think became a cyborg long ago.
The next step for me is to expand this conversation and explore it through the role of black women, looking specifically at society’s current cause of psychosis and division, Digital Media.
Fanon, Frantz. Black skin, white masks. Grove press, 1994.
Fanon, Frantz. The wretched of the earth. Grove Press, 2005.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Madison, D. Soyini. “Performing theory/embodied writing.” Text and Performance Quarterly 19, no. 2 (1999): 107-124.
Marx, Leo. The machine in the garden: Technology and the pastoral ideal in America. Oxford University Press, USA, 2000.
McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore. The medium is the massage. New York: Bantam Books, 1967.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding media: The extensions of man. MIT press, 1994.
McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. War and peace in the global village. McGraw-Hill, 1968.
Nakamura, Lisa, and Peter Chow-White, eds. Race after the Internet. Routledge, 2012.
Norden, Eric. “The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan.” Playboy Magazine(1969).
Saldanha, Arun. “Skin, affect, aggregation: Guattarian variations on Fanon.”Environment and planning. A 42, no. 10 (2010): 2410.
I am trying very hard to be open-minded with things, especially as I approach them through course-work, in classes with other people who are personally invested in the work of the people we are reading. I understand that you can “like the person”, and think she was “just lovely”, and “wonderful” and, “doing important work” when you met her at that conference. And I am glad you can find her work “beautiful”. It makes me uncomfortable. Not because of the topic, but because of how it was positioned. It is a pattern I’ve seen before, and I know where it almost always leads to. This was the experience I had when reading Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge by Petra Kuppers. I was having a hard time with the Flaneur/Turtle conversation that the book starts with, and then, in the intro on page we start with the discomfort, for me:
“In relation to disability, the main themes that are aligned with specific differences are tragedy, loss, and dependency. Like people stereotyped by structural meanings of gender and race, disabled people use cultural interventions in order to subvert and query these meanings, and disability culture emerges as counterculture. The chapters of this book chart some of the forms that these disruptions of conventionalized meanings take. One problem with the allocation of ‘disability’ to a person is the cloudiness and uncertainty that surrounds the team. At most points in the recent history of Western civilization, the term ‘woman’ was relatively unproblematic: a deep consensus ruled this definition, pushing complicated cases to the margins, even though the definition has been challenged as less than natural many times, and continues to be a focus of analysis today.
In relation to this, the term ‘black’ shows more diffuse hold on specific forms of biology, complicated by the term’s historic changes, from ‘nigger’ to ‘black’ to ‘African American’, ‘Caribbean’, etc., from specific subcultures defined by diasporic experiences, myths of ‘homeland’ or religious affiliation. Like ‘woman’, or ‘gay’, or ‘black’, the term ‘disabled’ holds a history of both oppression and pride: after a long historic period of predominant negativity, disabled people have re-claimed their differences as a source of communality and cohesion in the face of oppression. Civil rights groups and forms of culture have founded themselves on the difference policed by the term” (6).
W.T.F. No. Really. Is this necessary? I feel like there is some ongoing game where people try to sneak the n-word in to see if anyone notices. Additionally, this books seems to premised on things I just am not okay with. I think we’ve gone from the myth of the black population of the world as the noble savage to the myth of the noble martyr. Further, how the hell are you going to name ever oppressed group in the world that has a defamatory slur attached to them, but limit yourself to using the n-word? So no, this does not get a pass for me. Sorry. All she did was let me know that she is probably racist.
You see, this is what happens. I am attempting to keep an open mind, just reading a book, I get to page 6 of the introduction and then, BAM! blackness… I am wary but on board out then BOOM! n-bomb for no reason. While I can keep reading, when I come across this as the case exemplar of oppression in society, I sort of write off the writer right away. The reason is simple, the conflation does not work, and, excuse my language, but that is a really fucked up place to start. It lets me know everything I need to know about an author. There is an assumption that at some point ever black person in the world was an n-word and then, somehow that magically stopped being the case, only not really, because she says that it is part of “black”. No. Sorry, but no. That is not part of my blackness. Some non-black people might think of me in that way. Hell, some black people might too. But those people don’t define my world. But part of this myth of the noble martyr, we are all so proud to invoke our nigger status to move through the world apparently… even by acknowledge our blackness we are reminding people of that. See, that didn’t feel too good, did it? I’d been so nice and taken the word out, and then BOOM!
Maybe my expectations are too high. No. No. Sorry. To take on that position, of being the “n of the world” as John Lennon & Yoko Ono so…. unfortunately put, is a really horrible way to see yourself or imagine your position. In addition to being racist, it makes me feel really sad for you and how you are imagining yourself. But thank you so much for letting me know. You feeling that way lets me know how you feel about me. As such, I reserve the right to not engage with you or your scholarship because I will never be a whole person for you. I will never associate myself with a word that has no redeeming value for me and is not how I see myself, the people I come from, or the people like me. While I do understand the movement of the word through society, I choose to align myself somewhere else, where I am not defined as the Other or by the (Relative) other. Instead, I celebrate that I am alive in a time where I can engage in world making, and make a world where that place you try to pin my beginning point ends up being the end of our relationship.
I will not drink your kool-aid. I do not believe in comparing wounds, nor do I believe in competing in the oppression olympics. That is a game that erases not just me, but also you, because when you do that, you don’t allow a place for intersectionality. You don’t allow a place for people to just live their lives. And while I do appreciate the people who tried to save this book, and came down on me for my critique of it and attempted to show me how wrong I was with this film that she choreographed and directed? Yea… just look at the framing.
The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago has a Whispering Gallery. It is a 40 foot long sroom covered in metal. The thing is, when you stand at one end, you can whisper the quietest whisper you can manage, and the person at the other end can HEAR you as though you were speaking right into their ear. That moment when you realize that your little voice has made it to the other side, because the other side replies and you experience what happened to them when they heard your whisper, is a moment of glee. And then you keep doing it until other people show up because even though you may have heard that voice before, you know get to hear it as breath, a whisper, loud and clear. Digital media, for me is like that whisper. There is loud talking about what it means to be black and what it means to be a black woman and what the black experience is supposed to feel like, look like, sound like, taste like, etc. that we have a hard time letting it just be. When I say be, I mean it in terms of being a state of becoming.
Digital media is the place where I can’t see the other side of the whisper room, but I know it is there. I hear the whispers that make their way to me, across time and space, through cables (as light, yay fiber optics!). Digital media is the space where I can find a photograph and post it with the whisper “did you know she was this beautiful?” and I can hear back “she really is”. And while yes, she might be and/or represent all those things that define the black experience, in fact, I may be even placing her as “the Black Woman” at that moment of whisper, we are allowed to just see her and see that yes, she was, is, and will always be beautiful. And we are allowed to see her and say yes, she is and will always be, like me.
I go into my project knowing it is not a critical mass project. However, I know how whispers affect feeling and how seeing affects world making. My only hope is that by sharing these photographs of women who were here before us, I help keep their images in mind. Having that image creates a new world. This is, of course, the moment when things move from media to performance.