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#BT2Duke, or, Reflections on Black Thought 2.0

 

What is thought now? How is blackness thought? How does blackness think? Do the digital iterations of code switch us to new modes of being? Or are we really just rehearsing, rearticulating what we've always been, what we already are? We know that web 2.0 was the nomenclature used to designate the social aspects of online interaction, a new force toward intentionality for understanding the web as an inherently participatory space. So we found things to "share" online -- statuses, pictures, music; we found things around which to collaborate -- ideas, protests. Rather than a top-down approach, the user was privileged as the site through which sites would cohere. And this was a cool thing. But the 2.0 announces itself, as if the web was not already intentioned with sociality, as if the Internet produces this possibility.

 

But a resistance to such ideas is the force of the Black Thought 2.0 conference that took place at Duke University April 6-7, 2012. Panels attempted to think the historicity of such social practices, claiming that everything from the Underground Railroad to black journalism are the prehistory to any 2.0 claim. And such seems to be the case. If the 2.0 indexes the intentioned sociality of networking, we would do well to remember that the first designation for computers were not PowerBooks and Dells, but people [1613: A person who makes calculations or computations; a calculator, a reckoner; spec. a person employed to make calculations in an observatory, in surveying, etc.]. It seems that the web has caught up with the fact of sociality, or we might simply say that the 2.0 is back to its future. Some questions considered were: with regard to pedagogy, "what is open access"; "what does digital literacy mean"; with regard to activism, "what possibilities are there for gathering around issues"; "what sorts of communities can be created because of the digital"? All urgent and important questions. 

 

Kim Pearson stated that writing in the digital age can simply mean "writing for rhetorical velocity" and that such writing's content, when created, should be spreadable. Howard Rambsy, II questioned if the digital domain rearticulates Du Bois's problematic of double-consciousness. Alexis Pauline Gumbs noted that the digital transcends the specifics of particular communities, allowing connections globally and Salamishah Tillett discussed the instantaneity of such global connections for activism. And, of course, Moya Bailey continually brought us back to conversations regarding gender, sexuality and the assumption of able bodiedness and how to create communities of care in the digital domain. But rather than give a point-by-point outline of what was said -- if you travel to #BT2Duke on twitter, you'll see that a LOT was said -- I want to use this occasion to respond to the conference by thinking what it means to have black thought in an intentionally social world, digital or analogue. And what I will say is inflected by a few concerns Thomas DeFrantz outlined that I think require our urgent attention: what happens if we just open ourselves up? How open are we to being open to presence inside the machine? And a question that emerged for me while listening to the various panels: what life can we construct if the private, as a concept, is not a given? It appears that blackness is the zone through which to theorize these concerns, grounded in the material practices of black folks. 

 

So a return to the 2.0 that was already here with us, a return to the social, to thinking sociality, as a mode of life. This return forces me to confront the Underground Railroad. But more soon. When we consider Facebook Twitter, Tumblr, blip.fm, and a host of other social media technologies, one begins to think through the multiple nodes for connecting with others, and this is a mappable project. There seems to be an underground, a beneath the surface of the web where all sorts of insurrectionist activity can take place. For example, if I am on a dating website and I have a specific username and set of pictures there but am also twitter user, and am thus more "available" to that "public," what does this mean between networks? That is, if my picture on twitter is an image of a piece of art I enjoy, for example, but my dating profile has "my" picture, which one is truer? Even further still, these various social media technologies have the ability to link various sites into what I consider to be a networked social, sociality of the individual that is not, however, enclosed. This series of concerns move beyond how people interact with social technology to consider the horizon, how people are -- to invoke Paul Tillichian theology -- the ground of being for any networked social, how people are individually a nodal point through which various socialities are constructed. This is fundamentally a concern of openness and presence, to and within the machine; a question of the forms life takes when the concept of the private has not only been refused certain people historically [some simple examples would be incarceration, stop-and-frisk practices, metal detectors in schools, red zoning neighborhoods, lynching, capitalism] but was not even desired as such. What can we be if we are open? What are we, because we are, in fact, open? This is to think with blackness and the thought of black objects in the intentioned digital, in the second life of the prehistoric social. 

 

Black song is black thought and the network created by such singing has a historicity. Initially escaping Eastern Shore, Maryland Harriet Tubman arrived to New York and was alone. Freedom wasn't free if it meant being by oneself. So she escaped backward into the zone of terror in order to produce life, recognizing that the life she was producing was already there: being with others. And it was the escape with others that Tubman became Moses of her folks. When escaping while others would be in hiding, Tubman would sing in "plaintive minor strains" and those in seclusion heard -- not the words -- but the style, the way, the form the words took when emanating from her body. And upon such hearing of form, those fugitives for justice and love knew it was Tubman, and that the coast was clear. The Underground Railroad was one that used sound as the prompting toward escape. So what we have, then, are various networks constituted by intimate relation to sound and song: the timbre, vocal effects, rhythm, tone and texture of voices as well as the lyrics sung to disseminate secret knowledge, to secrete the way of escape. Sound enunciated from particular individuals -- Tubman in this example -- is a technology that interacted with and against other technologies, allowed the giving and withholding of personhood. But one would need be open to such sound. And one would always be in process of constructing a life in the service of and with others. Tubman’s was black thought, thought about blackness, the theological-philosophical contemplation upon black-Being. It was fundamentally a social project, a choreographic and sonic engagement with the world, stylizing the movements and sounds of bodies. All for love. 

 

So we might think about what black thought 2.0 says about activism and service, or simply, about love. Whether analogue or digital, it was always a social project that existed previous to privation, which exists despite radical assaults in publics. This thought, this knowledge about thought, this thought about knowledge, is the choreosonic protocol for resisting surveillance and violent tactics of state formation. Black thought 2.0 is the thinking about what it means to be black, to carry blackness, which is to be in resistance. This thought is shared, never owned; this thought is embodied, never enclosed; this thought is radical, never apolitical.  

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