This is the twenty-sixth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.
Professor Deborah Grayson led the LCC 3306, Science, Technology, and Race class that I took in Fall 2005 at Georgia Tech. Unlike many other classes that I had taken up to that point, Professor Grayson organized the class around student-led discussions of daily readings and larger presentation-based projects. Her class was as much like a seminar as a 25-student class can be. Her class’ structure gave me ideas for engaging students that I continue to use in my own teaching today.
This Recovered Writing post contains my “critical commentary” and “study guide” on Mark Hansen’s “Digitizing the Racialized Body or The Politics of Universal Address,” SubStance – Issue 104 (Volume 33, Number 2), 2004, pp. 107-133.
Jason W. Ellis
Professor Deborah Grayson
October 24, 2005
Critical Commentary on “Digitizing the Racialized Body or The Politics of Universal Address”
Mark B. N. Hansen argues in “Digitizing the Racialized Body or The Politics of Universal Address” that “deploying the lens of race to develop our thinking about online identification will help us to exploit the potential offered by the new media for experiencing community beyond identity” (108). He is not merely arguing that the Internet and computer technology enables passing, or the effective performance of a race in an online environment, but instead he shows how new media can be employed to broadly convey an affect of a community to other individuals and other communities in a way not possible with broadcast media.
The effectiveness of interactive new media is brought about because of the lack of a visible element in textual communication. New media however does use visuals and interactivity to go beyond interpellation because of new ways of presenting those visuals in new media. Hansen goes into detail on the shift from textual passing to “moving beyond interpellation” in his experience with and subsequent analysis of Keith Piper’s Relocating the Remains art exhibit (114).
A particular element of Hansen’s argument that I found interesting regards the production of the “whatever body” through the engagement of the Internet and the new media. First, he draws on Agamben writing, “if humans could, that is not be-thus in this or that particular biography, but be only the thus, their singular exteriority and their face, then they would for the first time enter into a community without presuppositions and without subjects, into a communication without the incommunicable” (qtd. in Hansen 110). Instead of “being thus,” or being a certain way, the individual can become “the thus,” or a true singular individual devoid of “presuppositions and without subjects.” Then Hansen points out that, “the new media actively invests the dimension of the thus” (110). Cyberspace and its technological accouterments are the means for realizing “the thus.” Can these singular identities be enforced so that they are recognized by others? Do they need to be recognized? These questions are problematic with the broader effectiveness of “moving beyond interpellation.”
The part of Hansen’s argument that I have the most questions about is when he explores “how [we can] use the new media and the internet to move beyond interpellation, more exactly, to liberate the body from its socially-imposed dependence on interpellation through preconstituted social categories of identity, subjectivity, and particularity” (114). He takes Keith Piper’s Relocating the Remains exhibit for an analysis and extending of his argument. Hansen goes on to describe his first-person experience with the exhibit. In one of the two smaller exhibits, Hansen writes about the way in which Piper uses affect. He writes, “Caught Like a Nigger in Cyberspace compelled me to undergo a kind of becoming-other, a loosening of the grip of the identity markings on my embodiment, a felt recognition of the fluidity–the bodily excess–underlying them. At this moment, I confronted myself as an affective subject, a subject defined by my own excess over any of my actual states” (123). His being “an affective subject” realizes the ability of conveying affect with the new media. He is able to engage emotions presented by the artist through the work in an interactive way that is not possible with broadcast, passive viewing. How effective is this in other works? Even though a work conveys an affect to the viewer, is the affect the same for each individual viewer?
Piper’s work isn’t the end-all solution, but, “Relocating the Remains offers the catalyst for a radical reconfiguration of the self beyond identity, a reconfiguration as a self rooted in the potentiality of the body, as a self essentially ‘out of phase’ with itself” (124). Not only is it “the catalyst for a radial reconfiguration of the self,” but it is also a catalyst for shift away from bodily identified racial signifiers. Hansen writes, “If his [Piper’s] work manages, even for an instant, to expose the bare singularity, the common impropriety, that binds us beyond identification, and it if does so for potentially any viewer, then it can be understood as a form of resistance to the very principle informing today’s technologized racism” (126-127). How effective that resistance is remains to be seen. For some persons, I can see how affective works of art can convey messages more powerful than in older forms of media. Perhaps these messages can be integrated into more popular forms of interactive media such as video games. However, this integration would be difficult because of competition with such popular titles as Grand Theft Auto that perpetuate particular stereotypes.
I found Hansen’s argument engaging, but I did take issue with his sidelining of gender at the beginning of his paper. He writes, “the fact that race, unlike gender, is so clearly a construction, since racial traits are not reducible, i.e., genetic, organization” (108). He might have chosen better language in this sentence such as “sex” instead of “gender.” Gender is constructed within or without the individual needing particular “hardware.” I found his usage here unusual because he later quotes Sandy Stone, who I believe would have also taken issue with this because other work that I have read by her (e.g., “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto”).
Jason W. Ellis
Professor Deborah Grayson
October 24, 2005
Study Guide for “Digitizing the Racialized Body or The Politics of Universal Address”
“I would suggest that Piper’s concrete engagement with technology as a site of de-differentiation and universality must itself be understood in the dual mode of confrontation and invitation. The result is a significant complixification: not only is the address to black subjects nuanced in a way that routes self-perception through perception by the Other–that is, through the surveillant and/or consumerist gaze, but the address is opened in an unprecedented way to non-black, non-minoritarian, that is, white subjects” (116).
“Caught Like a Nigger in Cyberspace compelled me to undergo a kind of becoming-other, a loosening of the grip of the identity markings on my embodiment, a felt recognition of the fluidity–the bodily excess–underlying them. At this moment, I confronted myself as an affective subject, a subject defined by my own excess over any of my actual states” (123).
“Through the affective confusion it brokers, Relocating the Remains offers the catalyst for a radical reconfiguration of the self beyond identity, a reconfiguration as a self rooted in the potentiality of the body, as a self essentially ‘out of phase’ with itself” (124).
Hansen, Mark B. N.. “Digitizing the Racialized Body or The Politics of Universal Address.” SubStance. 33:2 (2004): 107-133.
Online “passing” serves as a mechanism for reinforcing certain stereotypes and identities.
The Internet and the new media can be utilized “to move beyond interpellation” because of the effectiveness of interactive media to convey an affect held by the artist or by a group of people.
Keith Piper’s Relocating the Remains is a powerful example of a work to use excessive affect in bringing about a better understanding, a glimpse of being, and an emotive response in “non-black, non-minoritarian, that is, white subjects” (116).
Have you had an experience online where you chatted with someone online, but after you met the person in real life, the person did not match your preconceived image of him/her?
Have you been to an interactive art exhibit or visited a website that actively conveyed an affect of a person or a group of people represented in the work?
Do you think that the affect of experience of one group of people can be conveyed in the work by a person not of or not considered a part of that group? (e.g., Postcolonial critiques of elite writers who are disconnected from their country of origin. For example, Salman Rushdie has written about the country of his birth, but his life is far removed from someone that actually lived their whole life in India.)
Everett, Anna. “The Revolution with Be Digitized: Afrocentricity and the Digital Public Sphere.” Social Text. 20:2 (Summer 2002): 125-146.
Anna Everett explores the “African diaspora’s” early access to computers and the Internet. She also maps the shift of the African American press to the Internet.
Kolko, Beth E., Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert B. Rodman, eds. Race in Cyberspace. New York: Routledge, 2000.
This collection of papers addresses many aspects of race in ‘cyberspace’ (e.g., online, in games, and other digital forms). Jennifer González’s “The Appended Subject: Race and Identity as Digital Assemblage” is one work in this book that relates to the issues that Hansen addresses. González looks at websites that present the body through racialized appendages.
Nakamura, Lisa. “Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet.” 1999. 20 October 2005
Nakamura addresses issues of performing identities online such as in chat spaces like LambdaMOO. She calls the theatricality of assuming and performing as an online identity, “identity tourism,” which is akin to Orientalist appropriations of the Other.
Piper, Keith. Relocating the Remains. 1997. 22 October 2005 <http://www.iniva.org/piper/>.
Porter, David. ed. Internet Culture. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Poster, Mark. What’s the Matter With the Internet? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
Poster, Mark and Stanley Aronowitz. The Information Subject. Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 2001.