“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)

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.