Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America
Author: Martin Kevorkian
Publisher: Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006
Review Published: December 2007
Have you ever stood and stared at it? Marveled at its beauty, its genius? Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)Any author who joins a discussion of his own work runs the risk, in the performance of a not-so-indirect self-regard, of sounding a bit like Agent Smith. But as I am genuinely grateful to Cristina Lopez and Paul Khalil Saucier for their attentive reviews of Color Monitors, I am happy to take this opportunity to acknowledge their perspectives, especially as those perspectives highlight elements and dimensions not fully apparent within the Color Monitors matrix.
In response to Lopez's review, I'd like to make a couple of specific observations on Congo and Office Space, and a more general methodological point, one that I find generously explained by Saucier's account.
I agree that the film version of Congo, expounded by Lopez, departs significantly from the Crichton novel which I quote for my reading. And I am intrigued by Lopez's reading of Amy the gorilla as a cyborg who troubles civilized/primitive and culture/nature binaries. Such a recuperative view of the film could be placed in productive tension with Cary Wolfe's (2003) critique of Congo as a neocolonial exercise in "Faux Posthumanism." I would celebrate, along with Lopez, the potential for technology to take on a positive value. But Lopez's terms for such a valuation derive from Haraway, and I would maintain that Haraway's values are demonstrably not Crichton's. I place Crichton's 1980 novel alongside his 1983 handbook on How to Think About Computers, in which he does indeed associate the "primitive" with proximity to the machine, something to be avoided by "most of us."
Office Space takes up the perspective of those who have been unable to avoid such proximity. While I evidently made insufficiently clear that I do not mean always to "conflate technophobia and hostility towards corporations," I am interested in a category of narratives, emerging in 1990s, that performs that conflation, and Office Space provides a signal example. The hero of Office Space dedicates his action to the principle that "human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day." He hates his job in what Lopez resonantly describes as a "soul-killing corporate work environment," in no small part because that job compels him "look through thousands of lines of code."
Lopez usefully draws attention to a key aspect of this story, one towards which my analysis gestures only briefly: the happy ending, wherein the pale male protagonist gains liberation from his cubicle enslavement. The essential story arc of Office Space takes the hero from being trapped -- indeed, cowering -- in his cubicle and delivers him into a state that transcends the high-tech corporate workspace. As I argued, the same story arc applies to another notable film from 1999, The Matrix. But I neglected to comment on the specific forms of these films' ultimate visions of escape. For The Matrix, the message and image is simple enough: Neo delivers his power-trip line to the "system," in adolescent assertion of "a world without rules and controls," and then does his Superman thing, zooming skyward. Office Space ends just as Lopez notes, with the hero taking a "blue-collar construction job." We last see him, alongside his he-man buddy, shoveling through the ashes of Initech (the prior image, the last shot of the workplace fire, focuses on the burning of one of the much-hated cubicles). Though his tech-buddies, a bespectacled white-guy and a much put-upon South Asian, offer to find him a new tech job, the hero declines: "No thanks. I'm doing good here." In a closing remark, the hero romanticizes the virtues of his new situation: "getting exercise, working outside." This escapist fantasy emphasizes his perception of the lowly status accorded him in his prior cubicle confinement: though he has taken what conventionally might be considered a "downwardly mobile" class path, he cherishes the idea of the construction job because it affords him the prospect of bodily mobility and a view other than that of a computer screen. And I would emphasize that what he performs in this final career move is above all a fantasy, a polemical pose to suggest that from the perspective of the allegedly oppressed tech-worker, hard manual labor looks like some middle-class version of recreation: "getting exercise." His pose ultimately conveys a vision of robust white masculinity as properly outside the boxed-in spaces of the techno-drudge.
Saucier calls out, in his conclusion, precisely what a thorough Color Monitors critique of Office Space ought to reveal: the "perverse slickness" of the ideologies of whiteness, in particular as these construct themselves by presuming privileged relations to technology. Lopez likewise understands well the important stakes of such a discussion for a society that believes itself to be "post-race." But as Saucier notes, the Color Monitors approach, "simultaneously Ellisonian and Latourian," may appear too "eclectic" for some. Invisible Man and The Politics of Nature, literary novels and science studies do jointly inform the inquiry. As Saucier's astute juxtaposition may suggest, not all of the theoretical methodology of Color Monitors may be immediately recognizable as "theory." I feel that Saucier's prediction goes some ways to diagnose why Lopez may not be entirely satisfied with the book's "theoretical contexts." As to historical and cultural contexts: at some points I believe Lopez overemphasizes what she refers to as "synchronic analysis" and "contemporary cultural context" -- as if, to the exclusion of cultural narratives with long historical arcs, correct interpretation must involve context torn from the headlines, processed by the latest in media theory. Even so, I am glad to see that she does not rigidly exclude the possibility of diachronic reach, as elsewhere in the review she acknowledges that DuBois' critique is as relevant today as it was in 1903.
Saucier also aptly throws Kipling into the mix, reminding me of an insight that Jim Brown recently offered: although Color Monitors focuses on American cultural productions, taking a long view on the legacies of American slavery, its dynamic may be detected in transatlantic contexts informed by distinct yet comparable legacies (Brown pointed, for example, to the British sitcom, The IT Crowd). Bill Wolff offered another amplification: though my study of "The Black Face of Technology" focuses predominantly on the figure of the black man, the black woman has also been presented of late as the image of the natural machine.
Most notably, these scholars enact the spirit of what Saucier calls the "promising note" on which Color Monitors ends. Brown and Wolff are exemplary cultural workers, here situated in the academic humanities -- too often a bastion of cyberphobia -- engaged creatively with technology. Whatever ambitions we academics may have for our cultural critiques, it can't hurt to take stock of attitudes within the academy and our home disciplines. While composing Color Monitors, I was energized by work in progress by Jeff Howard, a fellow literary scholar whose meditations on techne and logos are now a forthcoming book entitled Quests: Theory, History, and Pedagogy (an overview of his project's contribution appears in Digital Humanities Quarterly for Spring 2007; those first two words of that journal's name are music to my ears). And I continue to be inspired by thinkers like Wolff and Brown, in their technology-centered work on "composing spaces" and on what Brown felicitously terms "hospitable texts." And on that note: thanks, RCCS, for the hospitality.
Brown, Jim. (2007). "Hospitable Texts." Confessions of a Graduate Student.
Howard, Jeff. (2007). "Interpretative Quests in Theory and Pedagogy." Digital Humanities Quarterly.
Wolfe, Cary. "Faux Posthumanism: The Discourse of Species and the Neocolonial Project in Michael Crichton's Congo." Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory. University of Chicago Press: 2003.
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