August 8, 2015 kb

Glitches // Black Bodies // Remix: Side A

“Men simply copied the realities of their hearts when they built prison. They simply extended into objective reality what was already a subjective reality. Only jailers really believe in jails.”

—Richard Wright (The Outsider)

 

I begin with two moments, three months apart.

July 26th, 2015 marked the final day of activities for the inaugural Movement for Black Lives conference. Held at Cleveland State University, the conference aimed to bring together freedom fighters from across the nation in order to “begin the creation of a collective mission that matches the intensity, scale, urgency, and promise of the moment. This convening presents an opportunity for us to reflect on our histories of struggle, build a sense of fellowship that transcends geographical boundaries and begin to heal from the many traumas we face[1]”.

Video

At the conclusion of the day’s events, as conference attendees exited the building, Cleveland police were seen arresting a fourteen-year old young man who was allegedly intoxicated. While accounts of what occurred in the following hour vary—from the RTA’s official statement, which claimed that the police on site were acting according to “normal procedure,” that the transfer of the youth to the police vehicle was “for [his] safety” and that the pepper spraying of the gathered crowd was an attempt to “push back the crowd, to no avail[2],” to protestors accounts, which noted that before their arrival, the police’s actions were cruel and unusual, officers going so far as to physically harass the young boy, and that the pepper-spraying of the crowd was largely uncalled for—what is generally agreed upon is this: that, at the start of the standoff, protestors proffered their voices to the call-response began by some of their peers; that, during the hour long standoff, protestors were pepper-sprayed; and that, at the conclusion of the events (the young boy being released from police custody into the custody of his mother) the protestors once again joined their voices together, this time to chant the hook to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright[3].”

Three months later, the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March was held at Washington D.C. on October 10th, 2015. The anniversary of the March—originally carried out in 1995 and attended heavily by African-American men, the target audience—celebrated those fighting for social change while also calling for institutional reform in social justice issues affecting the black community[4]. Those who gathered at the National Mall convened and began chanting the hook to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.”

Two incidents. Two gatherings. These two moments both occurred within the same year and both took up the chorus of a single song as their anthem. Why?

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has emerged as an effort centralized around denouncing police brutality, racism, and violence against black bodies, and demanding social justice and social change in the United States. What has truly defined this movement, however, is its digital presence; unlike many social justice movements of this scale in US history, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has utilized digital platforms—in particular, Twitter—as a means of disseminating information in real-time, organizing massive and disparate groups of individuals across the nation, generating awareness, and simply (or not so simply) subverting many forms of state-sanctioned censorship.

Which is not to say that the movement has not received intense criticism at the hands of detractors. Critics have accused the movement’s aims and actions as reinforcing anti-police radicalism and being needlessly divisive along racial lines. Charges to “turn down the volume[5]” have been lobbed against protestors. Hashtags like #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter have popped up. Indeed, some of the worse vitriol has been expressed online; this is of no surprise. There have been numerous theories surrounding racism online, most notably the “Greater Internet Fuckwad theory[6]”. Lisa Nakamura, in her article “Glitch Racism: Networks as Actors within Vernacular Internet Theory,” writes:

“I don’t agree with the Greater Internet Fuckwad theory, however popular it may be.  It claims that the “intentions, feelings, or opinions of users” don’t really come into play in everyday racism, that this kind of racism isn’t really racism because it is a network effect as well as a human effect—the product of human computer interaction, indeed all human computer interaction.  In other words, everyday online racism it is a “glitch” or malfunction of a network designed to broadcast a signal, a signal that is highjacked or polluted by the pirate racist… What if, in the spirit of media archaeology, we understood online racism not as a glitch but as part of the signal?”

Nakamura argues that racism online is no “glitch” and that racism is rather like an error: “Errors aren’t alien to the system, they are part of the system[7].” I find myself hard-pressed to disagree with such a reading. But it begs the question: if racism isn’t the “glitch” in the system—then what, or who, is? And why is race so closely tied to it?

What many of the arguments against the #BlackLivesMatter movement boil down to are charges that invoke the rhetoric of respectability politics as a means of attaining subjecthood—the very subjecthood that has always been denied to the black individual in the United States. Such arguments fail to recognize that even in cases where “subjecthood” has been “attained” (some might say that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, are examples of this), what is very quickly revealed is an entirely new form of non-subjecthood (such as the prison-industrial system in response to the Civil Rights Act or Jim Crow in response to the end of slavery) couched in the rhetoric of neoliberal ideas of freedom and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. In other words, the black individual is never truly a subject—because true subjecthood requires one to be fully human and the black individual has always been, at best, “not-quite-human[8].”

The inability of black individuals to be considered true subjects has meant that black lives[9] in the United States are constantly marked and defined by interruptions. Whether that interruption is being stopped and frisked in New York City[10], being brutally flung to the ground while in class[11], or getting shot on the side of the road for wearing a hoodie[12], black bodies are forced to inhabit spaces where any understanding of identity, of self, of community, or even subjecthood is consistently and constantly denied by the sociopolitical constructs of the state. But, as with the #BlackLivesMatter protest, is there a way to appropriate these interruptions and reimagine them as something new? In other words, can we imagine a new form of subjecthood in today’s world?

The tremendous momentum surrounding the #BlackLivesMatter movement has been on the rise since its inception, even in the face of harsh criticism from numerous detractors. This is in part thanks to the phenomenon known as “Black Twitter[13],” which has played a massive role in #BlackLivesMatter’s digital presence, suggesting that there exists something uniquely recuperative in the digital space for the black individual and community.

If “interruptions” might describe the forced exclusion of black bodies from subject- and human-hood, and if this exclusion signals a larger acceptance of active and passive erasure from the sociopolitical consciousness (a range that includes actively killing black individuals to the incarceration of millions[14] of black men to denying employment of individuals based on their name or look), can we look to “glitches” as that new iteration of the interruption, one that works on behalf of the black body?

This article seeks to raise a number of questions: Are glitches a way to conceive of the black body no longer as expendable but crucial? What do you do when the database denies your existence? Can we use glitches as a way to reinscribe the body into—or, in fact, subvert—the society that at once renders the black body invisible and hypervisible? In other words, if we can look to the glitch to describe how black bodies change the world around them (from #BlackLivesMatter protests to music), can we also look to the phenomenon of the glitch as a way to create news types of subjecthood for the black body, one that does not require conforming to structures that demand their erasure?

I argue that glitches might offer a new mode of imagining emancipation from a form of “subjecthood” that denies the existence of the black body and a new mode of subverting and appropriating interruptions into a move that establishes a new form of agency, one that escapes the fabric, the database, of the social structures of the United States. Between television and new media, what is so alluring, and potentially productive, about the glitch? Can black bodies be imagined as glitches? In thinking about how the notion of the glitch can inform racial identity beyond instances of glitch racism, this article articulates a symmetry between television and games that offers up a new imagining of the “glitched” black body as a unique symbol for struggle, social change, and resistance. In other words, if a glitch inhabits the space between what is experienced on the day-to-day and what the world reflects, how might we use this rhetorical framework—as a cultural phenomenon and a verb—to rethink the possibilities for racial representation that exist between old and new media? And through this, can we think of glitches as a moment through which one can create a new form of subject-hood, beyond the structures already provided for us?

But, what exactly is the glitch?

 

 


 

[1] Jonathon Martin, “Nikki Haley Says Black Lives Matter Movement Is Endangering Black Lives,” The New York Times, last modified September 2, 2015.

[2] “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory,” Know Your Meme, last modified July, 2015.

[3] Lisa Nakamura, “Glitch Racism: Networks as Actors within Vernacular Internet Theory,” Culture Digitally, December 10, 2013.

[4] Alexander Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminsit Theories of the Human (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 3.

[5] And I might add here that this is a struggle not only for black bodies in the United States. Very much the same is true for brown and Asian bodies, for trans bodies, for many types of minorities, though the forms of violence enacted against various groups differ greatly. Those whose identities intersect are amongst some of the most at risk, take for example black trans women who have been brutally murdered just in the 2015 alone—and these are only the numbers that have been reported.

[6] “Stop-and-Frisk Data,” New York Civil Liberties Union, accessed October 15, 2015.

[7] Michael Laughlin and Nick Visser, “Spring Valley High School Student Flung By School Officer On Video,” The Huffington Post, last modified October 27, 2015.

[8] Adam Weinstein, “The Trayvon Martin Killing, Explained,” Mother Jones, accessed October 25, 2015.

[9] Farhad Manjoo, “How Black People Use Twitter,” Slate, August 10, 2010.

[10] “Statistics of Incarcerated African-American Males,” Wikipedia, accessed November 15, 2015.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistics_of_incarcerated_African-American_males

[11] “About,” Movement for Black Lives, accessed August 1, 2015.

[12] “July 26, 2015: RTA statement on Euclid Avenue incident,” Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, last modified July 28, 2015.

[13] Blake Piffin, “Police harassment leads to crowd singing Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”,” Youtube, July 28, 2015.

[14] Emanuella Grinberg and Ralph Ellis, “Crowds rally for ‘justice or else’ on 20th anniversary of Million Man March,” CNN, last modified October 10, 2015.

 

 

 

 

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