Thinking about the ways in which critical infrastructure studies can allow us to engage in antiracism critiques and practices, Ryan Ikeda provocatively challenges the electronic literature community to address some of the symbolic and material structures that he argues uphold the field. To this end, Ikeda positions elit infrastructure as dynamic and generative sites of cultural activity, and attends, in particular to the ELMCIP Knowledge Base, recent ebr discourses on decolonization, ELO fellowships, and literary historical genealogies, to examine how each constructs, affirms, racializes and extends power, privilege, and status to its members.
The logic of white supremacy is parasitical1For a more complete discussion of the logic of white supremacy, racialization, and genres of the human see Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Reivew, vol. 3, no. 3, 2003, p.257-337. PDF. and Weheliye, Alexander G. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Duke University Press, 2014. Print.: snaking its way through existing infrastructure, siphoning power, reconstituting structures, and circulating resources to produce hierarchies that elevate white experience. Recent efforts in electronic literature, however, have called this legacy of structural racism into question. The forthcoming (and fourth!) collection of e-lit from the Electronic Literature Organization, ELO’s amended fellowship program, and discussions about decolonizing e-lit featured at electronic book review are a few endeavors that question the role race, racialization, and racism occupy in the field of electronic literature. And yet, as noble as these efforts are, white supremacy has endured through the length of literary history: of recent past, it has survived the civil rights movement of the ‘60s, identity politicking in the ‘70s and ‘80s, multiculturalism from the ‘90s, and recent equity initiatives from the early 21st century. White supremacy is a structural problem that survives because it has been built into the infrastructure of literary history.
In this essay, I seek to eradicate white supremacy by excavating its logics that linger among electronic literature. Here, the referent of white supremacy is infrastructure: it is not a personal indictment based on skin color, nor does it refer solely to the nefarious actions of hate-groups such as the KKK or solely to the racialized violence of state-sponsored institutions such as the police; further, it does not refer to interpersonal racism or racist exchanges. Such ostentatious displays render white supremacy exceptional, but exceptionalizing white supremacy allows its underlying structures to remain protected and its beneficiaries reassured of their innocence. White supremacy is mundane and understated, which is one of the reasons why it operates with impunity. Thus, in the context of my argument, white supremacy refers to the underlying structural conditions that position subjects into hierarchies and then proceed in perpetuity to affirm such manufactured differences as natural, normal, and acceptable.2An infrastructural approach to white supremacy does not negate personal responsibility and agency, nor does it dismiss how its inequitable affordances privilege and empower constituents into full, not-quite-full, and non-memberships, rather it identifies white supremacy as one part of e-lit’s milieu and situates individual activity as modes of individuation therein. In other words, my use of white supremacy is less concerned with the value of visual signifiers (e.g., color; skin tone, etc.) than it is with how hierarchies of difference use visual signifiers to project value onto bodies, to regulate aesthetics, and to distribute power inequitably.
The purpose of this essay is to imagine antiracism from within the infrastructure of electronic literature, where infrastructure refers to the underlying material and symbolic structures that uphold an institution of which white supremacy is one part (Svensson 337). A difficult and unwieldy task, I approach this objective by excavating and then analyzing several key structures—databases, fellowships, publications, and histories—to see how each circulates value, positions membership, and construes privilege. Often this takes the form of rhetorical analysis, where I approach each underlying structure as a rhetorical act, that is, as a site of persuasion and cultural formation.
My claim, then, is not that electronic literature, as a scholarly field or an aesthetic project, is racist or white supremacist nor is it to call out individuals or institutions; rather, it is to expose how structural racism and white supremacy are built into its infrastructure to produce a racialized outcome. As members of the e-lit community, we pass through its infrastructure and so participate in its material and symbolic structures, of which white supremacy is one; the issue has stakes for all constituents. Infrastructural criticism necessarily situates imagination among these structural forces. Without such a critique, the field of electronic literature will likely replicate its current (and historical) infrastructure through these new initiatives and conversations (however hopeful, earnest, and sincere) and, while not outright racist, they will extend the logic of white supremacy.
ELMCIP: The Psychopolitical Stakes Surrounding Algorithmic Representations, Colorblindness and Postracial Fantasies
As the fall semester approached, I turned to ELMCIP’s Knowledge Base to find more information about Mendi + Keith Obadike’s seminal work3The Electronic Literature Collection, volume 3 features one of their projects published in 2000. My Hands/Wishful Thinking. of (second generation) electronic literature, Blackness for Sale (2001), but the search query returned empty. Thinking it a mistake I re-entered terms for “blackness,” “race,” and “racialization” individually, and once again, found zero results. At this point, my interest shifted from the Obadikes’ project toward figuring out what the database included (and excluded). My curiosity centered on what the database rendered legible through my search attempts, what access it provided to which cultural artifacts, and, more generally, a consideration of its position as a cultural gatekeeper.
The objectivity of data, databases, and search engines is no longer assumed. More clearly, scholars have situated them as cultural formations representative of the social groups composing them. Representation is a complex process that imbricates the aesthetic and the political. As I approached ELMCIP with my query, I did so to represent an underexamined discourse of electronic literature that centered on racialization overtly. The zero-result, however, repositioned representation into a political dimension that centered on questions of access, membership, and legibility. My initial response to the zero-result was internalized as user error—“I must’ve made a mistake with the terms” and then: “I clearly do not understand how to use ELMCIP correctly.” I interpreted the zero-result as my lack of cultural knowledge (e.g., employing the legible tags for searching), which was foregrounded by a programmatic error (i.e., user error presumed and not designer). In other words, the zero-result constituted an internal response about my position and status within electronic literature. Further, the database located my interests outside its domain (i.e., through a zero-result) and, as a structure operant in e-lit’s infrastructure, outside electronic literature.
The psychopolitical stakes surrounding representation gain further nuance as we move beyond the field of electronic literature to examine its position embedded economically and socially. Racialization is not erased by technology but embedded in its infrastructure and instantiated culturally through its uses. Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression examines a propensity for algorithms to reflect the values of a tech industry, whose lack of representation of BIPOC thinkers at the corporate-level and among the so-called intelligence class has been well-documented and critiqued (Harrison; James; Guynn and della Cava; Tiku). She argues that the absence of Black and Indigenous executives directly correlates to their misrepresentation in search engines. She dispels a popular postracial fantasy in the tech industry that amounts to colorblindness (i.e., algorithms are mathematical and don’t see color) to argue that “the way that digital media platforms and algorithms control the narrative about people can have dire consequences” (109). Rather than supply objective knowledge, search engines objectify people.
Jill Walker Rettberg’s recent essay for Humanities & Social Sciences offers an infrastructural critique of data analysis by explicating the flow of power among fitness tracking apps. Through slow readings of the Strava app and Strava Metro, she excavates an algorithmic tendency to collapse representation into the operational contingencies of its software. Her critique excavates how neoliberal absorption transfers power from humans into what she terms “environmental power” (9). This process of absorption gains visibility across four levels of application: as data shifts away from representing fitness data individually to users or interpersonally across users (levels 1-2), that is, away from tracking human experience, it becomes operational (i.e., instrumentalized) into the service of information management. The more removed from human users, the more dissociative the datasets become; and consequently, more susceptible to misrepresentation and, in particular, bias against users of color (Walker Rettberg 3, 8).
In response to ELMCIP’s zero-result, I peppered the database with a litany of search terms corresponding to fields, projects, and perspectives I value and leverage in relationship to electronic literature, such as “critical race theory” or “Black feminism” or “Asian American studies”—all of which yielded zero results. As a cultural act, these serialized zeroes affirmed an all-too-familiar affective state—I have experienced as a poet who has trafficked through the MFA circuit, and as a scholar subsisting in academia—that coincides with partial membership. I am not alone feeling this way. Although our situations and positionalities differ, the psychopolitical impact is similar. I think here of Frank Wilderson’s hospitalization while a grad student in my department at UC Berkeley, described in horrifying detail as the opening to Afropessimism.4My reference to Wilderson is as anecdotal evidence, and not a tropological critique of autobiography; in other words, I’m acknowledging but abstaining from current questions about a structural contradiction centered in Wilderson’s afropessimism project, excavated most recently by Nick Mitchell’s “The View from Nowhere” in Spectre Journal (2020). I think of another unnamed graduate student of color, who welcomed me to the department by confiding two things: the department looks down upon postcolonialism and critical race theory and, secondly, every person in their cohort was on antidepressants (“oh—and ‘welcome’ btw!”). Care and community building begin by organizing the symbolic structures of an institution to reflect its constituents. Positioning my affective experience of ELMCIP in relationship to its open structure allows for further critique of the zero-result – not in terms of representation – but as an opening for infrastructural critique of how logics of white supremacy might bend collaboration and openness towards the re-entrenchment of white, Eurocentric experiences.
The zero-result opens to a larger examination of how white supremacy functions as a structural problem. And so, rather than attempting to fix the zero result, assign responsibility, or explain it away, and thus lose a critical opportunity, I’d like to permit its discomfort to linger a little bit longer. My interest centers on the questions the zero result raises about a) how logics of white supremacy endure, co-opt, and bend structures – in this case inclusively designed structured centers on principles of open-source and collaboration – towards privileging Eurocentric, white aesthetics and experience; and b) whether general homepage invitations are strong enough interventions to increase diversity, expand inclusion, and ultimately to disassemble white supremacy. As a community concerned with structural racism and committed to antiracism, our responses to these questions will help us to identify and excavate problematic structures within electronic literature that will then allow disassembly and equity to become structurally rooted in our field. If we choose to opt-out of these questions we risk replicating the metaphorical zero-result but in another form (Duvernay), and we will be empowering white supremacy to continue.
ELMCIP is a collaborative project with an open-source structure and so its cultural activity includes both its designers, users, and contributors; it functions differently than the objects of Noble’s and Walker Rettberg’s critique. Its homepage actively solicits user participation when I begin my search inquiry; it invites me to become a contributor by signing up for an account. With an account, I may help build out its domain, adding or editing its records—restructuring what and how the Knowledge Base features.
“The ELMCIP Knowledge Base depends on the active participation of a community of international researchers and writers working on electronic literature. To join us in building the Knowledge Base, sign up for an account we can set you up with a contributor account to add and edit records. The Knowledge Base is developed in Drupal 7 by the University of Bergen Electronic Literature Research Group as an outcome of the ELMCIP project” (ELMCIP).
In other words, ELMCIP is contingent upon its users to organize, aggregate, and represent electronic literature to its users. The invitation is not so much a privilege as a decentralized way of troubleshooting problems of representation. The difficulty with this model is that it locates the onus of representation on community members most minoritized and least incentivized by its current structure; in other words, it exists in a similar postracial fantasy of colorblindness Noble ascribes to the tech industry. With the knowledgebase, tropes of collaboration obscure how the role of invitations functions differently across stakeholders (i.e., contributors and potential contributors). Phrases such as “join us” and “active participation” appeal to a general, nonspecific user and excavate a few of the postracial symbolic structures that uphold electronic literature. By not situating collaboration and participation as they are (i.e., culturally encoded conditions for community behavior), collaboration and participation decontextualize ELMCIP contributors. Collaboration, in this colorblind version, flattens and normalizes systems of privilege that have differentiated contributors.
If the logic of white supremacy is not an interpersonal exception but a structural expectation that, in the case of ELMCIP, manifests through a colorblind, postracial fantasy, then it likely bends collaboration towards representing and reaffirming Eurocentric, white experiences to the minoritization of nonwhite, non-Eurocentric experiences. This bend occurs among the underlying structures upholding elit, and so critique must venture into infrastructure. Measures such as collaboration and participation – and their conceptual relatives, inclusion and diversity – that seek to restructure elit proportionally5For further excavations centered on proportionality see Reed, Jr., Adolph and Merlin Chowkwanyun. “Race, Class, Crisis: The Discourse of Racial Disparity and its Analytical Discontents,” Social Register 2012. PDF. and interpersonally reveal how white supremacy co-opts existing structures to entrench its parasitism. Collaboration, as a colorblind intervention, posits equality as the foundation for racial justice, which is problematic because it refuses to see difference (Leonardo). Instead of excavating how structural logics, such as white supremacy, have organized infrastructure to privilege certain demographics, privileging some contributors and disadvantage others, collaboration assumes participants participate equally. Equality is not necessarily problematic, but its interventions operate from a premise of equal access that, in treating everyone the same, negates and hides the unequal advantages and benefits that have historically privileged white, Eurocentric contributors in elit (Leonardo). What I have called antiracism opposes postracial fantasies of colorblindness that seep into elit through the tech industry and programming culture (Noble); antiracism seeks to recalibrate power dynamics, resources, and value by restructuring the symbolic and material structures upholding elit.
For collaboration to advance antiracism, equity must precede equality. Equality, as an equal distribution of resources, matters to the extent that its recipients exist on a level field, enter that field at the same time as all others, with the same number of resources, and then receive the same benefit from participation. The field, however, has been manufactured unequally (Weheliye; Wyner). Equality cannot level the field because the power dynamics among its members remain proportionally identical: by receiving the same amount of resources as members disadvantaged by current symbolic structures of elit, those already advantaged get to maintain their advantage by receiving the same amount of resources as those unprivileged. Equity, on the other hand, accounts for racialization (and colorization) of experiences, the variances in positionalities of stakeholders, or how differences in situational factors have disadvantaged some contributors while rewarding others. Equity recognizes that different entry points endow some with advantages and seeks to distribute value to participants accordingly. Without a recognition of privileged difference, collaboration – as a general, nonspecific trope – normalizes, centers, and affirms the hierarchical default settings programmed into the knowledgebase to privilege one cultural identity. In other words, just because BIPOC users of ELMCIP have been invited to become contributors, to participate in a culturally encoded system called collaboration, it doesn’t mean they are welcomed to, benefit equally, derive meaning from it, or find value. Further, the role of a general, homepage invitation welcomes users and contributors whom are already advantaged and affirmed by ELMCIP, and so, it obscures the ways in which BIPOC members have been disadvantaged historically by white supremacist imaginaries including postracial fantasies or colorblindness.
In a postracial milieu, invitations position the responsibility (to become included) on individuals who have been minoritized by elit infrastructure. Invitations operate, then, as unexamined but value-laden extensions of elit’s dominant culture. In this context, an invitation to explain or curate content is an invitation to explain or curate content to a specific community (i.e. electronic literature) without acknowledging the way its cultural values and distributions of power have privileged and minoritized its members. For this reason, invitations function differently for minoritized and/or BIPOC community member than they do for white, Eurocentric members. To push further, invitations assume users find value in becoming contributors and are rewarded in the same way as its designers; such a position overlooks aesthetic and political commitments outside Eurocentric experiences operant and central to many minoritized cultures, such as refusal, nonproductivity, humility, and silence (not in the Cageian way).
Colorblind values such as collaboration, or inclusive measures such as invitations, obscure the role of free labor. The invitation to contribute or operate within a collaborative structure, especially among BIPOC folk, is unequal: BIPOC folk provide more emotional and affective labor. Here, discussions of equity, antiracism, and white supremacy must also make white people feel good about their structural advantages and privileges, or at least, not to feel racist. Labor has a contested history for minoritized writers and artists, for whom the unpaid task of educating already empowered people who benefit from its structure. In other words, by placating the racialized hierarchy, attention is centered away from structural racism, white supremacy, or BIPOC experience and onto Eurocentric experiences. The lack of payment fits with an open-source, collaborative model of programming culture, but, in the context of antiracism, the stakes and stakeholders who participate and benefit from collaboration are often unexcavated premises, assumed to be equitable without any accountability.
Databases, data, and search engines represent sociopolitical forces built into their infrastructure, they grant access to representations, they also represent the values of institutions. Through each valence of algorithmic representation value is constituted, membership affirmed. Further, representation matters politically, but also, individually, to the psychic and physiological well-being of all members, and especially those positioned liminally as not-quite-members. As the shift toward representations adjudicated by algorithms increases, so are its makers permitted to dissociate from the impact. Appeals to collaboration and invitations often operate from a premise of a postracial, colorblind fantasy that leverages interventions, such as equality, to negate inequitable advantages to some of elit’s members. Reposition databases, search engines, and their paratexts, as sites of cultural activity and as sites that reveal cultural activity embedded in their infrastructure are important in order to excavate how logics of white supremacy co-opt existing structures to affirm inequities.
Amplifying Anti-Racism Fellowship: Responding to a Political Moment from within Literary Infrastructure
On May 21, 2020, the Electronic Literature Organization posted its call for graduate students and early career researchers to apply for the 2020-2021 ELO Research Fellowship. Applicants needed only submit a one-page letter and short CV for consideration. In addition to a one-year membership to ELO and a $500 stipend, winners will contribute to established ELO projects such as the Electronic Literature Directory. The award situates its fellows within the Electronic Literature Organization through membership, mentorship, and money, and in doing so, it also exposes how its infrastructure operates.
“In the coming months, we’ll be welcoming applicants who will be working with established ELO scholars and practitioners on a variety of ELO projects, such as the Electronic Literature Directory (http://directory.eliterature.org), CELL (www.cellproject.net), The Digital Review (http://www.thedigitalreview.com), the electronic book review (https://electronicbookreview.com), and the ELO Repository(https://elo-repository.org)).”
Not only does ELO situate its Research Fellows in relationship to preexisting projects, it positions their labor in service of ELO’s “established” infrastructure. Their labor re-entrenches the viability of what already exists. Again, the point of these observations is not to evaluate the merits of the fellowship’s project, but to examine their role within ELO infrastructure. In this case, the Research Fellows ensure continuity: they are elsewhere asked to expand electronic literature’s current practices, curatorial, creative, etc. Their labor functions conservatively more than it does generatively. To extend a metaphor from Kathi Inman Berens’ recent essay, the fellows reinforces the “fences” enclosing elit.
A few weeks later, ELO amended its previous call to include a new designation, the Amplifying Anti-Racism Fellows (or, AR). This amendment signaled a structural change. Instead of the six Research Fellows positions there would be five, plus the addition of two AR Fellows for an increased total of seven. Further, ELO renamed their fellowship program from “Research” to “ELO” Fellows, subordinating Research and Amplifying Anti-Racism to this general category. The new track would take two forms, a creative fellowship designated for one BIPOC digital creator and a scholarly fellow who might support “ELO’s racially/ethnically inclusive and activist policies and project” within and among its various databases and collections. The June call specifies there is no technical skill requirement for the AR creative fellowship and no identity requirement for the scholarly one.
“The creative Fellowship is intended for a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and Persons of Color) identifying digital creator whose work should aspire to use digital media in e-literary ways, but there is no technical skill requirement to apply. … The scholarly Fellow will be undertaking activities in support of developing the ELO’s racially/ethnically inclusive and activist policies and projects. These may include, for example, identifying e-literature initiatives and creative works by BIPOC within ELO existing databases, curating the collection of works and criticism by BIPOC and/or related to racial justice and anti-racism, developing racially and ethnically diverse and inclusive ontologies for the ELO’s databases, and/or supporting the design and development of e-lit works promoting racial justice and anti-racism.”
The AR Fellowship reconstituted the role its fellows occupy in the larger ELO infrastructure. The creative AR fellowship invites them to make works of literary art applying digital media, where no knowledge of digital media is necessary; it is generative for the field and exploratory for the BIPOC artist. The scholarly AR role is likewise different than the research schema. While its gaze centers on the same established structures, ELMCIP for example, its purpose is to align electronic literature with “activist” projects outside e-lit; the outlook is quite literally construed as looking out from within electronic literature.
What precipitated the structural change, while perhaps historically obvious, is never directly mentioned by either of the three ELO announcements. What happened four days after the first ELO Research Fellows announcement is obvious, nevertheless it is worth foregrounding what reads as subtext to the AR fellowship announcement on June 12, 2020: on May 25, 2020 police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, while three armed officers watched. Floyd’s murder was filmed by bystanders and then circulated through social media until picked up and distributed by corporate media outlets. Protestors and organizers responded immediately to yet another unnecessary murder of a Black person by police. The absence of a direct reference to George Floyd by ELO is curious, but understandable given the way such references have circulated and constructed meaning across literary and academic institutions.
Among higher education, responses have varied from university-wide curricula for faculty (and to students) to defunding campus police or generating civilian oversight committees to monitor campus police, though most intervention have capitulated to department-specific statements in solidarity with Black lives with minimal condemnation of police violence or state-sponsored terrorism against Black people. More often than not, universities, departments, and para-university organizations like presses have offered toothless statement or employed passive voice when espousing antiracism without naming the perpetrators of violence. ELO’s lack of historical specificity reads ambiguously, open to the situated interpretation of its reader.
“In the spirit of protest, change, and justice, and in an attempt to further strengthen its EDI (Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) framework, the Electronic Literature Organization invites applications for two dedicated Fellowships aimed to Amplify Anti-Racism: a creative and a scholarly one.”
There is a historical referent invoked by “the spirit of” that remains ambiguous. Its uncertainty is not necessarily problematic. The AR fellowship aligns itself politically (“in the spirit of protest, change, and justice”) without imposing a political project on its readers; it brings art, art practices, and aesthetics into the realm of politics and, indirectly implies, a realm of racialized political violence. Instead of directing attention to social or political movements outside the field of electronic literature, ELO’s June statement directs attention to its own infrastructure: “its EDI framework,” the existence of which I could not find elsewhere described on the ELO site. Kathi Inman Berens raises a similar critique in her aforementioned essay, “Decolonizing E-Lit?”:
“Diversity and inclusion are crucial. But they are not the same thing as decolonizing. EDI invites people into the existing structure. It does not interrogate whom that structure might exclude, and how structural mechanisms of unequal access operate.” (Inman Berens)
What is absent is a clear, forceful directive that explicates antiracism or how it enhances ELO’s long-term vision. In the absence of such clarity, ambiguity festers. While the call situates the AR fellowship in relationship to ELO’s commitment to “equity, diversity, and inclusion” it does not contextualize these terms nor any policies behind them. Inman Berens’ critique amounts to infrastructural criticism, she points out that the purpose of EDI is a self-reflexive critique, an opportunity for E-lit to “interrogate” its own structure and redistribute power, membership, and access more equitably. The symbolism of the position can only constitute antiracism if followed up with structural change (Inman Berens). In other words, EDI must be more than a performative gesture.
When applying the site’s own search function to find out more about ELO’s equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) frameworks yielded one result, the July 2020 announcement that listed the forthcoming Fellows for the 2020-2021 year. Generalizing the scope to feature individual terms elicited more results though equally vague about institutional policy or frameworks. For example, searching the term “equity” yielded two results, both about the AR Fellows. While the numbers of results compiled from searching “diversity” is higher, only one (out of fifteen) used “diversity” to indicate ethnic or racial diversity—the others indexed variations in form, medium, or aesthetics or legal frameworks for job postings. Similarly, the “our role” and “history” pages are equally vacant of equity, diversity, and inclusion frameworks. The membership page indicates that there is no content hidden behind a paywall, and so it is unlikely that an EDI commitment is hidden from public view. While the mention of EDI frameworks without any specificity sounds meaningful, its absence generates more questions than it answers. Without such policy-based clarity, the potential for the AR to enact tokenism, to gesture towards a social world without meaningful specificity, or to disappear, is likely.A recent example among higher education explicates a possibility electronic literature will hopefully avoid.
Two professors from Carnegie Mellon observed on their campus what critical race theorists, abolitionists, and Black feminists have been decrying for years, that when terms such as “antiracism,” “equity,” and “inclusion” are decoupled from community-based organizing (i.e., people) and infrastructure qua institutional policy, the opposite intentions of these terms occur: instead of equity, inclusion, and antiracism there occurs “an unholy alchemy of risk management, legal liability, brand management, and trustee anxiety.” This “unholy alchemy” describes a condition in which racism is acknowledged individually, on a case by case basis—which in the context of police violence of Black people refers to individuals killed by cops—but without confronting racism interpersonally or institutionally.
In England and Purcell’s words, specifics are necessary to effect change. But even when present, specifics can be edited out. England and Purcell reflect on how even departmental statements of solidarity with Black lives omitted the experiences and expertise of Black faculty members caused them to question their value as professors given their positionality among university infrastructure:
“We seem to exist as props, to be displayed as proof of the university’s nobility and virtue but not as intellectuals to be engaged. How can we maintain integrity and dignity in such a warped bargain? How can we reinforce the psychic and physical well-being of Black students when our collective plight and history are treated as an inconvenience, a reality to get past rather than a tragedy with which to reckon?”
In cases where Black professors were queried, the words were changed or neutralized of any specificity. In other words, a co-optation of terms occurred within institutional frameworks leveraging the language of social movements in order to signal commitments that are only nominally kept. (One does not have to reach too far back in recent educational history to recall the emergence of multiculturalism as a neoliberal commodification of diversity.) Similarly, England and Purcell draw a parallel between the persistence of police violence to an absence in critical and meaningful engagement with policy and infrastructure. Their argument suggests that all citizens are on the hook for antiracism; that the dismantling of “racist law-enforcement practices” – an undeniable aspect of antiracism – occurs only when other institutions confront the limitations of their own racialized schemas that prioritize, invest, curate, teach, engage, feature, and extend care.
The AR program effects structural change within the infrastructure of ELO by redistributing resources, influence, and space; it grants prestige to BIPOC artists and scholars, a value that circulates within and beyond electronic literature. The AR program works horizontally across electronic literature to build upon its previous initiatives, such as Electronic Literature Collection, 4, both of which foreground underrepresented identities. The lack of political specificity renders ELO’s EDI initiatives ahistorical and perhaps illegible to activists, organizers, and political movements who operate beyond its scope, those indicated by England and Purcell. Such ambiguity goes against the stated intents for the AR fellowship to support “activist projects” from within the field of e-lit. The hope, I guess, is that the AR fellows themselves will change this infrastructural aspect of ELO. However, that introduces another important aporia – placing the burden of antiracism on the backs of BIPOC people – that is beyond the scope of this essay,
Replanting Decolonization Beyond Its Historical Context
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, recent conversations at electronic book review have discussed what decolonization6Generally-speaking, Franz Fanon describes decolonization as a historical process oriented toward changing the order of the world. His is a global perspective that undermines the logic of racialized power over time through a reordering of the world. More situated examples persist. Walter Mignolo situates decolonization slightly more locally as a continental political project that coincides with the Cold War; its project entails the eradication of colonialism in Africa and Asia, where the goal, as Mignolo puts it, “is to take hold of the state.” In his book The Dark Side of Western Modernity, Mignolo asserts that modernity is inseparable from coloniality, the underlying logic of racialized subjugation and control that centers upon whiteness. (He innovates the concept of coloniality from Anibal Quajino.) Scholars Tuck & Yang specify decolonization further, into an American context and its legacy of genocide and white supremacy; they remind readers that decolonization is not a metaphor for improvement applicable across disciplines, but a political project that seeks the repatriation of Indigenous land and life. Without such acknowledgement, Tuck & Yang argue that the metaphorical uses of decolonization amount to re-settlement or re-occupation of Indigenous spaces by obscuring the ways in which non-Indigenous persons, however well-intentioned, still participate in and benefit from the colonial land-theft project. They write,
“When metaphor invades decolonization, it kills the very possibility of decolonization; it recenters whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future. Decolonize (a verb) and decolonization (a noun) cannot easily be grafted onto pre-existing discourses/frameworks, even if they are critical, even if they are anti-racist, even if they are justice frameworks. The easy absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonization is yet another form of settler appropriation.” (Tuck & Yang, 3)
In context of their essay, Tuck & Yang are writing to educators and organizers who have mobilized around social justice for the inaugural issue of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society; theirs is a critique lobbied at well-intentioned, like-minded advocates of social justice who, in applying decolonization to projects such as school reform or prison abolition, direct attention away from Indigenous sovereignty. While blunt, their critique is fair and necessarily illustrative of the subtle swiftness of coloniality: how the vestiges of settler colonialism linger in the contemporary West, even among well-intentioned organizers, educators, and artists. might look like among the field of electronic literature. Published on the same day, Anna Nacher’s essay reviews Scott Rettberg’s Electronic Literature, and Kathi Inman Berens’ is a response to Nacher. Both critiques center on tropes of inclusion7Inclusion refers to an education project that centers on students with disabilities, or special education classes. In the 1960s, American educators began to question whether the separate special ed classes were the best way to serve students with disabilities. As some have critiqued, inclusion operates from a deficit view that requires a reconstituting of cultural schema based on so-called normative values. For a more comprehensive review see: Osgood, Robert L. The History of Inclusion in United States. Gallaudet University Press, 2005. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/13164. 2005. Winzer, Margret A. From Integration to Inclusion: A History of Special Education in the 20th Century. Gallaudet University Press, 2009. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/10370. Braunsteiner, Maria-Luise and Susan Mariano-Lapidus, “A Perspective of Inclusion: Challenges for the Future,” Global Education Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 32-43., but approach from different valences of power.
In “Gardening E-Literature,” Nacher observes the elegance in which Rettberg invites new readers into the field of electronic literature while also advancing its debates, a move she describes as planting seeds.
“the fact that Scott Rettberg prominently succeeds in his double mission of setting the ground and furthering the debate invites possible further investigations – in the process not unlike planting the seeds for future research on e-literature.”
Rather than rehearse her argument, I want to highlight a few moves that directly position decolonization. Gardening provides the central metaphor operant in Nacher’s essay in which she positions Electronic Literature as a form of permaculture. Further, she situates permaculture socially and theoretically, and as her reader, this provides a clear sense of the historical stakes gardening has entailed for various stakeholders: permaculture signifies a just form of gardening because it challenges colonial legacies that gardening participates in (Nacher). The same cannot be said for decolonization, which appears obscured between a list of genres not included in Electronic Literature.
“Electronic literature generally seems to be relatively more open to other fields of digital culture to decolonization and more receptive to the currents from the outside of the Anglophone world, as documented on digital and concrete poetry in Portuguese or Spanish, the significant contributions (both theoretical and artistic) of Francophonie and Spanish-speaking communities, the noticeable e-literature initiatives, projects and artworks in Arabic and in some African countries, burgeoning Central and Eastern European contribution …” (Nacher).
Unlike permaculture, which Nacher roots socially and theoretically, she provides no context for decolonization, its political project, the social stakes it accrues, or how it relates to electronic literature. As an undefined term, “decolonization” imbues third-generation discussions with political heft without explicating the stakes or how the aesthetic relates to the political. Nacher acknowledges the white, Eurocentric tendency among e-lit that racializes those not included. Here is where the gardening metaphor atrophies for me and the political stakes ambiguate: does decolonization occur through the expansion of e-lit to absorb more literary territories, or is it that these literary spaces are uprooted and then replanted into e-lit’s garden? Both tropes affirm the centrality of white, English-speaking, Eurocentric authority as the ones who open and who receive, and the position of racialized outsiders who must enter, who must offer; together, these smack of “palatability,” an aesthetic correlative found in so-called high art and modernist avant-gardes that ranks art practice based on high and low. While Nacher acknowledges a cultural supremacy in e-lit, the intervention appeals to their power (“open up please”) instead of redistributing it. Decolonization amounts to diversity and inclusion in this context being “more receptive to the currents from outside of the Anglophone world” and leverages its deficit view.
Toward the end of the essay, Nacher writes:
“Interestingly, there is much more at stake than just another debate on the cultural distinction.”
But the stakes surrounding Nacher’s decolonization are largely unclear. It seems Nacher wants to problematize the politics (and politicizing) behind diversity and inclusion initiatives, but I’m not certain. I can also think of scenarios in which debating “cultural distinction” and its positionality within e-lit might be a necessary activity (i.e., if as a form of eradicating white supremacy from e-lit’s infrastructure), but lacking her own political clarity surrounding decolonization the stakes remain unclear. The effect (and affect) generated is a disconnect between what is stated and how the argument is staged that creates ambiguity and uncertainty, particularly for BIPOC writers and scholars with backgrounds in critical race theory.
A difficulty with gardens is that they so easily hides their labor, the hierarchy of laborers, how the designing gardener gained such a position, who decides the policies of care (i.e., what to plant, when to weed, how often to water, etc.), the circumstances surrounding its inception (i.e., how was the decision made, which stakeholders were involved, which materials), its uses, who has access, who will manage the garden, or its relationship to indigeneity.
Inman Berens draws attention to questions of power in “‘Decolonize’ E-Literature? On Weeding the E-lit Garden,” her response to Nacher. Rather than arrive at the concept of decolonization, Inman Berens begins with it, questioning the identity of the colonizers: who and what colonizes? The effect locates her readers, or anyone not indicted by FAGA, together, as the colonized. There’s a sense of collectivity that emerges from such a broad identification. But it obscures the particular, or how competition might reinforce already inequitable distributions of value and power or access to resources. Of decolonial work she includes:
“activists and ordinary citizens, such as tearing down statues of slave owners and other white supremacists, assembling peacefully in the face of armed police in riot gear, and using social media to educate and fundraise for bail funds and Black causes, have been followed with legal changes: legislated bans on police use of choke holds, declaration of Juneteenth as a paid holiday, and removal of the Confederate symbol from the Mississippi state flag.”
The racial justice protests provide the historical context for these actions. Unlike Nacher, Inman Berens locates decolonization socially and politically. The actors doing the decolonial work are “activists and ordinary citizens.” Again, the appeal seems to include anybody who falls into the general categories of “activists” or “ordinary citizens.” The description of “ordinary” is particularly curious, it posits a question: ordinary to whom? (I read it as white, English-speaking, cis-gendered.) Inman Berens groups people together based upon their common actions, which reinforces and attends to their subjectivity and agency. It amounts to a white liberalism (Phruksachart). It doesn’t consider how colonization affects constituents differently; that is, exploring how some activists could fall into the “colonizer” category, others in the “colonized with privileges” category, others as “noncolonized,” and few with “colonized”. The emphasis on “ordinary citizens” and “activists” collapses all categories into a colorblind, deracialized point of view that grants them access equally to colonized status without equal experiences of being colonized.
As a rhetorical act, Inman Berens situates electronic literature as colonized space, positioning the tech industry (through FAGA8FAGA is a way to refer to the tech industry, Facebook Apple Google and Amazon.)) and the literary as its colonizers. At face value, both appear radical and conjure up Julian Oliver’s critical engineering suite that empowers users to exploit governmental technology, or Brunton and Nissenbaum’s Obfuscation project. Decolonization amounts to preservation of digital writers’ works bypassing FAGA “Terms and Conditions” by printing books or, secondly, analyzing the way digital media circulates meaning through hashtags or Instagram feeds. In actuality the projects are less politically radical, subversive, or empowering, nor are they centered on critiquing E-lit infrastructure for ways in which it construes value inequitably. Nonetheless, Inman Berens introduces important critical shifts for e-lit that resonate with broader critiques from new media studies. The #colorofnewmedia working group at Berkeley, for example, has examined how hashtags and other forms of commodified language circulate value, represent personhood, and construct identities. While the new directions Inman Berens outlines are interesting and important, they recontextualize decolonization as a mode of electronic literature removing itself from the tech industry (which obscures its social and political project for indigenous sovereignty). For electronic literature to operationalize antiracism it must critique its infrastructure, reimagine its structures, how literary histories constitute theirs by a logic of white supremacy.
Excavating Electronic Literature from Literary History: Logics of White Supremacy, Legacy, and Elitism
Electronic Literature begins by describing e-lit as “literature that reflects our new situation” (Rettberg 2), where the referent of “new” corresponds to cultural life after the digital turn. Here, the situation refers to the underlying material and symbolic structures upholding electronic literature, on the one hand, indicating a new physical milieu, the digital, and on the other, literary history (Rettberg 8). While the technical milieu encompassing e-lit is indeed new, the surrounding aesthetic circumstances are purposefully not new. Situation also refers to continuity, the act of positioning e-lit in relationship to literary history. This is a familiar move that excavated through several case studies. Loss Pequeno Glazier’s Digital Poetics (2003) activates a similar genealogy, one predicated on various experimental and avant-garde subcultures, such as Language writing, Black Mountain, and Steinian poetics. Brian Kim Stefans’ Fashionable Noise (2003) traces a similar genealogy, as does Jessica Pressman’s Digital Modernism (2014). Alternatives exist, too. Chris Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry (2007) situates e-lit among a computational history of digital computers, excavating the literary from the mathematical to posit a coextensive relationship between digital computers and poetry. Alex Saum-Pascual and Èlika Ortega challenge the way legacies construe value linearly, rather, her installation, No Legacy || Electronica Literatura (2016) demonstrates how the act of literary history is recursive, it repositions the past as much as it situates the present; that is, they “historicize aesthetic theory” (Burger 17).
The continuity Rettberg traces returns electronic literature to a historical moment, 20th century avant-gardes.
“the new forms and thematic concerns of electronic literature do not merely emerge from the technology itself: instead they emerge from the interaction of new technologies with aesthetic concerns that have much longer histories. While the works…are born digital, they are not exclusively of digital lineage. They have particularly deep connections to experimental writing and avant-garde art movements of the twentieth century.” (6)
Rettberg situates electronic literature at the intersection of aesthetics and technics, as an emergent expression between the two. As imbricated as electronic literature is to digital technology, the aesthetic defines its “lineage” not its materiality. Rettberg posits lineage as a symbolic structure underlying and upholding elit. As part of the infrastructure, or situation to use Rettberg’s terms, it is necessary to understand its “situational framings” and “situated actions” that, in Burger’s, indicates the condition of lineage comparative to earlier historical accounts (Rettberg 8; Burger 22). In other words, lineage, or continuity is afforded by elit’s infrastructure. The role of self-criticism is to excavate the structural affordances that make continuity possible. For Burger, structures are dynamic and thus inequitable.
“one should not assume, therefore, that all categories (and what they comprehend) pass through an even development….historical development of society as a whole as well as that within subsystems can only be grasped as a the result of the frequently contrarian evolutions that categories undergo.” (19).
Peter Burger, a student and subsequent critic of Adorno’s, theorized the historical avant-garde movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to critique “the progressive construction of history as the prehistory of the present” (20). Burger’s historiography complicates notions of progressivist history (e.g., “the past is prologue”) by claiming that the present also constructs the past. Under a heuristic of praxis, the historian, as well as the historical subjects, require contextualization, and moreover, Burger argues they contextualize each other.
Two species of historical criticism emerge that are relevant to electronic literature’s discussion of antiracism and lineage, self-criticism and systems-immanent criticism (Burger 20-23). The latter examines how elit positions antiracism in relationship to other ideas circulated within its field (e.g., how aesthetic lineage situates antiracism differently than decolonization). Current discussions centered on the range of e-literature’s third-wave is another example of systems-immanent critique; it represents internal discourses.
In contrast, self-criticism adopts a meta-critical position that distances itself from internal debates in order to examine how elit functions as an institution, as site of cultural activity, through structural interactions. Adhering to this latter approach, this section attempts to excavate two embedding logics, at work in the symbolic infrastructure of elit, lineage and white supremacy, to expose how they condition the possibility for membership, value, and status within electronic literature (Burger 22). Here I posit antiracism as a disruptive logic.
Elitism is a logic by which the avant-garde distinguishes itself from other classes of artists, generating hierarchies of art, such as high or low, advanced or delayed, experimental/innovative or not. These hierarchies are informed by a deeper, Western logic of white supremacy, that quickly racializes the aesthetic positions of high – low, advanced – delayed, formally engaged – content-driven into aesthetic or ethnic categories. In Race and the Avant-Garde, Timothy Yu posits a sociology of the avant-garde that centers on a paradox in which experimental writers of Asian descent are organized based upon ethnicity and experimental writers of European descent are organized aesthetically. Speaking directly about Language writing, Yu offers an alternative accounting for literary history, one that confronts its logic of white supremacy. His critique is comparative and centers upon two experimental writing communities from the 1970s, Language writing and Asian American literature. Of this paradox, Yu writes,
“this has allowed critics to grant Language writing a kind of monopoly over the aesthetic—regarding its politics as purely formal—while relegating Asian American and African American poetry to the realm of identity politics. Whereas Language writing has reached a significant academic audience (although not without generating significant controversy), with several of its practioners now university professors of poetics, Asian American poetry is still sufficiently overlooked.” (15)
Yu excavates a privileged double-standard in which white writers are known aesthetically, for their formal experimentalism; their ethnic identity aligns with literary history and so is unquestionably unmentioned. Writers of Asiatic descent are not afforded the same status an aesthetic designation like “avant-garde” construes, despite engaging with formal experiments. Perhaps it was simply that their ethnicity was much more visible against the stark, white blankness of literary history and so however their similar formal experiments are to their white counterparts, their aesthetics are presented as discontinuous, outside or tangential to literary history. Likely, it was a more complex movement of underlying structures that positioned experimental writers of Asian descent according to their ethnicity, even when their ethnicity was not necessarily the focal point of their poetics.
An almost cruel irony, that Yu excavates, is that members of Language writing positioned their white, male identity directly at the center of their poetics, as a response to the civil rights movement of the 1960s (41-43). Yu centers his critique on epistolary exchanges, but centers the chapter upon one member, Ron Silliman, of whom he writes,
“Silliman’s powerful, possibly offensive, equation of ‘Language poetry’ with racial slurs suggests the bluntest version of this latter position: ‘Language poet’ is not simply an aesthetic but a social identity. Ultimately, this ethnicization of Language writing can be seen as an attempt to reclaim the moral authority extended to the writing of women and minorities—a kind of redemption of white new left discourse.” (60)
Stillness must follow a reading of Yu’s quote, to let the affect settle. In context, this passage falls directly after Yu describes how Charles Bernstein, an interlocutor of Silliman’s and fellow Language poet, regarded their collective as an authentic social position of dissent comparable to ethnic minorities and women in the introduction to his book A Poetics (60). Further, it follows an excavation of Silliman’s epistolary exchanges with Peter Glassgold of New Directions, where Silliman writes in 1986: “‘I hope, in choosing your title, that you are aware of the comparability of the phrase ‘language poetry’ to epithets such as [n-word]9Rather than circulate these slurs, I have gestured to them without reprinting them.,, [c-word], [k-word], and [f-word]’” (58). Here, Yu is quick to point out that a couple members of the Language writing community rejected Silliman’s formation. Preceded by another epistolary exchange between Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, and Silliman centered on “Third World” and “women’s” poetry, described as “simply bad” (56).
Reviewed in sum, Yu not only situates Language writing in general as a poetics centered on ethnic preserving and reaffirming a racialized white perspective, but, in particular, describing Silliman’s, Andrew’s, and Bernstein’s poetics as white supremacist.
Yu is not alone in problematizing the legacy of recent avant-gardes or the logic by which they organize literary history. At a panel discussion at the 2012 AWP conference, entitled rather cheekily, “Coloring Outside the Lines,” poet-scholar J. Michael Martinez argued that the avant-garde has always been ethnic. Accordingly, Martinez argues it is literary history, or what I am calling the logic of white supremacy, that elides the multiracial identities of certain modernist poets. Rather than ethnically situate their formal experiments, as Yu observes happening to ‘70s Asian American poets, Martinez observes a logic of deidentification, in which the aesthetic tendency and techniques are removed from the embodied poet. As a case study, Martinez references how critics dislocate the formal experiments of William Carlos Williams from his mixed-race identity.
What Yu’s critique of Silliman and Martinez’ infrastructural critique of Williams’ position in literary history do is to excavate the sociopolitical forces that centralize and aestheticize white experience while obscuring the experimental achievements of poets of color. In “Stand Up,” Cathy Park Hong discusses the way “ethnic literature”has been shaped by white imaginations of racial trauma. She writes,
“The ethnic literary project has always been a humanist project in which nonwhite writers must prove they are human beings who feel pain. Will there be a future where I, on the page, am simply I, on the page, and not I, proxy for a whole ethnicity, imploring you to believe we are human beings who feel pain? I don’t think, therefore I am—I hurt, therefore I am. Therefore, my books are graded on a pain scale. If it’s 2, maybe it’s not worth telling my story. If it’s 10, maybe my book will be a bestseller.
Of course, writers of color must tell their stories of racial trauma, but for too long our stories have been shaped by the white imagination. Publishers expect authors to privatize their trauma: an exceptional family or historic tragedy tests the character before they arrive at a revelation of self-affirmation. (40)
Park Hong surfaces many tropes imposed upon nonwhite writers that have to do with membership, belonging, and value. Here, she subverts the Cartesian basis for humanity—“I think therefore I am”—to centralize trauma as the humanizing factor for nonwriters. Reinforcing the observations Yu makes about Language writing, Park Hong perceives a similar lack of “thinking” attributed to BIPOC writers. In other words, the stakes she identifies are ontological, they constitute membership, which in this case signifies “in humanity”; they are not simply matters of taste. Elsewhere, Park Hong documents how the publishing industry reinforces the ontological positioning at work in prove-your-humanity aesthetics through quotas and “single story” narratives that flatten the complexity and nuance of BIPOC writers (39) or ignore intersectional valences of their identity such as queerness (41), preferring instead to focus on racialized trauma porn.
The Electronic Literature Collection, volume 3 features one of the Obadikes’ projects published in 2000. My Hands/Wishful Thinking, which centers on the death of Amadou Diallo who was shot 19 times by NYPD who fired 41 bullets at him while he reached for his wallet in 1999. Its subject, in other words, is trauma. The piece blends images of hands overlaid with 41 statements that affirm blackness, black bodies, and black lives. Mendi writes, “My task would be to face the horror that so many people act with the belief that black lives are worthless without reinscribing this worthlessness in my writing.”
Of Mendi + Keith’s oeuvre, My Hands is their only work that centers violent racialized trauma. While many center on race and racialization, these play outside the narrative tropes allotted to BIPOC writers. Given the complexity and range of the rest of their work, it is difficult not to interpret this selection in terms of Cathy Park Hong’s critique in “Stand Up” that publishers are interested in representing BIPOC through “single stories,” where trauma proves/establishes the humanity of racialized others that is denied ontologically.
What was evident in the avant-garde is now operational through the publishing industry and represented in elit databases; a logic of white supremacy, that is, a logic of hierarchy that racializes human difference into categories of human, not-quite-human, and nonhuman is evident. The avant-garde replicates this delineation in aesthetic terms, experimental, innovative and identity/ethnic writing. In e-literature, its logic manifests more subtly, by circulating trauma narratives in the case of the Obadikes’ to an exclusion of their oeuvre. This occurs because elit criticism emerges from a Eurocentric, white position.
Along with avant-garde lineages and “single story” trauma monotropping, the logic of white supremacy moves through elit’s critical frameworks. Weheliye’s critique10He writes, “I begin with two contentions. The first concerns the literal and virtual whiteness of cybertheory. The second establishes at the very least an aporetic relationship between New World black cultures and the category of the “human.” In addition, this essay also seeks to realign the hegemony of visual media in academic considerations of virtuality by shifting the emphasis to the aural, allowing us to conjecture some of the manifold ways in which black cultural production engages with informational technologies” (21). The “hegemony of visual media” is problematized by the artist-critic, Hito Steryel, who discusses post-representation as a necessary political and aesthetic reference of contemporary digital art practice. Her essay, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” in particular has much to add in relationship to Weheliye’s critique. of Hayles’ posthuman project centers on two points – “cybertheory,” an early ‘00s description of new media theory – has been racialized white space and, secondly, although marked by technics, Hayles’ human figure is unmarked by sociopolitical violence (21). Just as she argues that the Enlightenment metaphors are incommensurate to human experience (Hayles xiv; 7; 86; 132), she overlooks the particularity of human experience, its genre-ification as Sylvia Wynter calls, into hierarchies of difference, and so aligns herself with hegemony. Indeed, Hayles’ oeuvre forms one of the unquestionable pillars upholding e-lit today. Her theories on posthumanism and intermediation circulate widely, but, as Weheliye observes, they position the digital as unracialized, white space (22-24). Hayles’ influence is endemic to elit, its effect is comparable to both a “zero-result” search query or a hyperracialized and hypersexualized response from Google: white, Eurocentric experience is centralized, generalized, and essentialized for all elit constituents, the role of BIPOC labor in forming said experience is obscured, and BIPOC members are dehumanized. In addition to the stakes discussed earlier in the essay (i.e., representation, ontologies of membership and status, psychopolitical violence, circulations of value, etc.), white supremacy limits the critical capacity of electronic literature; these are moments of resistance, agency and choice lost when we acquiesce to the default status of white supremacy.
Critical race theory recuperates humanity and aesthetic complexity negated by ethnicizing literature and by generalizing the category of human based upon Western (white) philosophical construction. The effect opens electronic literature to a greater range and depth of aesthetic experience; but its absence signals a narrowing rigidity that, in spite of these inclusive efforts, such as the AR fellowship, remains limited (aesthetically) and limiting (ontologically, politically). As much as these situate electronic literature historically, they do not situate electronic literature socially or politically, nor historicize e-lit’s aesthetics. This absence of sociopolitical critique gains visibility through infrastructural criticism which posits each structure as a rhetorical act, a site of persuasion and cultural construction.
Electronic literature is uniquely positioned to offer an infrastructural critique of its material structures, less so the symbolic infrastructure that racialize and construe difference. The digital is not a flat category, but a dynamic, unfolding, metastable process. Digitality, and electronic literature by proxy, innovates constantly. French media theorist Bernard Stiegler describes this state of “permanent innovation” as disorientation—a systems lag that occurs between technical innovation and cultural production (3; 128; 139). The positionality of electronic literature, hyperaware of its situation, situatedness, and contingency within the digital milieu, renders disorientation an aesthetic experience, a pleasurable glitch, an afforded insight, an expertise of the inner-workings of black boxes. Funkhouser does this well and through his archaeology reconstitutes the relationship between computers and humans as co-extensive.
Electronic literature has an underdeveloped critique of its cultural infrastructure and how it construes value inequitably. While fellowships and conversations centering on movements such as antiracism and decolonization, or referencing historical moments like George Floyd’s murder, are important for provoking awareness among our community, they remain symbolic gestures unless there are structural shifts that reposition value, access, representation, membership, and legacy. In Burger’s words, they engage systems-immanent criticism but not self-criticism. Oretga’s and Saum-Pascual’s No Legacy || Literature Electrònica troubles the concept of legacy, its value and validity, and reimagines contingencies and structural formations as e-lit intersects with literary history. As much as fieldwork is important to reinforce what the field is and what is in a field (concerns introduced by Inman Berens), it necessary for infrastructural criticism to situate these cultural actions historically, socially, and politically; in other words, there needs to be praxis. Timothy Yu troubles the avant-garde legacy, of whom many constituents have been linked as aesthetic predecessors to electronic literature. By invoking movements such as Language writing into e-lit’s aesthetic history without interrogating their white supremacist histories, we avoid generative moments of self-criticism (i.e., Burger’s version of it) about structural racism. While current e-lit discussions have centered on developing aesthetic links to literary culture, it is also necessary to historicize aesthetic discourse and interrogate its role in racializing and devaluing experimental BIPOC writers. It is also necessary for the field to excavate the ways in which inclusion and diversity have regulated and reduced BIPOC writers to “single stories” centered on trauma, in which nonwhite writers earn/prove/demonstrate their humanity to a white audience through suffering (Park Hong 41). To this end, benevolence should be greeted with suspicion. Other entry points outlined in this essay have examined the roles fellowships, databases, and discourses play in constructing cultural value, disenfranchising members into quasi-members, enacting psychopolitical violence on constituents, and obscuring political projects by co-opting their symbolic power to endow e-lit with political heft.
By positioning antiracism as an infrastructural critique of white supremacy, I risk validating, centralizing, and authorizing the logic of white supremacy (i.e., giving it more attention than it deserves). Such is a central aporia to this essay and a valid critique actively engaged by a subset of critical race theory, white studies. In some cases, where white supremacy is so embedded into infrastructure that it operates as an unexamined premise, it is necessary to draw attention to it and call it out, as was the case with Pound’s Cantos. In foregrounding white supremacy, my purpose is four-fold: to demonstrate white supremacy’s vampirism in the context of e-lit, as a blood-sucking parasite that subsists by sucking the life out of non-vampires; and secondly, to excavate and to expose its logic embedded in e-lit’s infrastructure; third, to recuperate and to affirm power and value that is endemic to BIPOC writers, though neglected, elided, and erased throughout literary history; and fourth, by exposing white supremacist infrastructure and its tendency to undervalue BIPOC lives, to activate new modes of imagination, critique, and reconfiguration that, following No Legacy, reconstitute electronic literature. Other works, outside of literary criticism, maybe most helpful to the process. Works such as Alex Wehiliye’s Habeas Viscus, anything by Sylvia Wynter, or Anne Anlin Cheng’s theory of being, Ornamentalism, explore the infrastructural parasitism of white supremacy politically, legally, and ontologically, but also complicate understandings of race, racialization, and racism. Here, I think also of projects that demonstrate how Western subjectivity is contingent upon BIPOC labor, like Black Code Studies, Liquid Blackness, or Lisa Nakamura’s “Indigenous Circuits,” in which she excavates how Fairchild Semiconductor exploited and racialized indigenous Navajo labor to establish a foothold in Silicon Valley. Such histories are also a part of e-lit’s, though direct connections have yet to be made. Aesthetically, antiracism recuperates imagination from the logic of white supremacy and resituates it among a dynamic array of material and symbolic structures. My attempt, then, is not to say anything new, as novelty is complicit in the colonial wanderlust for expansion, rather it is an attempt to elongate attention on conversations endemic to our community about decolonization, antiracism, equity, and power. Such situatedness is necessary to materialize structural difference. After all, imagination emerges from materiality (Svensson 339; Parks 355; Loffreda and Rankine 15).
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Cite this Essay:
- 1For a more complete discussion of the logic of white supremacy, racialization, and genres of the human see Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Reivew, vol. 3, no. 3, 2003, p.257-337. PDF. and Weheliye, Alexander G. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Duke University Press, 2014. Print.
- 2An infrastructural approach to white supremacy does not negate personal responsibility and agency, nor does it dismiss how its inequitable affordances privilege and empower constituents into full, not-quite-full, and non-memberships, rather it identifies white supremacy as one part of e-lit’s milieu and situates individual activity as modes of individuation therein.
- 3The Electronic Literature Collection, volume 3 features one of their projects published in 2000. My Hands/Wishful Thinking.
- 4My reference to Wilderson is as anecdotal evidence, and not a tropological critique of autobiography; in other words, I’m acknowledging but abstaining from current questions about a structural contradiction centered in Wilderson’s afropessimism project, excavated most recently by Nick Mitchell’s “The View from Nowhere” in Spectre Journal (2020).
- 5For further excavations centered on proportionality see Reed, Jr., Adolph and Merlin Chowkwanyun. “Race, Class, Crisis: The Discourse of Racial Disparity and its Analytical Discontents,” Social Register 2012. PDF.
- 6Generally-speaking, Franz Fanon describes decolonization as a historical process oriented toward changing the order of the world. His is a global perspective that undermines the logic of racialized power over time through a reordering of the world. More situated examples persist. Walter Mignolo situates decolonization slightly more locally as a continental political project that coincides with the Cold War; its project entails the eradication of colonialism in Africa and Asia, where the goal, as Mignolo puts it, “is to take hold of the state.” In his book The Dark Side of Western Modernity, Mignolo asserts that modernity is inseparable from coloniality, the underlying logic of racialized subjugation and control that centers upon whiteness. (He innovates the concept of coloniality from Anibal Quajino.) Scholars Tuck & Yang specify decolonization further, into an American context and its legacy of genocide and white supremacy; they remind readers that decolonization is not a metaphor for improvement applicable across disciplines, but a political project that seeks the repatriation of Indigenous land and life. Without such acknowledgement, Tuck & Yang argue that the metaphorical uses of decolonization amount to re-settlement or re-occupation of Indigenous spaces by obscuring the ways in which non-Indigenous persons, however well-intentioned, still participate in and benefit from the colonial land-theft project. They write,
“When metaphor invades decolonization, it kills the very possibility of decolonization; it recenters whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future. Decolonize (a verb) and decolonization (a noun) cannot easily be grafted onto pre-existing discourses/frameworks, even if they are critical, even if they are anti-racist, even if they are justice frameworks. The easy absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonization is yet another form of settler appropriation.” (Tuck & Yang, 3)
In context of their essay, Tuck & Yang are writing to educators and organizers who have mobilized around social justice for the inaugural issue of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society; theirs is a critique lobbied at well-intentioned, like-minded advocates of social justice who, in applying decolonization to projects such as school reform or prison abolition, direct attention away from Indigenous sovereignty. While blunt, their critique is fair and necessarily illustrative of the subtle swiftness of coloniality: how the vestiges of settler colonialism linger in the contemporary West, even among well-intentioned organizers, educators, and artists.
- 7Inclusion refers to an education project that centers on students with disabilities, or special education classes. In the 1960s, American educators began to question whether the separate special ed classes were the best way to serve students with disabilities. As some have critiqued, inclusion operates from a deficit view that requires a reconstituting of cultural schema based on so-called normative values. For a more comprehensive review see: Osgood, Robert L. The History of Inclusion in United States. Gallaudet University Press, 2005. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/13164. 2005. Winzer, Margret A. From Integration to Inclusion: A History of Special Education in the 20th Century. Gallaudet University Press, 2009. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/10370. Braunsteiner, Maria-Luise and Susan Mariano-Lapidus, “A Perspective of Inclusion: Challenges for the Future,” Global Education Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 32-43.
- 8FAGA is a way to refer to the tech industry, Facebook Apple Google and Amazon.)
- 9Rather than circulate these slurs, I have gestured to them without reprinting them.
- 10He writes, “I begin with two contentions. The first concerns the literal and virtual whiteness of cybertheory. The second establishes at the very least an aporetic relationship between New World black cultures and the category of the “human.” In addition, this essay also seeks to realign the hegemony of visual media in academic considerations of virtuality by shifting the emphasis to the aural, allowing us to conjecture some of the manifold ways in which black cultural production engages with informational technologies” (21). The “hegemony of visual media” is problematized by the artist-critic, Hito Steryel, who discusses post-representation as a necessary political and aesthetic reference of contemporary digital art practice. Her essay, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” in particular has much to add in relationship to Weheliye’s critique.