The Fetish of the Cyborg and The Insensible Subaltern (and possibly the Whatever)

I’ve been making some headway with my thesis (and ongoing) research. I’ve managed to get hooked on the concept of the Subaltern as posited by Gayatri Spivak. I’m not the most versed in the area of postcolonial theory, but I sense that there’s some sort of connection between it and the Cyborg that I’ve been obsessed with over the last year.

What I’m starting to realize is that the cyborg is the fetish of utopia. Haraway alludes to this in A Cyborg Manifesto with imagery that imagines the cyborg as a plentitude of parts/resources that can be rearranged into infinite formations. As I’ve now understood the Cyborg, it’s a gathering/assemblage of abstracted parts; more often than not between technology and flesh, though I think the term “technology” can be taken broadly. In many ways, the cyborg is Human-Plus. This is the utopic version of the cyborg.

Samuel Delaney offers a rebuttal about the cyborg saying that it is actually a site of lack in Reading at Work. He sees it more as a Human-Minus equation. I’m not going to get into all the specifics here, but this dichotomy of the Cyborg from plentitude to lack has been a thorn in my research around tap dance. I see tap dancers as having activated cyborg theory as a physical practice (reliance on technology, cultural hybrid, etc), and I’ve been looking at it as a form of utopia that has taken place in the ruins of the Atlantic Slave Trade, colonization, and capitalism. The trauma embedded in the history of tap dance has actually been the reason for it’s continued survival. I attribute this to its relationship to blackness, and this is where Delaney starts to make more sense.

Some context first, I was in a class discussion where the concept of Indigenousness was running rampant. Here’s what I think on the topic. Indigeneity is an idealist concept that to be an original of a place or practice allows you certain ownership of that place/practice and all it’s resources and products. In other words, Indigenousness is idealized as a site of plentitude. In opposition, blackness, in it’s attachment to slavery/indentured servitude, is seen as a site of lack (á la Delaney) because they have been historically labeled as products to be owned. But I think there’s another step to take. Indigeneity, in it’s idealized (fictional) plentitude, is sought out because it allows the possibility for independence, sovereignty, autonomy (i.e., separated, severed, isolated, abstracted). Blackness, in it’s dehumanized (fictional) lack, allows for the possibility of complexly intertwining fear and love (See Lott’s Love and Theft). Blackness also allows for the act of reclaiming as inherent to survival. Specifically, blackness is able to stake a claim to certain lands because they have physically worked the land, which has become valuable because of their labor. See also the creation of tap dance as the reclaiming of percussive language after the mass confiscation of drums in the south during slavery, the reclaiming of the n-word by rap/hip hop artists, and probably a lot more.

So what does this all have to do with the Subaltern? I’m still figuring that out… but I can say that the subaltern seems to be rooted in the Black Radical tradition. It’s described as being illegible. I think the “sub” aspect is also important because it infers that the subaltern is underneath of something (capitalism, colonialism, etc). I think heavily of Fred Moten’s work here with the Undercommons and the Subversive Intellectual. I think that Spivak’s title question of whether the Subaltern speaks is also very important; it’s not meant to point out whether the Subaltern is capable of talking so much as it is to point out that we might not be capable of listening for them; hearing them. Someone brought up in class that the subaltern is not the slaves that made it to the Americas, but the slaves that died on the way over because their stories cannot be told except through speculation. They are not recorded in the archive, and therefore cannot be read about, heard, or felt. So is there a way we can make ourselves able to be aware of subalterns? or are they doomed to the impossibility of being sensed. Can we rearrange our senses.

To finish this tirade… I’m at a place where I see the Cyborg as a project of achieving indigeniety, independence, utopia, plentitude and the Subaltern as a project of achieving blackness, dystopia, codependence, and lack. But if tap dance is rooted in Black traditions (especially Jazz which Moten heavily studies in his attempt to understand Black Study), is it actually mobilizing cyborg theory like I originally thought, or is it more in line with subalternity? Is it something in-between? Is it possible to be a little of both? And if so, what kind of future is that? It might be something that is beyond the spectrum of utopia and dystopia. It’s moving into something else that is entirely illegible because it has been erased from the archive of colonialism and capitalism, yet has been abstracted to the point that it is not only aware of all it’s parts and pieces, but able to reassemble them into formations beyond both the fetish of the cyborg and the pit of the subaltern.

PS: the fetish language is being pulled from a marxist paper about fatal power couplings that heavily discusses the violence of abstraction, which I’m very invested in. I’ve realized that abstraction as an act REQUIRES a position of power one thing (the abstractor) over another thing (the abstracted). That power creates the fetish of the cyborg.

PPS: Also, the Whatever as posited by Alexander Galloway in Can the Whatever Speak? might be important for this. I’m not sure how yet, But Galloway clearly considers the Whatever an extension, variation, and/or deviation of the subaltern

PPPS: Oddly enough, I can see certain elements of Psychoanalysis functioning here as well (penis/male as site of plentitude; vagina/female as site of lack). Apply the Independence/codependence extension and it becomes even more fucked up. It’s ironic that Haraway sees the cyborg as a feminist icon, when in actually it subscribes to the toxic-musculine paradigm of Freud, which Delaney points to in his essay. I wonder if this has anything to do with J. Jack Halberstam’s concepts of female masculinity? The spectrum of gender, race, class, and power get skewed to hell and back. The scale of this project feels massive.

Charles Maybee