For more essays in this series:
2) Antiracism in the Contemporary University (series of essays)
TUNG-HUI HU: Christine, the work we’ve done on race and the internet is a little unorthodox. Normally, conversations on that topic understand race as an identity category. Some scholars of digital inequality gather population-level data on racial and ethnic groups to describe unequal modes of access, while others explore how different groups are harmed by racism and new technology, for example, in how algorithms perform digital “redlining.” The movement to advocate for more racial and ethnic diversity at tech companies still understands race as a problem of representation: if Google hires more persons of color, so the thinking goes, perhaps Google’s algorithms will be less biased.
CHRISTINE GODING-DOTY: And in that collection of studies, I hear the lineage of what started as questions of the digital divide — inequities and segregations reproduced in the digital era that manifest in unequal access to the device (as users or as tech workers), or in the biased programming within it. Then, there is the work on race and technology that has framed race as a kind of code. That scholarship has helped us to account for databases and the association of certain traits with certain racial groups or mechanisms of digital racialization, which is also, in a way, about digital modes of representation.
But your approach to understanding race starts by shedding our attachment to representation. The internet makes it easier to do that kind of work, because it complicates our desire to assign racial identities to each person. You’ve described internet sites such as Tumblr as archives of the event of race, while for my part, I’ve turned to aesthetics to better describe the complicated and often involuted feelings produced by racial capitalism.
Can you say more about your method? And could you give an example of how race operates on a mundane, day-to-day basis, how whiteness and even coloniality looks like in the less spectacular regions of the internet?
I think that’s a great starting point — it gets at how the conversation that you and I are having is slightly different from how race is normally talked about in humanities and digital studies. In my work, I theorize race itself as an event. Here, I draw from affect theory, which focuses on what emerges between bodies, and it suggests that the way bodies come into being is through their relation and interaction. Approaching race-as-event means that we can change the lexicon we’ve put around race from one of race-as-identity, or something that we have, to something that’s done; not necessarily something performative that we do, but something that’s happening, that is emerging between bodies.
Pushing a little further, thinking about race as an event allows us to conceptualize a body emerging through multiple events of race that are happening simultaneously. Any single body exists in and as the product of its relation with so many other bodies simultaneously. I want to quickly work through an example of what it could mean to think of these kinds of relating bodies in the digital context. We have to keep in mind that the body is not outside its relation. And to point to the relation is to point to the bodies that are relating. So, in the digital context, we might first notice the internet interactions users are having with other users. Or, the relation initiated between the user and the algorithm. Widening the scope of the bodies involved in digital interaction, we can then bring into view the infrastructure that allows us to have this Zoom conversation, for example; the relationship between Zoom’s infrastructure and colonial infrastructure; the bodies of the infrastructure and the land it occupies. These are really large events of relating that we’re embedded in when we’re on the internet. They exist at scales that make it hard to perceive them. And they enable the interactions that we have with digital material, and other interactions we have online, on a mundane/“always-on” scale, which normalize race or make it seem like what’s happening is either not racial, or not colonial.
In the work I’ve done on Tumblr, I’ve focused on a feature of Tumblr called pale blogs. I looked at how anonymous pale bloggers, generating these huge archives of images that were filtered to look faded and foggy, produced a kind of intense desire for what really looks like frontier — empty land, terra nullius. Participating in the aesthetic and being activated by these lands devoid of human beings — presented as a desirable object — is a way of “doing” coloniality that doesn’t depend on how you identify. It’s sort of small, but it has an intensity. And whether or not the desirous relation between the pale blogger and the image of land was actively intended as an overt lust for frontier, that relation hosted on Tumblr was already enabled by suboceanic cables and server farms, which are emerging in and emerging as ongoing colonial relationships.
If my question is “how are we doing race through the internet,” or what does it look like, part of the method is zooming out. I’m not really interested in finding a specific person about whom I can say, “This person is doing something racial and that’s bad.” I’m not looking for that spectacular moment. I want to zoom out and ask, “What is the network of relationships that are being supported by this larger infrastructure that is material … and also kind of immaterial and nonrepresentational?”
A landscape of faded, muted colors is removed from what most people might think of whiteness — for instance, a white nationalist group — and yet that landscape reveals how a colonialist mentality about the frontier gets reinscribed with each reblog. To be sure, the internet’s neo-colonialism is often explicit, and sometimes so glaringly obvious that it gets overlooked; I’m reminded of artist Keith Obadike’s discussion of how you could use a browser named Explorer or Safari to navigate through the Amazon and trade in the eBay. But most of the time, coloniality has diffused in many different ways; it doesn’t rely on the explicit appearance of power but can instead be found in the smallest of places.
One direction your work takes is to show that coloniality isn’t just done by human bodies. You mentioned the building that you’re in at the University of Wisconsin is already sitting on indigenous land and therefore it’s a nonhuman body that’s doing race.
Yes, I wrote an essay called “White Event Horizon” for the fourth volume of MONDAY Journal, White Pictures, edited by artist Danny Giles. In that piece, I tried to think about what the event of race and whiteness looks like and to offer a definition of race as the modulation of an affective horizon — the modulation of how bodies can affect and be affected by other bodies — according to colonial taxonomy. Since I’m interested in moving away from the human body, I turned my attention to the body of the building that I was writing the essay in and the body of the land that the building is standing on. In the essay, I try to draw out the idea that the standing of a building is an ongoing process; it’s in the gerund. In standing, it is doing the long event of displacing the native authority and emerging as the University of Wisconsin, which is directly linked to the state. That relation between the building and the land is ongoing beyond, before, and after my personal relation with the Center for the Humanities.
Layered on that reading, we may examine how we inhabit the relation, by which I mean, the relations we enter into with the state university building. Even if, in the best case, the work we’re doing inside is radical, we’re not generally taking the building apart. We’re using it. And in how we’re using it, we’re also drawing upon/instantiating/making present the authority of the state of Wisconsin and the United States. So, in entering the Center for the Humanities, I am implicated in the unfolding of the colonial event. Meaning, that is one of the events of race within which I, as a human body, may be in relation with a range of other human or nonhuman bodies.
In one of my classes, I was teaching Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s brilliant book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, which theorizes the imperialist drive of museums. She articulates the concept of a “citizen perpetrator,” expanding the category of citizen of the West to account for how the citizen is implicated in the activities and investments of the nation. I’m interested in a similar kind of gesture. We can focus on the actions and intentions and relations of human beings, but we’re not just sitting here. Every one of us is in rooms full of stuff. We depend on a lot of infrastructure. That means we’re dependent on the ongoing events and investments that that infrastructure is already implicated in — which includes the buildings that we’re in and the pipes, cables, data centers, and all the rest of it.
I think part of the reason why I’m interested in looking at the internet and digital interaction in order to track our implication in colonial relations is because that colonial relationship is already very abstract. We may not necessarily associate a house or building that’s been sitting on the same land for centuries as something that is moving forward in the imperial conquest. It’s hard to think of it as acting. But on the internet, I think digital activity gives us the action back. It gives us so much action that the temporality of the internet verges on the unmanageable and unmappable. People do things on the internet one moment that get recorded and rediscovered at a later time. The remains of those earlier actions go viral, which then means tons of people are being (re)activated in relation to those objects or previous events. They have happened, and yet are new and ongoing, circulating in the intensities of digital attention, not linear time. There’s something about the temporality of the internet that can be a good heuristic to track the similarly abstract temporality of race as it’s happening in real space and through abstract and aesthetic forms.
You talked earlier about how race is habituated, especially on the internet, where race is done continuously, even when we don’t notice those events as “raced.” You’ve also written that the body isn’t a static identity category (for instance, “Asian”), but rather the product of all of these continuous actions.
How do we think about this temporality? One way to get at that question is through performance, something that interests both of us. I’ve been thinking about dancer Nibia Pastrana Santiago’s work retracing and performing in the neocolonial spaces of global logistics — container ships and logistical warehouses in the San Juan Bay; cables and securitized zones in New York City. You take up Wafaa Bilal’s performance Domestic Tension, about him living in a gallery with an internet-connected paintball gun, which allows any bystander to shoot at him. Its original title was “Shoot an Iraqi.” What does it mean to restage colonial relations in this piece — or reperform them after the framework of violence has already been set up?
The way that I think of Bilal’s performance — and Pastrana Santiago’s performance fits into this — is that, to a certain extent, we can say that they’re restaging a relation or maybe reinhabiting it. But those colonial relations that are the material of their pieces are also ongoing. The War on Terror has never ended; the US refuses to recognize itself as an imperial power but still holds Puerto Rico. So any association we make with those colonial events as “past” is a function of the kind of archival authority of the United States. Azoulay makes this point about the function of the archive beautifully. Things brought into the archive get relegated to the past in their being archived, and come to be designated as “over” in some way through the authority of the archive.
But when I say Bilal or Pastrana Santiago restage the events, I don’t want to suggest that they bring the events out of the past. Rather, Bilal and Pastrana Santiago relocate some part of the events in their ongoingness. Their performances transmit the events of the War on Terror or Puerto Rico’s colonization into bodies that seem like they’re physically disassociated from the events; but they are completely capable of inhabiting that relation and drawing us into it in more explicit ways. It’s not like we’re not already part of the relation between the US and the War on Terror or Puerto Rico. It’s just that, depending on how that relation impinges on us in our everyday lives, we may or may not actively perceive our embeddedness in it.
I also think they’re making explicit some part of that asynchronous or very long event of coloniality in those performances. All of the action of it might not necessarily register here to us in the metropole in the same way it registers in territories outside of the US. But in staging the relation, in a mode of entanglement, the artists are opening a space for that event to be seen to be happening in the current temporality — in the space where the state insists it is not. The state insists its colonial event is not happening through the bodies here and not an event that bodies here are emerging within.
To me, this demonstrates the contingency of the event of race. In thinking of race as an event, I’ve said I want to move away from the status we give it as a set object, an identity, something that is, that you have. And not because I’m necessarily trying to think about what we do next, and what resistance looks like, but I do take seriously the idea that we have to be capable of imagining otherwise. So in thinking about the events of race in which we are relating, we have to imagine that there’s some mode of engaging bodies that does not produce race or coloniality or is not compatible with the norms and desires of modern power. I don’t know what those necessarily look like all the time because we’re in so many events at once. But the ability to stage those colonial events the state wants to hide, to disrupt the physical distance between where the action is taking place and the overlapped temporality of those events, highlights our participation to make it less of a given and opens the possibility that we might interrupt its habituated unfolding.
The internet is a dumpster fire these days, but it’s also an easy target; criticizing tech companies is one of the few issues that unites Democrats and Republicans. But in describing it as a crisis, in identifying a problem in, say, the filter bubble, or by looking for ways to fight back against tech companies, we subscribe to a narrative that these problems are recent phenomena caused by digital technology. As a result, we lose sight of the slow violence of the colonial legacy that has been lingering for centuries. And, for me, that rush to fix things or to identify a spot of resistance — here’s where I think our work overlaps again — keeps us from thinking about the perplexing temporality of race.
Part of the reason why I keep repeating the idea of asynchronous events, is because events of race don’t all start at the same time, and some are ongoing while some are very short. So, I do want to be able to account for the ways race is happening between human bodies — we can think of examples like microaggressions and physical violence, or on the opposite side, the modulation of a body’s ability to affect you “positively” because we’re meant to be in a community with each other based on our colonial taxonomic designation. Those all happen in the span of a minute or a day; while they’re happening in buildings that have been standing for decades; while they’re being performed by citizens of the nation that is perpetually inaugurated by the colonial enterprise of the United States, and therefore exists as a relation several centuries long. I’m tempted to try to represent it visually in text like one half of a math problem (keeping in mind that I’m taking serious poetic license with math) whose components act multiply on each other, like: ((((momentary human interaction) buildings) citizens) national colonial enterprise).
I think that pushes us to think about technology differently, and is why, drawing from Ruha Benjamin’s work, technological fixes don’t necessarily work. It’s not enough to create new algorithms to fix bias within facial recognition software, because those fixes don’t interrupt the major infrastructural events of all of the other hardware and software that maintains some kind of compatible outcome with colonial power.
This is one of the things I’ve found so compelling in your work. In A Prehistory of the Cloud, you name what I think are these larger events of race we don’t often think about, but which are ongoing generally without issue. The fiber optic cables laying along US railroad tracks are doing the event of colonial occupation, as are the pollution and toxicity of the materials used in the manufacture of the Arctic fiber optic cable. And those events are happening beyond, and in excess of, the human bodies that built the infrastructure, and in excess of how those bodies are specifically racialized. So on the one hand, the erasure of Chinese labor is its own kind of event of coloniality. But on the other, the bodies of the cables themselves — frontiersman-cables in the Arctic, and settler-colonial-heirs in the Ruwedel photograph you reference, if we want to anthropomorphize them — are necessarily still doing their colonial events in order for TikTokers to engage in what is hailed now as digital protest, flooding the Dallas Police Department’s iWatch Dallas app with K-pop, for example. Your work offers such a rich example of how to dissociate the notion of digital activity from something that emerges from the user’s experience and resituate it elsewhere, almost away from the screen, in this much more expanded view. Would you comment a little on what you gain analytically by thinking about these other kinds of digital activity?
For me, studying the internet is always about more than the literal apps or computer protocols or posts by users. Infrastructure studies can help expand the field, potentially unearthing the material and cultural assemblages that repeatedly mediate and produce what we think of as the technological and the digital, whether that’s the railroad or the internet; personhood or personalization; audiences or participation. This is to say: User experience is important, yes, but first we should understand how the “user” was produced.
To understand that story, we might consider the data bunkers that help us understand the invention of the user as a liberal agent of freedom. The bunkers are doing race by making a claim about the internet as a frontier and by conjuring the unfreedom that their blast-resistant walls and access gates supposedly protect the user against. We should look at the historical split between client and server, where the servers today appear to be sophisticated computers or AI agents but in fact are only partially new forms of gendered and racialized service work. And we should consider the outsourcing platforms, cables, and legal codes that connect imperial centers with their former or de facto colonies, allowing US tech giants to seamlessly hire Philippine subcontractors to process and clean data before it is rendered by algorithm and then viewed by users. To put all this together is to get a sense of how all these events overlap, often out of view or outside of our definition of the digital, to form the digital.
Throughout our conversation, I’ve been reminded of Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism. The kneejerk turn toward fixes betrays an undue faith in the liberal subject who has made some mistake, and through his ingenuity can fix that mistake. In the beginning of Discourse on Colonialism, Césaire says, “A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.” To me, that line doesn’t merely insist that there’s a perpetual failure to create new tools that solve recent problems. Rather it points to the idea that if you cannot solve the problems you create by applying the same kind of solution, you create a decadent indulgence. The liberal subject applies more liberalism to the problems of liberalism (of which he is one). The warning Césaire offers is that we may collectively indulge a set of colonial relationships without being able to think outside of them.
Part of moving away from the technological fix is to recognize that you can’t rely on the technology of the modern age to be some new, neutral thing that is not doing race or coloniality. Wendy Chun has demonstrated this for us in pointing out how race itself is a technology. The colonial project has always relied on the latest technology of its day. Transporting millions of people across oceans, creating monocultural plantation societies, those are also kinds of technologies. So, this idea that the technology that we have now is fundamentally distinct from other colonial technologies of the colonial era, invented for the sake of establishing colonial rule, is a decadent liberal progress narrative that won’t help us address race and coloniality in the end.
Tung-Hui Hu is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Greenhouses, Lighthouses (Copper Canyon Press, 2013), and a study of digital culture, A Prehistory of the Cloud (MIT Press, 2015). A former fellow of the NEA and the American Academy in Berlin, he is an associate professor of English at the University of Michigan.
Christine Goding-Doty is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Previously, she was an A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow with the Center for the Humanities and the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.