Coco Fusco
At Your Service

Once upon a time when black intellectuals used to elaborate their arguments against racism and colonialism, they would be compelled to explain that they did come from places that existed, that they did have a culture, or that they were in fact human. I think of them as I reflect on the suggestion that in the age of digital technology "we" don't need to be concerned with the violent exercise of power on bodies and territories anymore because "we" don't have to carry all that meat and dirt along to the virtual promised land. I think of them because I have been visiting places where the hardware of the digital revolution is assembled, and the people are not a part of this culture, and the conditions that they work and live in form the underside of the post-human. If we are to comprehend how identity and subjectivity are being reshaped in the digital age, we must look at the relationship between the desire to enable minds to fantasmatically disengage from bodies and the actuality of technologies that objectify bodies and bodily activity, thus disengaging them from minds. Digital disembodiment's fiction of transcendence relies on the expulsion of the abject inter-relations between bodies and technologies from the virtual imaginary. Clearly, I am not the first person to question the universal applicability of the digital revolution's emancipatory rhetoric, or to ask who gains and who loses by ignoring the political realities in which these technologies develop. There are many ways in which the question of access to the electronic wonderland has been posed to demonstrate how imbalances of power in the material world carry over into the virtual domain.

The approaches of artists and theorists in addressing the problems of identity and access in the digital domain tend to fall into a few basic categories. The first goal for many artists of color is to demonstrate that not being white does not necessarily mean that one is a techno-primitive or a techno-phobe. . . . A second approach focuses on the substantive content of Internet exchange, science-fiction and video games to analyze the significance of racialized images in virtual reality. Instead of assuming that cyberspace is "beyond race", these analyses examine how race is "contained" by being designated as anti-social or dehistoricized by being rendered as purely physical. . . . Despite the claims that cyberspace is "raceless," it is difficult to avoid concluding that scientists, web designers and other digital artists are appropriating black cultural tropes to represent psychic freedom in cyberspace (references to Bush Spirits and Sojourner Truth for example) in the same way that modernists turned to Africa to represent irrationality. . . . A third strategy aims at showing how the rhetoric of disinterested disembodiment is culturally valenced and speciously apolitical. This approach takes note of how the euphemistic invocation of the Internet as a free space for communicative interaction among equals and of its users as "communities" masks the economic imperative to structure that space as a market and to channel usage into a dynamic of privatized consumption. [1] . . . A fourth strategy traces the historical roots of technophobia among peoples whose primary contact with machines has been violent. . . . These bodily interactions with technology form a counterpoint to the discourses that stress freedom from biology and presence via screen names and avatars, virtual cross dressing, designer babies, plastic surgery and prosthetics, and teleconferencing.

Together, these inquiries elaborate what cultural theorist Chela Sandoval has called an oppositional consciousness within cybercultural discourse, one that reads the teleology of techno-liberation not as natural law but as the ideology of the virtual class, scrutinizing the implications of representing the new technological revolution as an unending experience of mood enhancement and empowerment. While these approaches share mainstream cyber theories' impetus to assess new technologies' impact on the world and our imaginations, they cast a skeptical look at the predilection for the poststructuralist rhetoric of fluidity and polyvocality . . . The world inside the screen may allow us to envision ourselves without bodies, but its images, the machines and their users are embedded in material relations; and digital technology in a market driven phenomenon that organizes our vision in the era of multinational capitalism, with global economic ramifications. Digital technology has reshaped the nature of capitalism as a world system; it has redefined the "postcolonial" space via neoliberal privatization, transnational banking, long distance management and the internationalization of labor; it has reformulated the dynamics of belonging and community in those spaces via telecommunications. Though the expansion of individual experience is the leitmotif of cybercultural advertising, focusing on the interconnectedness of the digital revolution and globalization turns our attention to how people's relationship to technology positions them within a network that connects them to worlds both on and off line, and allows us to ask how those relations not only posit new modes of consumption but also call for new concepts of citizenship and engagement with the public sphere.

. . . What I want to suggest here is that, while there are certain narratives linking the subaltern with technology that do confirm the democratic potential of the digital revolution; they are most appealing precisely because they enhance rather than disrupt its emancipatory script. Inuits who use the Internet to transcend harsh weather conditions near the North Pole, or masked rebels transmitting diatribes against state violence from the mountains of Chiapas, or for that matter, black athletes and artists endorsing laptops and cell phones, confirm the dominant ideology that technology increases democracy while it generates profit. To focus solely on these apparent electronic victories misleadingly constructs the thrust of technological development as benevolent and economically disinterested. It also occludes the ways in which the industries that underpin the digital revolution contain information about their own undemocratic, if not inhumane practices.

. . . Despite cybercultural claims that we have moved beyond cultural and racial identity, there are particular ways in which the digital revolution participates in globalization's redrawing the lines that distinguish bodies from each other, rather than erasing those lines altogether. For all the celebration of mobility and fluidity, digital technology organizes a world economic order that thrives on a global labor pool of poor non-white people for whom "access" to many critical signifying spaces--legal, symbolic, and electronic--is diminished and even denied. . . . Whatever their biological constitution, these workers are interpolated into the global economic order under the sign of the passive subaltern female; forced by necessity into absolute obedience to hierarchical managerial structures with invisible but omnipotent bosses, remunerated as if their wage was supplementary, and expelled from the workplace if they speak out against the manifold ways that atomization is exacted upon them in the name of efficiency.

. . . The most difficult question for me to address however, is what to do with these issues as an artist. In her excellent essay on the intersections and gaps between postcolonial and electronic media theory, Maria Fernández noted that while postcolonial work has made the question of history central to its inquiries, electronic media theory (and much art as well) rejects history as irrelevant or reduces it to recombinant visual data.[2]

I count myself among those who find these erasures profoundly disturbing, especially when I recall that it was in the wake of real technologically generated disasters in the 20th century that survivors have implored us never to forget. At this point, I only have questions, not answers. Is the centrality of corporate sponsorship for aesthetic development in the field of digital media encouraging self-censorship of historical subject matter? Is the role of "public art" in the age of simulation to provide doses of "reality," to politicize the "loss of the referent" by asking who suffers the greatest loss or gain when a cultural milieu finds a theoretical justification for jettisoning imaginative engagement with the social? How can technologies that are promoted as the means for dissecting the physical world, of extending our physical and mental capacities, and of creating an imaginative realm beyond the social be brought to bear imaginatively upon the social itself? Is there a creative halfway point between the investigative reporting of Internet activism, and the anarchic antics of irreverent hackers who create a momentary ruckus by tampering with official electronic records? Is there a way to intertwine reality and fiction that does something other than convey that life looks more like a movie or that we would prefer to live in one?

Looking back at the vast bodies of literature, photography, cinema and video that provide us with an imaginative chronicle and critique of the impact of technologies on human societies up to now, can we remain open to the revelatory power of an image that bears a trace of the real without interpreting this as tyrannical or manipulative of realism or literalism? Does this mean, as I now suspect, that electronic artists who refuse to forget about history will have to tease out the possibilities of telepresence? Or has the limited success of earlier forms of media activism, coupled with the obvious financial incentive to support rather than critique new media made such questions uninteresting or irrelevant or impossible to answer?

. . . Following the methods that have been elaborated by other cyber-activist efforts, political engagement begins with assuming the role of witness, exercising pressure via oppositional surveillance tactics and refusing the role of passive consumer. What their lack of access represents for me as a cultural producer exploring the possibilities of new media, is a challenge to expand the imaginative and metaphorical dimensions of telepresence, collapsing cultural and geographical distance so as to broaden and strengthen a sense of connection to them.

[1] Lincoln Dahlberg, "Cyberspace and the Public Sphere: Exploring the Democratic Potential of the Net" in Convergence, Spring 1998, volume 4, Number 1, pp. 70-84.

[2] Maria Fernandez, "Postcolonial Media Theory," Third Text, 47 (summer 1999) pp. 11-17.

excerpted from "At Your Service: Latinas in the Global Information Network" in Fusco, Coco. The Bodies That Were Not Ours and Other Writings London: Routledge, 2001.