« Onset | Main | October Surprise: Clobber the Blogger »

Stupid Me

Before getting yesterday carried away by a gushy, embarrassing tide of love for my former and future loves, I started with the observation that

Earlier this week I made a push to begin (I always begin at the beginning) my first sustained piece of research post-dissertation. Integrating research after-the-fact has been more difficult than I ever imagined it would be. Many of the anxieties of dissertating came up, and I am realizing now that having bypassed those anxieties and having written around existing research now troubles my current writerly form.

Qualified though it may be, that’s terrific news for my research. I analyzed, fractured, and reconstituted the main components of my argument and am now in the process of recombining them, synthesizing new material along the way. Here’s the introduction to “Prototype for a Cyborg Subject” as it exists now:

Even after the publication of Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” a quarter of a century ago and bell hooks’s cultivation of a “radical postmodernism [which] calls attention to those sensibilities which are shared across the boundaries of class, gender, and race” in order to forge “ties that would promote recognition of common commitments and serve as a base for solidarity and coalition” (“Postmodern Blackness”), scholars of American literature and culture have devoted scant attention to mapping the intersections of race and cybernetics in ways that question the conflation of technical competence and white masculinity.1 As a result, several aporia manifest in the critical field regarding the nature and origins of cyborg identity, the strategies and tactics available to and employed by American racial subalterns, and the way in which race is generated and destabilized by electricity as a medium.2 The problem has many dimensions with none more significant than those which relate to origin and lineage. That is, what are the earliest literary uses of what we today call cybernetics, how do these uses intersect with race, and how does this affect our understanding of subsequent literary and cultural representations of race and cybernetics? Some of these very complicated questions can be addressed directly by considering Ralph Ellison’s 1952 Invisible Man, a novel that is considered by some to be the most important work of American fiction of its era.3

In this essay I focus my attention on Ellison’s Invisible Man using several disparate areas of critical discourse: recent criticism considering electricity in Ellison’s Invisible Man, scholarship concerning the concept of the cyborg, theories concerning the nature of media and its effects on subjectivity, and the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari pertaining to their notion of the “body without organs.” My general argument is that while the boundary between animal and machine is often construed as an ontological barrier, Ellison’s Invisible Man reconfigures this boundary as an interface whose primary substance is electricity. Electricity is a medium that binds humans to other humans and to non-humans by virtue of its abilities to carry information and to flow through the very (conductive) materials of which organisms and machines are made. In other words, electricity is well-suited for improvising networks of heterogeneous elements. Not until nearly twenty years after the publication of Invisible Man, when Marshall McLuhan identifies electricity as a medium whose “implosive factor [ . . .] alters the position of the Negro, the teen-ager, and some other groups,” is this transformative capacity of electricity more widely acknowledged. McLuhan explains that “They [the Negroes] can no longer be contained, in the political sense of limited association. They are now involved in our lives, as we in theirs, thanks to the electric media” (Understanding Media 5). McLuhan understands electricity has the power to connect groups of people who had formerly been segregated and that, more generally, it has the ability to couple entities which inhabit disparate ontological orders.4 Electricity, in other words, operates as a transducer.5


1 Cutting against the critical grain, several noteworthy studies do consider the relationship between race and cybernetics and how the myths which pervade both race and information technologies affect public perception, social policy, and cultural production. One source of such studies is a collection edited by Beth Kolko entitled, simply, Race in Cyberspace which contains a number of pioneering articles which consider race in the contexts of film, games, and the web. Included in that collection is Tara McPherson’s well-regarded “ I’ll Take My Stand in Dixie-Net” (2000) which analyzes “neo-rebel” web sites that use covert racism to underwrite the figure of “the Southern gentleman,” a figure constructed by “Southern nationalists” meant to preserve Southern heritage. Another excellent study of race and cybernetics is Thomas Foster’s The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory (2005) which concludes

Posthuman narratives ambivalently but inextricably connect empowering uses of new technologies, new possibilities for self-control and self-definition, and new possibilities for cultural diversity outside the universalizing framework of the normative human form, with increased possibilities for external control and manipulation of those possibilities. It is precisely this internal debate over the meaning of these new possibilities [. . .] that makes posthuman narrative a model for the dialectical relation critics need to develop toward new technologies and technocultures[. . . .] (244)

In “ The Multiplication of Difference in Post-Millennial Cyberpunk Film: The Visual Culture of Race in the Matrix Trilogy” (2005), Lisa Nakamura argues that the Matrix trilogy divides “interfaces” along black and white racial lines such that black characters are used to sexualize the visual frame of white interfaces at the same time those black characters are also marginalized into supporting roles for white characters. (I return to Nakamura’s concept of racialized interface in my discussion of Invisible Man's factory hospital scene.)

Such studies are the exception as the overwhelming majority of research concerning cybernetics uses Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” as a pathway to concerns of feminism, gender, and sexuality. When writing about cybernetics, rarely do writers consider issues of race even though race and its representation have deeply affected the applied uses of industrial technology and, as I argue, electric technology in the first half of the twentieth century. Even rarer are studies which attempt to understand the representation of race in the post-industrial but pre-electronic age. I discuss some such studies below.

2 The main exceptions to this critical oversight are discussions of the effects of globalization on African and Asian nations with regard to manufacturing and disposal and assessments of the “digital divide” between whites and non-whites in the United States.
3 Writing for The New York Times Book Review, A. O. Scott notes that in 1965 The New York Herald Tribune published a survey that identified Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as “ ‘the most memorable’ work of American fiction published since the end of World War II” (“In Search of the Best”).
4 This is not to say that laws such as the Fourteenth Amendment and their interpretation in cases such as Brown v. Board of Education did not play a crucial role in the creation of a more racially heterogeneous society. Electricity does not displace print so much as it, in this case, assists print’s juridical aims.
5 In his introduction to Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed, Adrian Mackenzie explains
[. . .] transduction designates both a process that lies at the heart of technicity and a mode of thought adapted to thining how collectives are involved, as Deleuze puts it, in the “establishing of communication between disparates” [(246)]. Transduction names the process that occurs as an entity individuates or precipitates in a field of relations and potentials. (N1 24-25)
Works Cited
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Foster, Thomas. The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory. Electronic Mediations: 13. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 2005.
Gillis, Stacy. The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded. London, England: Wallflower, 2005.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York, NY: Routledge, 1991: 149-181.
Kolko, Beth E., Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert B. Rodman. Race in Cyberspace. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000.
Mackenzie, Adrian. Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed. London; New York: Continuum, 2002.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
McPherson, Tara. " I'll Take My Stand in Dixie-Net." Race in Cyberspace. Eds. Beth E. Kolko, Lisa Nakamura and Gilbert B. Rodman. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000: 117-31.
Nakamura, Lisa. "The Multiplication of Difference in Post-Millennial Cyberpunk Film: The Visual Culture of Race in the Matrix Trilogy." The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded. Ed. Stacy Gillis. London, England: Wallflower, 2005: 126-37.

Oh, and what prompted this entry was my thinking about my (as of this writing) broken blog entry.1 I am going out tonight but not in costume (though I hope to shoot some video) and several thousand of my synapses realized that fifteen or twenty feet of 1"-diameter clear PVC tubing wrapped around my torso would have been the perfect costume. When someone asked me about it, I would have been able to respond, “I’m the Internet.” end of article

1 Broken because as of Friday, 27 October, YouTube has removed all Comedy Central clips from its servers, including clips of the Daily Show. For now, Google video still has some Comedy Central content available on its servers. I may be fixing my broken blog entry in the next day or so.