“Digital Griots” in the Era of Technoracial Formation

This week in class, we are reading Adam Banks’s Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age.  We’ll spend some time in class digging into the concept “Digital Griots” so that we can really take on this concept.

Prior to making the decision that this is what we would do in class, I had begun reading the last few years of texts in the journal, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy.  When I did a search on the terms, race, black, and African American, on that website/journal, all that consistently came up were reviews, actually, of Banks’s books, both the first book, Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground and now his new book, Digital Griots.  That’s all!  I can’t say that I was very surprised, though I do confess that I was very disgusted that, yet once again, the worlds of school, literacies, and textual production were overdetermined as white.  My point is that it becomes quite clear that there is a white void  that Banks is writing into (making it questionable if that journal has the history and political tools to actually offer relevant reviews), so I need to make sure that my class stops, pauses, and tries to really wrap ourselves around this concept of Digital Griots and what the cultural memory and presence of African American deejays offer us in terms of new technological and creative productions.

In relation to Digital Griots, I have also been thinking about an essay by Tara McPherson in the edited collection Debates in the Digital Humanities that a colleague, Sophie Bell, suggested our program read.  McPherson’s essay is called “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation” and is, in my mind, the central piece of the entire collection.  I love her question because I can immediately insert any number of institutions and practices: Why is Abercrombie & Fitch so white?  Why is Wall Street so white?  Why is Hollywood so white?  Why is administration in higher education so white?  The list of possible questions is simply endless but what I like about McPherson is that she offers up some answers.

McPherson convincingly shows me that the gaps and whole-scale omissions in merging race and technological productions is an EFFECT of the designs of technological systems in post-World War II computational culture.  That’s one helluva notion, though this is surely not news for those who study this culture.   Her discussion focuses on the operating system of UNIX, the operating system for digital computers, though her discussion can also be applied to C programming given the focus on modularity.  The work of programmers then was always intimately connected to racial paradigms even if that was never the overt tactic or intention.  The logic of UNIX is, thus, a cultural logic with its:

  • embrace of multiple languages and systems that mirrors the typical mindset of neoliberal multiculturalism (the idea that a seemingly egalitarian field can exist that ignores social, material hierarchies)
  • design of covert systems that mirrors the move away from overt racism (Jim Crow signage, lynching, de jure segregation, etc) as if racism is now gone
  • focus on modularity (that now organizes capital) that mirrors the “containment” of large black, working-class/working-poor populations in city centers through the governmental housing initiatives that divested all energies and monies from de-proletarianized/ravaged black city centers
  • framing of a modular code that mirrors the bureaucratic standardization of divided disciplines and entrepenurial-inflected knowledge in the academy
  • privileging of text that mirrors post-Cold-War methodologies in the humanities that devalue context in favor of a new kind of valuing of text
My simplistic summary notwithstanding, McPherson shows that “technological formations are deeply bound up with our racial formations and that each undergo profound changes at the mid-century” so much so that these are “feedback loops supporting each other.” To use more of her words, there are “technoracial formations” where race is “a ghost in the digital machine.”  So I walk away from McPherson’s discussion ready to take on her suggestions: 1) engage David Golumbia’s work on the cultural logic of computation; 2) look past simple screens, narrative, and images and into machines and labor; 3) critically interrogate race, culture, code, and computational systems (in fact, McPherson argues that if we can learn critical theory, then we can learn code too).

For this week, with Banks’s Digital Griots at center, I am thinking about what it means to bring a consciously-determined black perspective to these discussions that McPherson has triggered for me, with the African American cultural formation of the deejay as signpost and guide.


(photos are of DJ Premier)