The Unbearable Whiteness of Being1:
African American Critical Theory and Cyberculture
(A shorter version of this article was published in the October 1996
issue of WIRED Magazine.)
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian,
the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with
second-sight in this American world--a world which yields him no true
self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the
other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense
of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's
soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever
feels his twoness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two
unreconciled arrivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged
strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife--this
longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a
better and truer self.
(W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903)
In cyberspace, it is finally possible to completely and utterly disappear
people of color. I have long suspected that the much vaunted "freedom" to shed
the "limiting" markers of race and gender on the Internet is illusory, and that
in fact it masks a more disturbing phenomenon--the whitinizing of cyberspace.
The invisibility of people of color on the Net has allowed white-controlled and
white-read publications like WIRED to simply elide questions of race.2
The irony of this invisibility is that African American critical theory
provides very sophisticated tools for the analysis of cyberculture, since
African American critics have been discussing the problem of multiple
identities, fragmented personae, and liminality for over a hundred years. But
WIRED readers and writers aren't familiar with this rich body of critical
theory, and so we are presented with articles like "Sex, Lies, and Avatars,"
which fawn uncritically over Sherry Turkle's supposedly groundbreaking work in
Life on the Screen.
Turkle's work is interesting, as far as it goes, but limited in its scope.
Instead of looking to Lacan (who, like Turkle, works in a white, European
tradition), she might have more profitably turned her eyes closer to home. If
Turkle had read W.E.B. DuBois, she might not have had to wait "more than twenty
years after meeting the ideas of Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari" to
find an environment in which these "Gallic abstractions" were "more concrete."
(Life, p. 15) Turkle (and WIRED) are always already talking about the white
self, and even within that category, a limited set of the white self: middle-
to upper-class, educated, usually male. This privileged white self becomes the
normative self, the "we" of WIRED and, unfortunately, of most of the Net.
But the struggle of African-Americans is precisely the struggle to integrate
identity and multiplicity, and the culture(s) of African-Americans can surely
be understood as perfect models of the "postmodern" condition, except that they
predate postmodernism by hundreds of years, and thus contradict the notion that
the absence of the (illusion of) unitary self is something new. Cyberpunk
writers have felt this resonance, and that is why Gibson's Net is populated by
loas, deities from the voudou religion of the Caribbean; why Emma Bull's
protagonist in Bone Dance is ridden by the same gods; why Stirling's Islands
in the Net features Rasta-based characters.3 The "culture of simulation" is
no different from "the culture" for people of color in this country, who have
been "inventing" themselves, their multiple selves" as they go along, and
"constructing the world, too" (as Ellison's Invisible Man constructed his
underground room, illuminated by stolen power).
I'm reminded of a science fiction workshop I took in 1976. Ted Sturgeon, a
great teacher, assigned us to write a science fiction story that answered the
question, "Why don't black people write science fiction?" Ted was progressive,
a good man. He asked the question honestly. We all wrote stories about how the
day-to-day struggle for survival left black folks no time or energy to
construct fantasies. I took Ted's word that there were no black science
fiction writers. But Ted was wrong, and I was wrong, and it took me a long
time to understand that white publishers and the white science fiction
establishment, and white critics simply couldn't see African-American science
fiction, just like the white guy who bumps into Ellison's Invisible Man can't
see him, even as the Invisible Man beats the crap out of him. George Schuyler
wrote science fiction back in the 1930s. Ralph Ellison wrote it in the 1950s.
Sam Greenlee wrote it in the 1960s. Octavia Butler, Sam Delany, Toni Bambara,
Toni Morrison, and Ishmael Reed have been writing it for the last couple of
decades. The work is out there, but nobody talking about cyberspace pays the
least bit of attention to it.
Just like no one talking about hypertext pays attention to Henry Louis Gates,
Jr., whose description of the Ifa (Yoruba sacred texts) could be a model for
Its system of interpretation turns upon a marvelous combination of geomancy and
textual exegesis, in which sixteen palm nuts are "dialed" sixteen times, and
their configurations or signs then read and translated into the appropriate,
fixed literary verse that the numerical signs signify.... These verse
texts,whose meanings are lushly metaphorical, ambiguous, and enigmatic,
function as riddles, which the propitiate must decipher and apply as is
appropriate to his or her own quandary." (Signifying Monkey: 10).
The god Ifa writes the texts, and the god Esu translates them, and it is
exactly this translator-god who has metamorphosed into the Trickster figure of
contemporary African-American culture. That the Trickster inhabits the Net is
undeniable--he is, in fact, the essence of the Net. Gates'
Trickster/Signifying Monkey (and it's no accident that African-Americans were
using "signify" as a verb long before the postmodernists picked it up) embodies
various black rhetorical tropes, including "marking, loud-talking, testifying,
calling out (of one's name), sounding, rapping, playing the dozens, and so on."
(52) Net culture can easily be understood in these terms--the Signifying Monkey
is surely the Father of Flames.
We don't need "a whole new set of metaphors for thinking about the
unconscious." We need, as a culture, to pay attention to the theory and
literature of those among us who have long been wrestling with multiplicity.
There are many things about e-space which are not new. Yes, the Internet gives
us more people writing, but I'm afraid that at the moment it give us more of
the same people writing. Let's see some real difference.
1. My friend and colleague Ben Arnett used this title as a subheader his paper,
"Pac Man, Patriots, and the High Tech Post Baby-Boom Postmodern Culture" (Viet
Nam Generation 6:3-4, 1994: 36-52). Though I believe I came to this title
independently of Ben, I can't swear it. Memory is notoriously flawed.
2. Do not be mislead by the presence of this article in the pages of WIRED.
Eight-hundred words can name the problem, but not begin to bridge the gap.
3. Gibson's loas in Neuromancer bear an uncanny resemblance to the loas in
Toni Cade Bambara's novel, The Salt Eaters--a novel of the struggle
for civil rights in which the protagonist moves through a world inhabited by
loas and visited by space aliens. And Stirling's Islands in the Net features
a sun tan cream which turns everyone who uses it black; he was most likely
unaware that a Harlem Renaissance writer named George Schuyler had written a
very popular novel called Black No More in which a black doctor invented a
machine to turn black folks white almost overnight, totally overturning the
social order. Whether they know it or not, these cyberpunk writers and many
others have precedents in African-American literature.