Originally published on the internet on June 30, 1998. Never seen in print, but John Lee told me his mom had this posted on her refrigerator for years.
all things are possible
but aint no colored magician in her right mind
gonna make you white1
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
There was this boy who was really clever with computers. And he got together with a bunch of other kids who were clever with computers, and the whole group of them—’them’ being hackers, of course—did what teenaged hackers do, which is to break into other people’s computers. They also got into a rivalry with a second group of hackers, and a kind of "war" began between the two—an escalating series of attacks and counter-attacks. Hacking other people’s computers is a past-time that is usually illegal and that occasionally results in getting caught and thrown into jail. And it did in this case—the kid did six months in jail after being busted by the Feds, and some of his other friends went to jail, too.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
There was this Black boy who was really clever with computers. And he got together with a bunch of white kids who were clever with computers, and the whole group of them—’them’ being hackers, of course—did what teenage hackers do, which is to break into other people’s computers. They also got into a rivalry with a second group of white hackers, and a kind of "war" began between the two—an escalating series of attacks and counter-attacks. Hacking other people’s computers is a past-time that is usually illegal and that occasionally results in getting caught and thrown into jail. And it did in this case—the Black kid did six months in jail after being busted by the Feds, and some of his white friends went to jail, too.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
There was this big, tough Black gang-banger from the inner city who was really clever with computers. And he got together with a bunch of middle-class white kids who were clever with computers, and the whole group of them—’them’ being hackers, of course—did what teenaged hackers do, which is to break into other people’s computers. They also got into a rivalry with a group of southern white hackers because a member of the second group had called the black kid a "nigger," which started a gang war in cyberspace—an escalating series of attacks and counter-attacks. Hacking other people’s computers is a past-time that is usually illegal and that occasionally results in getting caught and thrown into jail. And it did in this case—the Black kid did six months in jail after being busted by the Feds, and some of his white friends went to jail, too.
The above three stories are about John Lee, of course. Lee would have been notable for his hacking alone (or at least for the trouble he got into for it), but he’s even more notable because he’s black and there are so few black hackers in the public eye. Lee, whose pseudonym is Corrupt, was featured as a main character—arguably the main character—of Michelle Slatella’s and Joshua Quittner’s book about the events that led up to the arrest and trial of hackers affiliated with the Masters of Deception, the so-called “gang that ruled cyberspace.”2 The first story doesn’t mention race at all, and I’d bet, when you read it, that it never occurred to you that any of the hackers involved might be black. The second story uses race only as a descriptor—makes you aware that there is a nonwhite character in the mix, but doesn’t attribute any specific meaning to the race of any of the hackers. The third story, however, is rife with references which not only signify race but evoke culturally coded narratives and racial stereotypes. This third story is the one that Slatella and Quittner told about Lee—a story that is perhaps true, and perhaps not, but which in any case certainly tells us a great deal about the ways in which white cyberculture critics perceive black hackers.
In fact, the manner in which John Lee is introduced in MOD mirrors the storytelling progression above: “The Brooklyn hacker calls himself Corrupt. He’s rumored to be a specialist. MOD can always use another specialist, and Corrupt supposedly knows more about a ubiquitous and powerful corporate computer called VAX than the founder of the Digital Equipment Corporation…. And Corrupt can crack VAXes. Sign him up.”3
This deracinated description is immediately followed by a paragraph that not only reveals Corrupt’s race, but positions Corrupt as an outsider and potential bad influence on MOD principal Eli Ladopoulous (Acid Phreak):
Now there was plenty that Eli didn’t know about Corrupt. He didn’t know, for instance, that Corrupt’s name is John Lee. He didn’t know that John lives with his mom in a third-floor walkup apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant (that’s Bed-Stuy, you’ve heard of it as surely as you’ve heard of Cabrini Green and East. L.A.), one of New York’s toughest neighborhoods. Eli didn’t know that John would need no introduction whatsoever to the concept of MOD, because John was intimately acquainted with gangs. Out in the real world, out on the streets where you measure distance with your feet instead of your modem, John used to belong to a gang. He was a Decept, a member of the best-known gang in the whole city. Anytime there was a holdup on a subway train, you can bet some cop was going to say the Decepticons pulled the job.4
I don’t hack computers. I’m a literary critic, so I hack text. And it’s worth spending some time to get inside this paragraph, because embedded within in it are all of the codes which have come to signify blackness in cyberspace.
Corrupt is not only Black—Corrupt is one tough dude. But the impression of his toughness springs from a set of stereotypes about black youth. Let’s start with the fact that John lives with his mom. A white teenaged kid living with his mom is, well, a pretty normal thing. Lots of divorce in our culture, lots of single mothers. But blackness and single parenting are loaded when you tie them together—there’s a whole literature dedicated to describing the “pathology” of Black family life, a condition in which the absence of fathers is the crucial element.5 A Black missing father is presumed to be a bum, a criminal, a no-good dog who deserted his wife and kids and is probably either shacking up with another woman, in jail or out on the street shooting heroin or swilling wine. Especially in a neighborhood like “Bed-Stuy.”
Slatella and Quittner sure harp on that neighborhood, comparing it with Chicago’s Cabrini Green (home of the legendary Blackstone Rangers, a gang immortalized by Gwendolyn Brooks in her poetry) and—oddly enough—with East LA (one suspects that Slatella and Quittner might have been casting about for Watts here, or the area which appears on no LA maps, “South Central,” since East LA usually brings up images of Chicano, rather than a black neighborhoods, at least to this Los Angelino). A Black-female-headed low-income household is the pop-culture precursor to gang involvement.
Gang involvement. Let’s look at that word for a moment: gang. First place I’d ever seen “gang” used as a word to describe an organization of hackers was in the December ‘94 issued of Wired, which previewed MOD.6 That issue features a young Black man, John Lee, on its cover—an unusual event for Wired. His dark skin is evident against an unusually subdued grey background. He’s got a grin on his face, and stubbies on his head — short dreadlocks; his arms are crossed gangsta style. In fact, this could be a Vanity Fair cover of some hip rapper in a natty oversized blue-plaid shirt, except that banded across his chest are these words: “Hacker Showdown. A member of a rival phreaking gang called John Lee a ‘nigger’—and in the hacker underground nothing was ever the same again.”7
The emblem of the “gang” is the Black body of John Lee, who confers gangbanger status on a bunch of youthful white-collar criminals through association. The image of the console cowboy, evoked by the use of the word “showdown,” is intensified, made more dangerous and more cool by the exotic Lee. The word ‘nigger’ is the challenge that started the ‘gang war’ that ostensibly made Lee and his posse saddle up for their wild ride.8 But Lee is the only ‘nigger’ in the crowd—-the rest of his group, with the exception of the Puerto Rican hacker Julio Fernandez (who had been Lee’s friend before Lee ever joined MOD) is white. So what’s going on here?
The answer’s all in that one paragraph, quoted above. John, as Slatella and Quittner note, is “intimately acquainted with gangs.” He belonged to the Decepticons, remember? “The best known gang in the whole city.” He’s the real-live, gen-yoo-wine streetwise hoodlum who took MOD to a whole ‘nother level.
I went and looked up the Decepticons on some search engines. Got around 1200 hits on the Transformers toys that they’re named after, a dozen hits on stories about John Lee and reviews of MOD that mentioned Lee’s status as a Decepticon, and not a single hit that talked about a New York gang of that name. Looked up every gang page on the Web and found a listing for the Decepticons on only one, which also listed scores of other New York gangs. The Decepticons were nowhere near the top. So I went to the New York Times archives where I figured that the “best known gang in the whole city” would surely be mentioned.
In the last year there was exactly one reference to the Decepticons. Oddly enough, it was in an “Ideas and Trends” article which pointed out that despite the sharp drop in crime in the city, New Yorkers were unreasonably afraid of gangs, comparing today’s fear of gang violence to an earlier incident in 1989 “when a gang known as the Decepticons terrorized teen-agers in the city. Though the existence of the gang, which was named for menacing robots in a television cartoon show, was never verified, the resulting hysteria was real enough.”9 Later in the article, Michael Eric Dyson, a Columbia professor of African American studies, notes that the Decepticons “were overplayed… the same way that the threat of gangster rap was overplayed… As long as young people feel there is no way to make money legally, there will always be gangs. In the same sense, paranoia about what these youths are up to will always be out of proportion to reality.”10
Slatella and Quittner and the white boys in MOD might have been taken for a bit of a ride by Lee, whose banger status is questionable at best. “Decepticon” is a name worthy of a gang in an Ishmael Reed novel, a real howler of a moniker. The mix of “deception” and “con” is amusing enough, particularly when applied to an imaginary (even, dare I say, virtual) gang, but the pop culture references make it even more interesting. The Decepticons are the arch-enemies of the popular Transformers, toys that are based on the notion of conversion or shape-shifting.
Transformers and Decepticons are robots which can also turn into tanks, guns, jets and other machines. The Decepticons are robots with unshakable bad attitudes—their sole mission is to wreak havoc on “good” Transformers and “fleshlings” (human beings). They’ve got a ship called the Warworld, and, in the Transformers comic book series, have been responsible for ravaging the Earth and bringing it to the brink of destruction. The dual meaning of “Decepticon” is widely understood among hip-hop aficionados. Take, for example, this exchange from rec.music.hip-hop:
"Why is it that all or almost all rappers identify themselves with Decepticons? I’ve heard, 'I do so-and-so like a Decepticon," but I never hear, 'I do so-and-so like an Autobot.'"
Mike, I think it falls back to the thing mentioned earlier in the thread of the Decepticonz [sic] being a New York gang. Decepticons were on the tip of everyone’s tongue, either as the local not to be fucked with’s, the bad ass boys from Transformers, or both. Therefore it only came naturally to rap about being bad as a Decepticon, because of the dual meaning it implied.11
The only published source which reveals Lee’s race but does not describe his alleged gang affiliation is Vibe On-Line, which featured Lee in its August 23 issue, with a photo and the following descriptive paragraph:
John Lee is a 23-year-old brother from Brooklyn with a beatific smile and a penchant for Saturday-morning cartoons. Don't be deceived. During the eight years that Lee—better known as corrupt—defined the hacker underground as a member of MOD (Masters of Deception), he broke in to thousands of computers, including many "sensitive" enough to get him busted by the feds in 1992. Now he studies film at Brooklyn College and hopes to sell a script filled with his hacking stories—all but one, that is. To this day, he won't discuss his discovery of what seemed like the computer for a fishing company—except the fact that the computer actually belonged to the National Security Agency, and contained satellite photos and communiqués that would, he says, make "War Games look like Parcheesi."12
Vibe, which targets a Black audience, emphasizes Lee’s hacking skills. Too savvy to buy the Decepticons myth, and used to celebrities who pose as gangbangers, they, instead, seize on Lee’s perhaps equally tall tale of cracking an NSA mystery computer. The cartoon-loving hacker has turned into a scriptwriter, proving, once again, that when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Neither is Vibe concerned with the details of Lee’s war with rival hackers in the Legion of Doom—instead, the magazine’s sole interest is that Lee succeeded as a pioneering Black hacker, defining “the hacker underground.” That is the only discernible reason Lee might be featured in a collection of “movers and shakers in the entertainment industry” since he, as yet, had no screen credits.
The different concerns of Black and white journals and audiences are no surprise. For Vibe the unusual and compelling fact about John Lee is that he gained entry and attained high status in the predominantly white world of hackers. For Slatella and Quittner, for Wired, and perhaps even for Lee’s friends in MOD, the compelling fact about John Lee is that he is Black, and not just Black but a particular kind of Black that vicariously confers status, hipness and the aura of street danger on an essentially middle-to-upper-class white past-time—hacking. That Lee, who wanted very badly to be part of MOD, would not have understood and exploited the nature of white interest in him, is highly unlikely. An extremely sophisticated young man, he had mastered both the rules of speech of standard English and mainstream self-presentation, and of Black English, phenomenon Quittner and Slatella document without understanding their implications for their own study:
If only the [phone company] operator could see John, a tall, twenty-year-old black kid in a white T-shirt and khaki pants so baggy they could hold a friend. He doesn’t look at all the part he’s playing—a white, middle-aged, tool-belted lineman doing a service check. But he sounds the part. And maybe that’s enough. Just maybe the operator will fall for his smooth line of technobabble and give him an open line.13
That Lee could move effortlessly from one role to another was a skill that allowed him entry into the world of MOD. Had he actually been a banger with an unshakably bad street attitude, he wouldn’t have been hanging out with lame white kids unless he was ripping them off for their milk money. Or modem money.
The problem, however, is that the world of white hackers into which he had crossed over was not expansive enough to accept him in all his complexity. While his friends might like Lee’s projected aura of street authenticity, relaxing in the shade of its conferred cool, his rivals inevitably saw that coded blackness as a threat.
The “gang war” allegedly began with a conversation on a “bridge,” an illegal conference call between hackers—in this case between some Texas hackers who belonged to the Legion of Doom and John Lee in New York:
"Yo, dis is Dope Fiend from MOD," the newcomer says in distinctly non-white, non-middle-class, non-Texan inflection.
One of the Texans (who knows who) takes umbrage.
"Get that nigger off the line!"
The newcomer is silent....
Then the newcomer speaks with a different accent, and the words he says to the white boys from Texas are these: "Hi, this is Corrupt."14
When Lee speaks smooth standard English, as “Corrupt,” he’s acceptable, but the intrusion of a Black street persona into the conversation draws the knee-jerk racist reaction. The epithet, though delivered to a character played by Lee (one might think of it as Lee deliberately performing a stereotypical “ghetto” role) of course reflects on Lee himself, for what he and the character he plays have in common is, specifically, the color of their skin. Lee, whose “ghetto” (Bed-Stuy) origins are invisible as long as he conforms to the rules and rituals of standard English self-presentation, becomes visible as a “ghetto” dweller only by embodying the (fictional) character which represents “the ghetto” to his white audience. Quittner’s and Slatella’s misreading of this incident is notable:
Nothing would ever be the same again....
With that one word, war had been declared.
You don’t survive on the street by allowing white boys to call you "nigger."15
The “you” in the latter sentence is the “streetwise” Lee. But to what streets do the authors refer? In Lee’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, there would hardly have been a risk of being called “nigger” by a white boy–surely that was the least of Lee’s worries as he struggled to navigate his environment. And when Lee started hanging with the MOD kids, he brought the cachet of the streets to them, but he certainly no longer inhabited them.
Quittner and Slatella see the above incident as precipitating a “war” only because they unconsciously accept the notion that Lee’s Blackness is somehow transferrable, that his presence elevates MOD from a mere club into a real “gang.” But the narrative doesn’t hold. As Lee noted, the LOD’s attacks, and Chris Goggan’s attacks in particular, were aimed directly at him and at Fernandez, and were specifically racial.16 Slatella and Quittner conflate two different stories—-the story of MOD’s illegal hacking, capture and prosecution, and the story of the very personal feud between Lee and Goggans—-trading on Lee’s Blackness to add spice to the description of MOD’s stunts.
The Ghost Dance of White Ethnicity*
If any one aphorism can characterize the experience of black people in this country, it might be that the white-authored national narrative deliberately contradicts the histories our bodies know... The American way with regard to the actual lived experience of African Americans has been to write a counternarrative which erased bodily information as we knew it and substituted a countertext which in many cases has become a version of national memory. 18
John Lee wasn’t the first Black hacker to make the public scene. To my knowledge, the first was Mr. Oliver Wendell Jones, the child-genius of Berke Breathed’s early 1980s comic strips, Bloom County. The nerdy son of a Black middle-class family, Oliver cracked and hacked with panache, often wearing a child’s pirate costume as he pulled stunts that influenced politics and media on a national level. No bad boy or rebel, he absorbed his family’s values and then used the new technology to advance their interests. In one cartoon strip, Oliver’s father lectures him:
Why look at this! My phone bill, which should be about 63 bucks, is only 63¢! Almost as if somebody had broken into the phone company’s computer and moved decimal points! Imagine! Son, this is terrible, just awful. If you mess with our phone bill again, there’ll be no glazed beets with your dinner for an entire month. Mess with the electric bill and no beets for two months!19
After which, Oliver reflects, “He, of course, knows that beets make me throw up.” Hacking is clearly portrayed as white-collar crime here—well before the popularization of cyberpunk and the birth of the outlaw associations of cyberculture antiheroes. Oliver’s equipment is the best that his parents can buy him, a far cry from John Lee’s “computer system that looks like it’s cobbled together from junkyard parts. He has a big old TV console for a monitor, a messed-up keyboard, and his old Commie 64, bandaged with electrical tape. His computer is a street box, a guerrilla machine.”20
Although the large majority of Black hackers (like white hackers) share Oliver’s middle-class roots, it’s the image of the Black guerrilla hacker that pervades cyberspace, conferring on white cyberculture critics, cyberpunk writers, and hackers alike an aura of exoticism and danger, conferring… cool.
Black characters show up regularly in white-authored and produced novels and films, and cyberspace imagery is rife with borrowed, stolen or appropriated African and Afro-American symbolism: “The desire to be ‘down’ has not only promoted conservative appropriation of specific aspects of underclass black life; that reality is dehumanized via a process of commodification wherein no correlation is made between mainstream hedonistic consumerism and the reproduction of a social system that perpetuates and maintains an underclass.”21
As bell hooks notes above, white appropriation of aspects of Black life—-and particularly Black underclass life—-often takes place without any concern for the real lives of Black Americans, and the real system of oppression within which they operate on a daily basis. But most cyberpunk and cyberculture writers think of themselves as actively liberal or radical, and, if asked, would most likely say that including Black characters in their works indicates their progressive position on social issues.
My argument here is not that these writers are conservative, or even racist, but that the characters they generate are largely uninformed by an understanding of African American history, literature or culture and thus unintentionally reproduce racist paradigms.
The Black men (and it is almost always Black men) who appear in cyberpunk and cyberculture criticism are often cast in roles that might, on the surface, be reminiscent of the work of African American novelist and cultural critic Ishmael Reed, whose Neo-Hoodoo Realist heroes question Western rationalism (slip the yoke and change the joke) in novels such as Yellow Back Radio Broke Down and that amazing piece of African American science fiction, Mumbo Jumbo.
A side-by-side reading of William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, and Mumbo Jumbo would produce some interesting resonances, not least in their rhythmic slang and paranoid worldviews, their dark preoccupation with the feat of navigation through a deadly web of malign artificial intelligences, and their focus on Hoodoo cowboys, though Reed might bristle to find his characters and the ambience he created downloaded and ported to a New Machine.
On closer examination, however, cyberpunk sidesteps the crucial concern of the Neo-Hoodoo protagonist—how to manifest as a Black man within a Black aesthetic in a hostile white world, an eruption of funk—-and instead redefines itself as a kind of Neo-Neo-Hoodoo where the Black man comes to stand for rupture in the white psyche.
Steeped in the cyberpunk aesthetic, contemporary cyberculture criticism unconsciously replicates and mirrors racist paradigms. It does this in several ways, most prominently by refusing to devote serious energy or attention to discussions of racism, trapping black subjects “in their roles as art objects who never really speak,” and thus failing to fundamentally alter “the production of knowledge and the structure of global communications.”22 As Michelle Wallace notes in her critique of white film, “in a racist empire, whites who trivialize racism and sexism can, nevertheless, provide progressive intellectual and creative leadership.”23
Cyberculture critics do notgenerally trivialize gender; in fact, one might argue that gender is an obsessive focus for this group of critics, the subject of many book-length studies, scholarly articles and on-line exchanges. But articles that focus on the intersection of gender and race in cyberculture may be counted on the fingers of one hand, and articles that take as their focus race in particular are extremely rare.24
The exclusion of race may not be deliberate on the part of white cyberculture critics; it is likely an unconscious and therefore unexamined result of white ignorance of African American critical theories of race and difference which, like feminist theories of gender, would provide useful tools for the analysis of a ubiquitous and pernicious condition.25
The influence of feminist scholarship on the field of cyberculture criticism is heartening; it has informed most—if not all—of the major studies written over the last five years. The strides made by feminist scholars within the academy have not, however, been matched by equal success within ethnic studies in general, or within African American studies in particular. African Americanist scholars remain largely ghettoized in “studies” programs and though much lip service is given the primacy of the holy trinity, “gender, race, and class,” it is gender that receives by far the most attention from the “progressive intellectual and creative leadership” to which Wallace refers above.
The simultaneous failure to incorporate Black critical theory into cyberculture criticism, and the reproduction of Black subjects as “art objects” within the cyberpunk aesthetic can be illuminated by Houston Baker’s argument about the way in which Black Studies has been coded within the academy.
Baker describes the process by which Black Studies “became not only a real ground of contestation, but also a coded and generative space of values that encompassed both past and proximate, inside and outside, confrontations.”26 The social movements of the Sixties strongly influenced cyberpunk and cyberculture philosophy (there are few cyberculture critical studies that do not mention the Sixties as an influence) and in that era, as Baker describes, the term Black Studies “became a signifying amalgam of energies gesturing toward antidraft resistance, the FSM [Free Speech Movement], Civil Rights, Black Power, and general American concerns for a redistribution of the resources of knowledge production.”
Riffing on Baudrillard, Baker notes that “Black Studies was akin to the black box of the genetic code; it was capable of a seemingly endless proliferation of revolutionary ‘likenesses.’”
As a simulacrum, Black Studies generated a combinatory power of signification in profoundly black ways, mixing styles and producing a synthesis in which kitsch, retro, and other modes occupied spaces of value "all at the same time,’" to quote Baudrillard on simulacrae in general. Before and after, now and future, were temporally coexistent in the Black Studies project, complicating any attempt either to recuperate or authenticate traditional notions of the real. a seemingly endless proliferation of revolutionary "likenesses."27
The proliferation of revolutionary likenesses wasn’t limited to Black Studies within the academy. It was a culture-wide phenomenon, in which blackness was codified as resistance. Kobena Mercer describes the process in some detail:
Among student activists, within the bohemian ‘underground,’ within second-wave feminism, and the nascent gay and lesbian liberation movement, the signs and signifiers of radical blackness were appropriated into a chain of equivalences that empowered subordinate identities within white society. Of course, this most often took a cultural rather than conventionally political form of solidarity. The mass diffusion of black expressive culture through the pop and rock music industry played a key role in the dissemination of such imaginary modes of alternative identification, culminating in the 1969 Woodstock Festival, where the predominantly white, middle-class youth who gathered there thought they constituted a nation within the nation, a new imagined community.28
Contemporary white cyberculture critics and cyberpunk writers have capitalized on the density of the sign of Blackness-as-resistance and have appropriated it lock, stock and barrel, so that the introduction of a coded “Black” character into a text (a revolutionary likeness) lights up floating signifiers like a hot ball in a pinball machine.
As the story of John Lee makes clear, appropriation of the signs and signifiers of radical Blackness in the Nineties are still being used to empower subordinate identities (in this case, hackers) within white society. Those signs have shifted, however, so that the revolutionary Black Panther of the Sixties has become the gangbanger of the Nineties, a process which Tricia Rose explores in detail in her study of rap music and Black culture, Black Noise. 29] Rose also notes that the electronic mass-mediation of Black popular culture has projected Black images of resistance (like political and gangsta rap) into white households at an unprecedented rate, increasing the chances that such images will be detached from their origins and incorporated into the mainstream. Before the era of mass-mediation, those resistant Black expressions were largely hidden from white public view, and thus protected and insulated from attack and appropriation. Rose notes:
The frontier between public and hidden transcripts is a zone of constant struggle between dominant and subordinate groups. Although electronic mass media and corporate consolidation have heavily weighted the battle in favor of the powerful, contestations and new strategies of resistance are vocal and contentious. The fact that the powerful often win does not mean that a war isn’t going on.30
This is a war that, however, seems to be largely invisible to white cyberculture critics and proponents of the cyberpunk aesthetic, quite likely because they are almost entirely unaware of the “polyvocal black cultural discourse” out of which rap’s resistance culture arises, and through which rappers and other Black resistance workers engage in “discursive ‘wars of position’ within and against dominant discourses.”31 Just as blaxploitation films of the 1970s served as both sites of resistance (bringing Black revolutionary rhetoric and music to the wider public) and sites of oppression (reinscribing Black stereotypes for mass consumption), so rap provides both a critique and a confirmation of the balance of power in the contemporary United States. Borrowing the gangsta as the coded figure of resistance, but failing to see the complexity of the gangsta role (seeing it, instead, as a role, rather than as the product of a discourse), cyberculture critics and cyberpunk writers both conceive of Blackness in unidimensional terms, as a figure which stands for rupture in the white psyche.
In both cyberpunk and cyberculture criticism, hackers are seen as outlaws, running data “hustles” which “involve illegality as a means of maintaining the equation between masculinity and economic independence.”32 Mercer notes:
While the institutionalized figure of the ‘hustler’ in black urban society is intelligible as a response to conditions of racism, poverty and economic disenfranchisement, it does not challenge that system of oppression but rather accommodates itself to it: illegal means are used to attain the same normative ends or goals of consumption associated with the patriarchal definition of the male role of ‘breadwinner,’ the counterpart to normative definitions of women’s domestic role as ‘housewife.’ The figure of the ghetto ‘hustler’ is often almost romantically depicted as a social outsider at odds with capitalist conformity, whereas in fact this mode of survival involves an essential investment in the idea that a ‘real’ man must be an active, independent economic agent, a notion which forms the cornerstone of capitalist patriarchy and its ethic of ‘success.33
There’s no indication that white male cyberpunk writers and critics are doing anything other than romanticizing the hustler once again, embracing a mostly libertarian ethic entirely consonant with both capitalism and patriarchy and using as its emblems appropriated “revolutionary” Black bodies. And because of the univocality of this critical and artistic body, its unbearable whiteness of being, contemporary cyberculture studies does not offer even the hidden transcript tendered by blaxploitation or rap genres. I expect this charge to draw cries of outrage from those white cyberculture critics and cyberpunk writers who feel knowledgeable about Black popular culture, but it is my observation that even those who have absorbed Black popular culture material fail to introduce Black speaking subjects rather than merely Black “art objects.”
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker open their cyberculture anthology Digital Delirium with a title image of “Singing the Blues in Cyber-City.”34 The blues, of course, is represented by the image of a Black bluesman (American blues could hardly be any other color) who looks and sounds like Fats Domino: “…putting down a heavy beat on a set of rusty blue drums, singing with a deep bass voice that puts into song the wail of America that has traveled from the plantations of the southern delta to the slaughterhouses of Chicago, and met futureshock in SF, this city at the end of the western continental migration of the body.”35
Domino was not, in fact, a bluesman, but an R&B musician, working in a genre born, in part, out of the blues but also quite distinct. This is not a substitution that an African Americanist critic would ever make, since no African Americanist critic could possibly fail to be aware of the careful genealogies of the blues that wind their way through Black literature and music in the United States, from the chants of enslaved Africans, to the rhythms of Gullah children’s songs, to the jump-rope chants of Harlem, in and out of the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Sherley Anne Williams, ntozake shange, in the Delta blues, Chicago blues, West Coast blues, prison recordings from Parchman and Angola, the echoes of Ma Rainey, Leadbelly, Ida Cox, Robert Johnson, Bill Broonzy, Howling Wolf, Etta James resonating up and down the years. No, an article by an African Americanist that was titled “Singing the Blues in Cyber-City,” would be about the blues, might even be a slow blues walk itself; you can bet on it.
The “wail of America” to which the Krokers refer is a Black wail, allegedly a blues wail of the most stereotypical sort—which stands for Blackness, though, as we see, it does not represent it—a layering of images of Black America (plantations, slaughterhouses) that signifies what Blackness has come to mean to the white people who use it to stand in for their own hipness. “There was something about the music that just pumped the cynicism out of the air.”36 Nor would an African Americanist critic have approached the blues with such naivete, as though it were an unmediated bridge to the African soul of America.
The crowd gathered around the “bluesman” is deracinated, unlike the Blackinized figure of the musician. The only hint of possible color, a multiculti air, is conferred by “a guy with a Cherokee Nation sweatshirt… [who] pulls a harmonica out of his pack and begins to play along.”37 The guy might be Cherokee… or he might just be wearing the shirt. In either case, it’s fascinating to see him relegated to playing back-up for the ‘bluesman,’—a sort of second-class Othering made even more complicated by the Kroker’s adoption of the end-of-the-frontier metaphor in the paragraph quoted above. In this narrative of cyberspace, all races play back-up to the Black Other who, in turn, plays background music for the dominant white net-culture.
The “dirt poor outlaw street band” has “exited normal space, the space of SF” (simultaneously San Francisco and Science Fiction) and escaped “the police state” by way of “a fault line through which all the rage and the anger and the sorrow and the ecstasy of a street society at the end of the road, explodes out of rasping mouths and rusty drums and beat-up Fender guitars.”38 It’s no accident that the Kroker anthology, which represents a sizeable number of the acclaimed (and self-proclaimed) ‘digerati’ (itself a notably elitist term) opens with this imagery, and that the volume is steeped in it. The cyberpunk aesthetic is a rip-off of the African American aesthetic—a skin-deep rip-off, to be sure, and surely more theft than homage–a Trojan Horse virus that cloaks itself in the familiar to gain entrance before it kills its host. We see again the codified elements that signify Blackness to white Americans: the outlaw, the hustler, the “street,” the cachet of hip hop, the glamor of poverty, the rhythmic pounding of drums — all marshalled in the service of white self-representation as the Krokers continue:
The R&B sound is a big rumble at the end of the continent, and so when the band flips into Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay with the words: "I left my home in Georgia... Headed for the Frisco Bay... Got nothing to live for ‘cause nothin’s been going my way," we can just feel the keening of the words inside our skin, and when Fats cuts the words down to the naked-edge line of "Nothin’ to live for... Nothin’ to live for... Nothin’ to live for," which he rasps out over and over again like a mantra of the dead, we know that we have mutated beyond music, and are present at a dirge, SF style: end of the continent, end of the road, end of the body, end of life, end of hope. It’s just that moment when a song become lament, and the city streets are a dance of the dispossessed.39
Reading this paragraph, marveling over the claim “we can just feel the keening of the words inside our skin,” I can only wonder, what do you mean we, white man? The Black Other is displaced, subsumed, consumed in this paragraph; the dispossessed are dispossessed of their dispossession. The blatancy of the appropriation is made even more explicit in the next paragraph, where the Krokers refer back to “that dusky corner” where the outlaw band played. This is the second time the word “dusky” has appeared in the Kroker piece—in paragraph two the scene was placed in “chaos time,” the “dusky cusp between light and dark, between cyber-city at work and SF at evening play” when “sometimes, just sometimes, the two populations meet.”40 Framing the start and the finish of the scenario, the word “dusky” (often associated with Blackness) is a place were we “all” (whitefolks) can meet and try on borrowed or stolen pain, imagine a universal “ancient song of lament” in which we take part as equal victims, and then pay the objectified Black performer (“art object”) for providing us with such an illusion.
If the real-life John Lee was reframed by Slatella and Quittner in terms which allowed them to borrow the cachet of his Blackness and apply its “outlaw” qualities to the white boys in MOD, the nameless Black “bluesman” fabricated by the Krokers never had a chance. Lee, at least, might have signified upon his white audience with his story of the Decepticons, and thus inserted himself sideways into his own narrative as a speaking subject despite white attempts to objectify him. The bluesman, who starts off looking and sounding like Fats Domino, and then is apparently morphed into Fats Domino (“Fats cuts the words down to the naked-edge”) is himself only a stand-in for Otis Redding, ultimately universalized as the singer of “the intense, ancient song of lament that [R&b/blues] was always meant to be.”41 Reduced to simulacrum, the Krokers’ “Fats” is no more than a Disneyesque animatronic, performing a predictable and carefully choreographed set piece with the sole purpose of evoking a specific set of reactions in a white audience.
And just in case we missed the universal applicability of “Dock of the Bay,” it’s reprised in a short section titled “Digital Dustbowl: Squatting on the Dock of the Bay,” which conflates Okies, Arkies, urban squatters and the Black urban poor, lumping them into a single category the Krokers call “the surplus class.”42 For all their celebration of an ostensibly disembodied space the Krokers dwell with loving attention on racialized bodies, introducing us here to Jesus, a “tough-ass, mean-thinking Puerto Rican organic intellectual,” “blue-collar,” who speaks in ghetto clichés — soundbites signifying nonwhiteness (alienness) to the white readership: “If you’re poor and black in America, you ain’t got no rights. When you’re in the projects, the cops will bust down your door every night. In the projects, you’re always living with your pants down.”43
Lest we miss Jesus’ accessibility to whitefolks, we’re told he’s married “to a French Maoist” (race unassigned, but we surely imagine she’s a white woman). The name Jesus is no accident, either—he’s the pathway to salvation, and he can—and has—died for our sins and granted us—in the Kroker’s terms—our redemption.
It’s true that it’s not just Black bodies that the Krokers colonize but working-class bodies, since “working-class” has always signalled a life lived in-the-body, as opposed to the “life of the mind” lived by body-snatching intellectuals. Unselfconscious romantics, the Krokers write of the squatters: “Refusing service work, they are the last and best of the independent workers: living off the land, re-skilling their labor, prophets of the future of blue-collar work in the American digital dustbowl.” Of course, the “new working-class” described by the Krokers doesn’t contain any members of the real working class; it just displaces them, steals their vitality, substitutes illusion for action while being rooted in traditional bourgeois notions of bootstrapping, “independence,” entrepreneurial behavior… in short, capitalism. Though the Krokers tip their hats to the evils of the “racially and class-segregated privatized gated communities of the 90s,”44 their vision of tearing down the walls doesn’t include any sense whatsoever of what black folks might want from the New World.
Despite the racialized frame provided by the Krokers, most of the writers in the Digital Delirium volume don’t address the issue of race at all—they simply elide it, business as usual in cyberculture criticism. An exception is Stephen Pfohl, who uses a racialized metaphor to emphasize the pervasive effects of cybernetics:
As a young American white boy in the 1950s, cybernetics enveloped me like a second skin, a second nature. Indeed, night after night, I would be lulled into half-dream states, swollen with telecommunicative feedback. The radio rocking me, rolling me, somewhere between wakefulness and electronic slumber. Phone now! Vote for your favorite stars! Request your favorite black tunes sung by white voices! And, of course, I did. Nothing has been the same since. This is no confession. This is a description of collective cybernetic signalings which run through my body, like blood, only much faster.45
Blackness is felt most in its absence here, in the incorporation of what blackness signifies into the white body. In this sense, one could think of the replacement of Black “parts” with white “parts” as a kind of cybernetics, an early version of the (e)rasure of the Black body, leaving only the signified and disappearing the sign. Pfohl acknowledges the “masculine, heterosexist, and racially inscribed charge” which dominates the “energetic ritual organization of power between ourselves and others.”46 This is nothing but a brief aside in Pfohl’s article, however, and the remark on the absence of the Black body is not followed by its introduction into the theoretical structure/discourse. In the text of Digital Delirium, white cyberculture critics make passing reference to race and racism, but do not pursue their points—most ideas about race go without saying.
In an interview with Louise Wilson, Paul Virilio takes issue with Baudrillard’s claim that cyberspace is an arena of simulation. Virilio thinks, instead, that what is taking place in cyberspace is substitution: “As I see it, new technologies are substituting a virtual reality for an actual reality. And this is more than a phase: it’s a definite change. We are entering a world where there won’t be one but two realities, just like we have two eyes or hear bass and treble tones… there will be two realities: the actual, and the virtual.”47
The virtual African American, though, bears almost no relation to actual African Americans; he might be better described as a white man’s Black man. If Virilio had been thinking about race, if race had not gone without saying, the dangers of such a substitution might have been clear. In a world where there are two realities, the danger is that the substitute will bear no resemblance to the actual, and that in a circumstance in which “actual” African Americans rarely interact with the majority of white folks, the substitution will take precedence in the white imagination and simply come to make the reality invisible. But this is of no concern to Virilio, who dismisses racism, in this interview, as “the most stupid thing in the world,” without bothering to elaborate on it further.48
In the next interview, Baudrillard sneers at the notion of “the return of the subject,” a phenomenon that is often associated with racial and gender identity group politics. In fact, he specifically attacks “SOS subjectivity,” linking this “return” with the social and political activism of SOS Racisme, an organization dedicated to fighting racism directed against non-European immigrants in France.
Such a subject is the standard figure, robot of a reconstituted subject trying to recoup its residual vestiges, or whatever is left of them.... And among those who reactivate this subject, who turn it into an actor, even those people know that it has lost its integrity as a subject, its conviction to adhere to its own effort to change the world. It does not believe in it anymore, it pretends to, it is a form of strategy, a posthumous strategy.... I do not look upon it as a credible phenomenon, not for myself in any case.
Baudrillard forgets what Robert Adrian X notes most cyberculture critics forget—the fact that the “postmodern condition” affects less than 10% of the world’s population49, and that 90% of the world’s population never thought the subject had departed, and thus can hardly be accused of wishing for its “return.” The pervasiveness of this believe in the “death of the subject” can hardly be overemphasized in cyberculture criticism, and is tied to a general tendency in cultural studies to disregard the importance of the ethnohistorical perspective and, instead, to assume some sort of universal and generally applicable theoretical stance vis-a-vis the analysis of cultural artifacts.
Critics concerned with the African diaspora can, however, hardly be so cavalier about either the disappearance of the subject or the dismissal of history as a valid discipline. As Paul Gilroy notes:
Looking at cultural studies from an ethnohistorical perspective requires more than just noting its association with English literature, history, and New Left politics. It necessitates constructing an account of the borrowings made by these English initiatives from wider, modern, European traditions of thinking about culture, and at every stage examining the place which these cultural perspectives provide for the images of their racialised others as objects of knowledge, power, and cultural criticism. It is imperative, though very hard, to combine thinking about these issues with consideration of the pressing need to get black cultural expressions, analyses and histories taken seriously in academic circles rather than assigned via the idea of "race relations" to sociology and thence abandoned to the elephants’ graveyard to which intractable policy issues go to await their expiry.50
The problem with Baudrillard in particular, and cyberculture critics in general is precisely that they refuse to combine thinking about cyberculture with reflecting on the ways in which their theories posit (and rely upon) images of racialized others as objects (“art objects”) of knowledge, power, and cultural criticism. This refusal not only limits the scope and usefulness of the critical body of work produced by these writers, but also ensures that they will miss important opportunities to expand upon and strengthen their own arguments on their own terms. As Bennetta Jules-Rosette notes in her landmark study of computer use in Africa, African cultures may provide useful structures for understanding the “postmodern condition.” Jules-Rosette describes two narratives from Kamba folktales (from Kenya) and comments:
These stories raise the question of whether postmodern narrativity is actually new to Africa. Buried within African cultural traditions, in this case the Kamba folktales, are the kernels of a postmodern, utopian dream. The human subject recedes in confrontation with magical forces. Although fashioned by a village boy and a medicine man, these technological forces allow their users to transcend the human condition and to become all-powerful. The seeds of a postmodern dream of technological empowerment are alive in these traditional narratives.51
I have remarked elsewhere that the Yoruban oracle, the Ifa, seems a remarkable model for thinking about hypertext.52 In contemporary African American culture, the model of hybridity, pastiche, and referentiality accomplished through manipulation of technology provided by rap music seems by far the liveliest articulation of postmodern principles to date. In Houston Baker’s words:
Discotechnology was hybridized through the human hand and ear—the DJ turned wildman at the turntable. The conversion produced a rap DJ who became a postmodern ritual priest of sound rather than a passive spectator in an isolated DJ booth making robots turn. A reverse cyborgism was clearly at work in the rap conversion. The high technology of advanced sound production was reclaimed by and for human ears and the human body’s innovative abilities. A hybrid sound then erupted in seemingly dead urban acoustical spaces.53
Baker here defines the postmodern as “nonauthoritative collaging or archiving of sound and styles that bespeaks a deconstructive hybridity,” a process in which “linearity and progress yield to a dizzying synchronicity.”54
That this sort of hybridity, in its specifically racialized form, is a crucial component of the cyberpunk aesthetic seems inarguable given the almost de rigeur presence of rapper Ice-T or an Ice-T duppy in just about every Hollywood cyberpunk production made in the last several years. For example, Ice-T plays Jaybone in Johnny Mnemonic, a Glack tribal character who rules “Heaven,” the Lo-Tec World Headquarters. Jaybone wears war-paint, dreds and goggles. When he shows the protagonist, Johnny, around Heaven he explains
We built Heaven completely out of straight-world junk, all hauled up here piece by piece. We work with Spider and his people and anybody else who’s fighting the system. We out shit for them.... Heaven, heart and soul. This is where we fight back. We strip the pretty little pictures from the fine print channel universe, recontextualize, then we spit the shit back at ‘em, special data, things that’ll help people.
Shades of John Lee’s “guerrilla” computer set-up, back in the ‘hood,’ the image of Jaybo incorporates all of the components of the white man’s Black man—the outlaw nature of the operation, the hustle, the merger of technology and primitivism. Johnny’s involvement with Jaybo redeems the white man from a life with the ‘suits,’ a life which would have been utterly boring, inevitably emasculating, and entirely, irretrievably unhip.
Images of Blackness weave in and through cyberpunk films, part of a complicated though never explicitly delineated conversation about the function of race in cyberspace. Already a potent symbol due to his antiauthoritarian rap, Ice-T was first featured in New Jack City, the original gangsta movie (1990) as a nihilistic cop who brings down a drug lord. In Ricochet he’s a crack entrepreneur who helps out a District Attorney (straight man Denzel Washington) because they were boyz in the hood together, and he reminds Denzel’s character that no matter how high he rises, he needs to make an alliance with the Black underclass or the white man will take him down. Moving into the SF and cyberpunk genre with Tank Girl, Ice-T played a kangaroo-man hybrid, a race clearly “Black” in its origins—another “Lo-Tec” enclave where the masters of technology hold primitive religious rituals to the beat of drums and the wail of saxophones. In Tank Girl, ironically, Ice-T’s character claims to be a reincarnated/metamorphosed “cop” (making reference both to the song which made him infamous—”Cop Killer”—and to his early and defining role in New Jack City). Denzel Washington later appears in the cyberpunk film Virtuosity, as a cop this time himself—but one who walks the edge between outlaw and enforcer of the law as he battles the villainous (white) artificial intelligence who stalks him and his family (almost exactly recapitulating the plot of Ricochet). Angela Bassett in Strange Days, the ghetto dwelling Black hacker and his Puerto Rican friend in Hackers (characters which were probably modelled on John Lee and Julio Fernandez of MOD), Scooter Lindley and his dad in the cult film Buckaroo Bonzai, and Joe Morton in John Sayles’ remarkable Brother from Another Planet and in James Cameron’s blockbuster Terminator sequel, all provide images of coded Blackness for white audiences raised on notions of black primitivism, sexuality, folk wisdom, and, most of all, cool.
Cyberculture partakes of a long tradition of appropriating nonwhite aesthetics in the service of white hip-nification—a tradition which was most frankly embodied in Norman Mailer’s “white negro” and the Sixties-era celebration of “the student as nigger.” To white people, there is nothing hipper or more dangerous than a “nigger,” and cyberculture afficionados yearn for hipness like they yearn for new hardware. They all wish they were dangerous people instead of nerds. And no one yearns harder than self-proclaimed (and self-promoting) cyberculture mavens St. Jude (Judith Milhon) and R.U. Sirius (Ken Goffman).
Sirius and St. Jude’s autocelebratory production, How to Mutate and Take Over the World: An Exploded Post-Novel features pictures of the authors on the inside back cover: two black-leather-clad, plump, pasty white folks (one each, male and female) with long hair—somebody call Central Casting. But they are mad as hell at being white people, and they aren’t going to take it any more. The “novel” is structured as an email exchange, primarily between characters named after Sirius, St. Jude, and their editor, interspersed with “clippings” and “reviews” and other documents or pseudo-documents in a very self-conscious po-mo pastiche. An early sub-plot (if this book can be accused of having any sort of plot at all) concerns Sirius’ decision to change his skin color from white to Black after St. Jude sends him this message:
BTW, in the Tuesday NY Science Times there’s some thing you oughta know. As a side feature of melanoma research they’ve learned how to increase total melanin in people. That is: total. Seven days of pills and dreams of negritude come true like >oing< THAT! -- UR Seriously ethiopian. It wears off in 3 months. I bet by this time next month I can get some of this stuff on the black market, what you bet? I get it, you do it? Yes yes.55
Clearly the transformation St. Jude suggests transcends mere darkening of pigment; rather, it is an opportunity to experience “negritude,” to “get ethiopian.” Later, Sirius discovers that St. Jude has used the pills herself, and remarks: “…you look good that darker shade of black–a new look for our new radical push (putsch?)–the Panthers meet cyb(ph)erpunque.”56 Blackness is a prerequisite for revolutionary flair—Pantherness—which confers a Huey Newton radical chic even on drab white boys and girls.
This isn’t an original idea, even in cyberculture circles. Bruce Sterling’s classic cyberpunk novel, Islands in the Net (1988), featured a “suntan cream,” that turned white people’s skins dark and, thus allowed whites to access the condition of “Blackness.” Customizing the “wetware” (body modification, including changing race and gender) is an ongoing theme in cyberpunk fiction and film. The temporary but complete nature of the change allows for a kind of supercharged slumming, blending with “the natives” in a way that’s never been possible before, identity tourism on a grand scale.
But what identity is Sirius touring? The first Black characters who appear in How to Mutate are four guys who witness a fight between Sirius and his girlfriend: “It’s then I notice that however genuinely pissed she might be, she’s also performing for the black guys. She’s doing a sexy, pouty white-bitch number, stalking off in high dudgeon. The black guys are saying, “Smack the bitch,” and suchlike.”57 Sirius wants to be one of the Black guys for whom his “pouty white-bitch” will perform. The authors’ preoccupation with the Black-as-hip aesthetic surfaces again and again. Now that she’s Black, St. Jude can become a cyber-revolutionary, and so she does, taunting the still-white Sirius with untraceable email: “But don’t count on reply-mailing back to this msg, whiteboy. It’ll never make it back to my ‘hood without a native guide. Heheheheh. we ARE everywhere.”58 Primitivism, gangsters, guerrillas, it’s all there, wrapped in one neat, Black package. St. Jude and her guerrilla organization hijack the airwaves, broadcasting pirate television shows with pseudo-African American themes:
... a half-hour animation with a brown Charlie Brown called Let My Kwanzaa Go! Charlie Brown and all his kid friends--one of them a black bart simpson--get together to have a Kwanzaa celebration....
Mr. Charlie’s Brown Christmas,
A Minstrel Show
(These actors look (to me) suspiciously like the S F Mime Troup...) Across the stage is seated a minstrel line in blackface, some of them actually black... at the end of the line is a whitewigged blackface Newt figure, called Mr. Bones, and his opponent in snappy patter--Mr. Interlocutor--is a black man in blackface wearing a comic stovepipe hat that says LIBERAL on it... Also in the line is a classic chrome robot in blackface, a hiphop black kid in gang hear, and stereotypes of other races creeds and sexes... the whole cultural lineup.59
St. Jude gloats, “EVERYBODY WILL FREAK!! EVERYBODY — BLACK, WHITE, LEFT, RIGHT….! It’s PAN-OFFENSIVE.”60 But the specific medium for the offensive message is Blackface theater, and the most carefully described images are all of African Americans despite the bow to multiculturalism. The offensive nature of St. Jude’s and Sirius’ appropriation of Blackness is not invisible to the authors. Sirius proposes, in one of his letters to his editor, this twist to the plot: “I piss off email@example.com by showing up at panther headquarters one day in black face after taking the melanin pill. they kick my ass.” Instead, however, there’s an exchange of email between Sirius and the character “Ralph X,”61 in which Sirius begs Ralph to write some diary entries: “Have mercy. I just can’t put a book out about a bunch of white people taking over the world. I mean, we already HAVE the world, at least from a certain perspective. If we put the Panthers in the vanguard of the book, we justify the book and we give you guys a very hip cachet and a good propaganda op.”
To which the fictional Ralph replies:
Lookit, r.u. I’m very honored that you want me to be your token nigga and alleviate your white guilt and all, and I can appreciate your dilemma from a standpoint of artistic legitimacy more than you might imagine, but look at it from MY perspective. I’m letting YOU capture ME in your trip, ya know? The Panthers ain’t fiction. I mean, did Huey Newton write himself into "Still Life With Woodpecker?" No. $3500 or no go. And frankly, I hope you can’t raise the money.62
Though voiced ironically—the white boy knows he needs Black revolutionary authenticity to legitimate his ‘outlaw’ pose—the appropriation is carried out nonetheless. The character of Ralph X agrees to be Sirius’ “token nigga” ( for a fee) at the same time he claims that the Panthers “ain’t fiction.” In 1996, when How to Mutate was published, the Panthers were long defunct as an organization—wiped out by the COINTELPRO operations of the FBI in the late 1960s and early 1970s.<sup>63</sup> The Panthers of How to Mutate are fiction. So were the original Panthers—they were always as much fictional as they were real: they wrote themselves and they deliberately used the carefully constructed image of Black men with guns, organized into a revolutionary cadre, to scare the shit out of white people. (With more than a nod to Toni Morrison): out of the profound desolation of their reality, the Panthers may very well have invented themselves.
But agency makes all the difference. There’s a big difference between inventing oneself and being invented by someone else. In the former case one uses what one has to get what one needs; in the latter, one uses someone else to get what one needs. And what Sirius and St. Jude need, desperately, is some affiliation that won’t just make them look like the bourgie white posers they are, so they write themselves a new best friend. As in “some of my best friends are…”
In How to Mutate, the ability to confer black revolutionary cool is clearly linked to gender. But St. Jude’s character participates in a discussion on the “Grrrlove Mailing List,” ostensibly reproduced for the reader. The Grrrlove exchange is engineered to make us feel that women-only spaces on the net are stupid, that the women who want these spaces are stupid, and that the women who don’t need them are brave and strong. Of the dissenting female voices on the list, “marina,” calls the women “cunts,” and insults them by saying that they’re suffering from “the usual white-lady’s burden headfuck? I mean christ aren’t you females just doing this instead of playing bridge or something.”<sup>64</sup> And “diana,” posts: “…ooh, I am just so SICK of this white BULLSHIT getting on and entering other womens lives in your lame search for multiculturalism, it is racist BULLSHIT and I’m just so angry I’m gonna SPLIT… and why aren’t there more women of color on this damn list??? am I the only one???” Diana apparently does split, and marina is exposed by the most technically competent Grrrlove listmember as a “WHITE SUBURBAN POSEUR,” committed to a mental institution after her last miscarriage by her “middle management” husband.<sup>65</sup> As Barbara Johnson notes: “The black woman is both invisible and ubiquitous; never seen in her own right but forever appropriated by the others for their own ends.”<sup>66</sup>
In RL (the internet acronym for “real life”) St. Jude wrote a regular column for the hacker journal Mondo2000 called “Grace Jones School for Girls,” again taking advantage of hipness conferred. In How to Mutate, St. Jude appropriates the position of the Black woman—her character actually becomes Black. But St. Jude’s interests are not the interests of Black women. Instead, St. Jude still harps on the tired concept of the “even playing field”:
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words on a screen get at me only as much as I allow them to... I can get very tough online. (ANYBODY can be tough online. Just keep your cool and THINK before you type....) Because the MOO is also a social space, where you can talk to people with REAL cultural differences--like Klansmen--and make them respect you as a woman, as a dyke, whatever. Toe-to-toe, you maybe change their prejudices forever.... Cries for niceness don’t make it. Toughen up! You’re dealing with primates here. You have to stand up to them and give them a reason to respect you. I hate this Waaaaah I’m a poor sensitive weak woman protect me shit.... So... Fuck Niceness! Self-defense. It’s not learning how to cuss, girl, or how to act hostile. It’s learning how to fence with words--make your opponent feel your point, laugh at the situation, and respect you. Learn how to WIN. No more Ms. Nice Girl!67
The notion that a black woman could “talk” to a Klansman and earn his respect as a black woman is beyond laughable. Carried to its logical extreme, it suggests that all Klansmen really need is to lose an on-line argument with a smart woman of color to force them to change their tune, as if words alone could “make your opponent feel your point, laugh at the situation, and respect you.”
There’s more than a little blame-the-victim mentality at work here, though it’s hard to separate out the racism from the misogyny in this argument. Though it’s not the topic of this paper, it seems useful to note How to Mutate targets women, or rather a “feminine sensibility,” as Sirius and St. Jude define it (the emblem of that sensibility is the fictional pro-censorship organization, the Human Anti-Degradation League). They set up HADL as a straw woman, and then expand their critique of the organization to feminism in general, posing against it an allegedly “liberatory” philosophy that, as usual, is difficult to distinguish from the typical libertarian cyberpunk rhetoric—again, entirely consonant with capitalism, racism, and patriarchy.
It’s Not How Little We Know That Hurts So, But That So Much Of What We Know Ain’t So68
Don’t talk like I talk; talk like I say talk. Words are your business, boy.Not just the World. Words are everything. The key to the Rock. The answer to the question.
Quite a few cyberculture critics seem to be suffering under the delusion that “technologies of social saturation” allow us real access to the lives and cultures of other people, though few say it as baldly as Kenneth Gergen:
We ingest enormous amounts of information about patterns of interchange. Thus, for example, from an hour on a city street, we are informed of the clothing styles of blacks,whites, upper class, lower class, and more. We may learn the ways of Japanese businessmen, bag ladies, Sikhs, Hare Krishnas, or flute players from Chile. We see how relationships are carried out between mothers and daughter, business executives, teenage friends, and construction workers. An hour in a business office may expose us to the political views of a Texas oilman, a Chicago lawyer, and a gay activist from San Francisco.... Via television, myriad figures are allowed into the home who would never otherwise trespass. Millions watch as talk-show guests—murderers, rapists, women prisoners, child abusers, members of the KKK, mental patients, and others often discredited—attempt to make their lives intelligible. There are few six-year-olds who cannot furnish at least a rudimentary account of life in an African village, the concerns of divorcing parents, or drug-pushing in the ghetto. Hourly our storehouse of social knowledge expands in range and sophistication.69
As African American literary critics have pointed out repeatedly over the years, the above assumptions comprise—indeed, might even be offered as the definition of—the sociological fallacy, the belief that the reader or viewer can gain access to specific “truths” about Black life and culture through works of fiction or spectacularized cultural productions. What people see on television are mediated images. These images are often more “real” to them than what they see on the street, and TV-produced knowledge structures can serve as a filter for viewing and interpreting images and events that appear right before their eyes.
Gergen’s inability to understand that there is no such place as “an African village,” but only villages in which people live in Africa is a measure of his own internalized racial biases. The naive assumption that we can absorb the knowledge of others, apparently without mediation, is articulated in his further claims: “In memory, we carry others’ patterns of being with us… Each of us becomes the other, a representative, or a replacement…. [W]ith social saturation, each of us comes to harbor a vast population of hidden potentials—to be a blues singer, a gypsy, an aristocrat, a criminal.”70
This is exactly the sort of identity tourism71 that characterizes the work of Sirius and St. Jude, informs the Quittner and Slatella version of John Lee’s narrative, and permeates the essays in the Kroker anthology. In these works, it is always the (white man’s) option to take on the identity of the exotic Other (or rest in the shade of his cool).