Post-Surveillance, Literacies, and Digital Empire

A colleague told me about a student who missed class due to a claimed family illness or something like that.  While the student was, supposedly, sick and out of town, he was, in fact, in town and tweeting about being drunk and the fun he was having.  A student who I never met, but heard a lot about, once posted crazy rantings about the violence he would inflict on campus on Facebook, as a joke, only to find campus security at his door the next day.  Now, in general, I tend to see such young people as hopelessly clueless and want, desperately, to ask them: have you lost your d#%& mind?   But I also know of a graduate student who got fired from a student services job because she posted compromising photos of herself and her co-workers on facebook.  That wasn’t an 18-year old, who we can somewhat dismiss for youthful foolishness; that was a graduate student somewhere in her late twenties.  I could tell countless stories like this and have heard countless other stories from other folk.  There is a kind of general discourse that this generation simply does not erect barriers to their private and public identities the way someone in my generation might— a post-civil rights baby, born in the early 70s, who grew up in the 80s.  But the issues of private-vs-public as a generational marker and difference between myself and the foolishness I have described is too simple.  I think there is more going on here and I think it has to do with my generation and those before me understanding, living in, or living immediately after what was a pretty explicit, surveillance culture.  Clearly, young people’s digital presence is surveilled given how easily and quickly all of these folks got caught doing this mess.  However, few seem to expect that surveillance will exist.

Image.ashxI get why privileged/elite/white youth might not think they are being surveilled.  If you have been taught (even if only implicitly so) that you are at the center of the world and given a material reality to support that view, then why would you feel like you are not in complete control?  But for racially, subordinated groups, what accounts for this lack of insight?  This is where the embodied and inherited awareness of an explicit surveillance culture becomes a generational marker for me.  When I was in college in 1991, Clay Carson, as just one example, had just published Malcolm X: The FBI File. At that time, there simply had not been a great deal of “serious” biographical and historical research on Malcolm, to quote from Carson.   In 1978, when I was seven years old, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) made documents like Malcolm’s FBI file (file 100-399321) accessible, available even at many university research libraries.  In 1987, the FBI also released the New York office file on Malcolm (file 105-8999) based on 1964 surveillance of Malcolm’s home phone.   The point is: when Carson’s book was released, the energy on campus was palpable because the things we had really only heard rumors of in our communities were now collected in one book.  I have owned many copies of the book since undergrad, but have never been able to keep it on a shelf given the many borrowings and non-returns.  The book is as much a part of my youth as the Autobiography.

ty4f97d632I learned of things like the FBI having files on Malcolm and every RADICAL from rap lyrics, everyday discourses of the people around me, and PBS’s 1987 broadcast of Eyes on the Prize.  No one ever told me any of these things in school.  I also knew what COINTELPRO was before anyone ever mentioned it in a college classroom. I knew that this was one helluva operation given the way it manifested the brutal murder of Fred Hampton in his bed, while his pregnant girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (Akua Njeri) was right there watching.  Even wikipedia has photos of the bloody bed and of Hampton’s body being dragged out.

tumblr_lf6xfzMGFp1qc0pg7o1_1280I could also see very clearly the black male students on campus, my friends, being followed by campus security and never traveling alone at night.  Meanwhile, white male students would openly and defiantly do all manner of mischief with impunity.  You do not need to tell me, now or before, that institutions patrol your body and your politics. So how have so many young people of color missed this point?  How and why are young people from racially subordinated groups so confident that they are free online (or anywhere)?  Where would such young people get such a notion when we STILL do not have the privilege that can afford the opportunity to go all over town, making a fool out of ourselves (like the white male students who I have described)?  I don’t mean to denigrate young people here or even suggest they aren’t informed.  Anyone would have been hard-pressed to label me as conscious when I was 18 or 19 years old.  In fact, I am more critical of teachers/scholars who want to act like we can teach technological/digital tools neutrally outside of interrogations of current and historical patterns of structural racism.  I only mean to suggest that many in this generation of college students have witnessed Black Freedom Struggles as commodified resistance given the changes in the organization of capital, media, and knowledge.  They have not always experienced a lived history and everyday discourse of institutional surveillance and its violence.  Many have certainly witnessed the patrolling/policing of their public spaces (i.e., via the NYPD for Walking While Black, Driving While Black, etc).  malcolm-x-with-rifle-e1332775977757But not enough understand that private spaces and social networks offer exactly the same kind of thing under structured racism and oppression, not in the way that generations before them did where every other dorm-room on my campus seemed to carry the same visual reminder that we were always being watched: the infamous poster of Malcolm looking out his window with a rifle in hand.

More importantly, I think that it is lethally dangerous for young people of color to imagine that they will be free in a digital empire.  They can fight for and take their freedom (or, as Malcolm might say: swing up on some freedom), as Black people always have, but it will not be freely given. This will mean, in part, taking back the discourse on and dissemination of knowledge about Black Freedom Struggles so that it can be a practice… a literacy skills-set… and an ideology… rather than merely another object of academic analysis or a rhyming gimmick/jingle for McDonald’s or BET.  Fighting for freedom in digital empire can, in the least, start there.

“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)

ePedagogy vs. eCommerce

As I write this, I am looking at an ad from a major department store (I will leave the store unnamed so as to avoid giving it further advertisement).  I received this mini-catalogue in the mail, though I did not supply this store with my address.  In the catalogue, I am promised some kind of free gift if I pin them, follow them on tumblr, follow them on twitter, Facebook-friend them, use/view instagram, watch them on youtube, download their shopping app, and visit their blog; and these shopping suggestions are presented in a circle as if one thing cannot stand alone. All that AND a catalog mailed to my home too!  “This is just crazy” is what I first said aloud.

Needless to say, I am probably on the left end of the spectrum, always interrogating new modes of capitalism and the ways it structures thought and behavior.  Technology is never immune to the critique since new technologies make new modes of capitalism possible and vice versa. However, I am not necessarily inclined to reject all new technologies simply because they have been co-opted for hyper-consumerism. Obviously, we need to build radical community uses of digital media for our own purposes in a world that co-opts all technologies for consumerist purposes.  This seems to apply to college students especially since they are the target consumers for seemingly EVERYTHING. And that’s just my point here: we need to know when we are being co-opted.  When I meet other people of color who are suspicious of new technologies for its co-opting, I do not assume they are tech-phobes, too primitive to understand the advanced world, or merely indulging conspiracy theories.  I know that people’s histories with institutions (COINTELPRO did, after all, also use the new technologies of its time) can never be ignored. I like to hear these suspicions and analyses that keep my social observations sharp.

I think back to the first time I ever used blackboard (a learning management system bought by many colleges) in my classes circa 2000.  There were uses of it that I have always found invaluable (archiving 100s of assignments and digital texts, for example) but I never fell for the incessant, institutional dogma that insisted blackboard would save my teaching. There were two problems with this dogma for me. The first was that if we simply co-opted young people’s uses of and inclinations towards new technologies into our own curriculum and instruction (without the need to really change any of that), then we will capture their interests.  The second issue for me was this notion that students could be tricked into experiencing their classrooms as something other than impersonal, post-industrial, large lecture halls because they could post questions on blackboard (or, in today’s parlance, tweet their professor and 300 classmates).  This all seemed rather convenient to university’s budgets: there is no compelling need to rethink large lecture-based classes and, therefore, hire more tenure-track faculty, build new spaces, or create smaller learning communities.  You can just pack all the students in, make them feel like they are making real-time connections by co-opting their favorite means of social networking, and collect money from them in the process without really having to shell any out. Convenient, indeed.  This is all the more relevant when you consider Manny Marable’s argument (in Wells of Democracy) that universities (private universities, especially) often function today like Fortune 500 companies.   Convenient, indeed.

When I think of schooling’s uses of technologies, I think of scholars like Ngugi and Walter Rodney. They remind us that those students who were supposed to be the passive recipients of the empire’s models and modes came back to bite the empire in the behind with the very education that was supposed to domesticate them.  That’s all that keeps me going on those days when my college students and me are publicly asked to “brand” ourselves using new social networks. As a descendant of enslaved Africans, the legalized branding of my person and body stopped with the Emancipation Proclamation so I simply can’t see taking on this language or EVER using it with black students in a classroom.  This is when I think back to the black college students of the HBCUs who were the catalysts for a new sit-in movement (like the Greensboro Four from North Carolina AT&T on February 1, 1960 pictured at the top of this post) and a branch and method of Civil Rights protests that perhaps no one foresaw: black college students who questioned the ways their bodies and minds were socially patrolled as part and parcel of a new kind of educational curricula that they shaped and defined for themselves.  I find hope for the future looking at these patterns of the past.

I tend to get worried when I am simply expected to plug in information into an institution’s pre-determined templates where my needs, social-political purposes, linguistic designs, vernacular imaginations, and aesthetic philosophies are never consulted or regarded.  Even though I get worried, I always remember how domestication, co-opting, and colonizing never fully work, never really take with color-conscious people (the term I use to mark a politics distinct from color-blindness).  Capitalism tends to contradict itself and that’s where those little fissures of new possibility get magnified.  A blind allegiance to the kind of eCommerce awaiting me in my mailbox won’t ever be the full picture.  A radical ePedagogy for people of color will always be possible as long as we do what we have always done: question the how and why of what institutions do.

eRace & New (Digital) Empire

When I listen to discussions about new technologies and digital pedagogies, I am always struck by how alien that discourse is from the historical and political experiences of African Americans.   This is, of course, no surprise given the ways that schools under racial apartheid could hardly foster a culturally or politically relevant education for people of African descent. But the nature and contour of these disconnections are worth examining.

I am reminded of conversations that I have heard about people’s general anxiety and discomfort about the public nature of digital texts.  I certainly agree with this stance but, at times, quite honestly, the paranoia seems completely unfounded to me.  This anxiety comes from an assumption that feels more nested with privilege than with any reality that I can see.  The underlying assumption goes something like this: when I show up, everyone will notice.  Meanwhile, the amount of time, care, and attention that bloggers and website designers must give to bring regular, continual “traffic” to their site is immense.  In terms of a digital universe, you do not simply post online products and have multiple readers and followers right away who then stay with you. What would make people think otherwise?  So another assumption operating here is this: as soon as I speak/write, people are listening.  I can’t imagine a reality more foreign to women of color.  I can’t pinpoint when and where I first learned this lesson but I can be sure that, as a woman of color (unless I am trying to be like or only “theorize” the likes of Basketball Wives, etc), mainstream perspective-bearers are seldom listening and if they are, it is often from the place of hostility, feigned interest, paternalism, or resistance.  I don’t know what it is like to assume that when I speak, write, or post online, or anywhere, that I have an immediate  and/or large audience.   That’s a kind of privilege I simply have not experienced.

Then there is another discourse that I hear a lot, a discourse that I myself have been working diligently to avoid: the issue of control.   I often hear this idea that in a digital universe, you can control your public image and presence.  Now that’s another hard pill for me to swallow.  At what point in history have black folk been able to control their public image?   I mean, really! Do we need to be reminded of what happened to Trayvon Martin for Walking while Black, wearing a hoodie and eating skittles?   Do we need to be reminded of the endless questioning of President Obama’s citizenship and birth status?  A black president can’t even control THAT!  This idea that people can control their public presence just reeks of a privileged mindset and history that I can’t understand as anything other than empire. This is not to say that communities of color have no agency, that we are mere victims of an onslaught of visual images that present us as animals.   We must, of course, actively construct our images and public presence in a world that is seeking to deny our humanity.  There is, after all, a word for that: RHETORIC.  The issue of control is a serious one for me because it is a concept so alien to how people of color have needed to imagine and operate in public spaces that it is void of any meaning for us.  I think here of a blog that I follow— the Crunk Feminist Collective— who quite forthrightly present themselves as inserting an unapologetic crunk, black, of/color, contemporary feminist discourse into the public sphere.  In my mind, that’s a very specific audience and yet, when I read the folk who comment regularly to the collective’s posts, I am often baffled that so many folks outside of that political vision assume the right to try and “correct” what the Crunk Feminists are doing, saying, and theorizing with an often unashamed homophobia, sexism, and/or racism.  To their credit, the Crunk Feminists handle them fools something lovely, which all brings me back to my original point: some of us simply can’t control our image and public presence in a capitalistic, racist, heterosexist world. But we DO fight for the right to have that public presence and resistance.

I will call my last point of disconnection the Sleeping Beauty complex.  As an educator, I see a wide continuum of how people relate to technology: on one far end are the people who fetishize any and every new thing; way on the other end are the folk who demonize anything related to technology (often while maintaining a Facebook account, of course); in between is a whole range of perspectives and experiences.  The folk who baffle me most though are those sitting and waiting for the institution to tell them exactly what to do and to train them exactly how to do it.  The kind of trust you must have in institutions to sit, wait, and expect all that is just not something I can relate to.  That kind of passivity and faith means that you don’t really understand or critique institutions as spaces in place and time that invent and sustain power, presumably because you share that power.   Or, similarly, you want a piece of that power and are waiting for the opportunity to cash in.  For me, this kind of Sleeping Beauty complex where I wait for the king to arrive means giving up all self-determination: the desire to willingly forego my own decision-making and meaning-making by simply waiting for the institution/empire to tell me what to do, in other words, to bestow its imprint on me.  That kind of waiting only works for  those who already expect and represent power, which simply has not been the historical experience of black communities.

While these expectations related to audience, control of public presence, and the benevolent caretaking of  institutions seem so simple and “everyday”, they are deeply invested in social hierarchies. Since I do not sit at the top of these hierarchies, the view down here gives me a different perspective on how and why these everyday topics circulate.  These are perspectives that digitally-emboldened, color-conscious students also need to hear and think about.