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Post Colonial Media Theory

Post Colonial Media Theory

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Published by: nathrondina on Oct 06, 2009
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The artist Guillermo Gomez-Pefia recently commented that in discussions ofelectronic media "twenty years of post-colonial theory simply disappear."' Hewas referring to the large and influential body of work known as postcolonialstudies, which for the past two decades has been notoric~usly bsent fromelectronic media practice, theory, and criticism. This absence is not due to thelack of theory in the field, as there has always been theoretically based writingabout electronic media. Much of the early work wasbased on the theories of Marshall McLuhan and other
Maria Fernandez
utopians characterized as "inebriated with the poten-tial of new techn~logy."~ore recent discussions
Postcolonial MediaTheory
have been anchored in the work of theorists includingWalter Benjamin, the Situationists, Jean Baudrillard,Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Paul Virilio, Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray, andDonna Haraway. This eclecticism, in conjunction with recent debates aroundtopics such as multiculturalism, colonialism, the1992 quincentenary, identitypolitics, and whiteness studies, make it ever more striking that postcolonialstudies and electronic media theory have developed parallel to one another butwith very few points of intersection.To be sure, the two fields have had opposing goals. Postcolonial studieshas been concerned primarily with European imperialism and its effects: theconstruction of European master discourses, resistance, identity, representa-tion, agency, gender, and migration, among other issues. By contrast, in the1980s and early 1990s electronic media theory was primarily concerned withestablishing the electronic as a valid and even dominant :field of practice. Manytheorists were knowingly or unknowingly doing public relations work fordigital corporations. This often involved representing electronic technologies,especially the computer, as either value-free or inherently liberatory. Sometheorists proposed a utopian universalism built on the ccncept of electronicconnectivity: anyone in the world had only to be connected to be "free."Before the Gulf War, it was even proposed that the computer would bringpeace to the planet, since through electronic connectivity people would cometo understand and love one another.3 The magazines
as well as other publications, championed utopian ideas common among the
I. Guillermo Gomez-Peiia, personal communica-tion. September 1997.
techno-elite.4 Encouraging everyone in the world to enjoy the freedom of
Timothy Druckrey, ed.,
Electronic Culture:
cyberspace became a crusade.
Technology and Visual Representation
(New York:
In 1995 John Perry Barlow, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier
Aperture. 1997), 17.
See proceedings. SISEA. Groeningen, The
Foundation, opined that "in a few years, every man, woman, and child in the
Netherlands, 1990.
world will be electronically connected."s He did not entertain the fact that in
See Sadle Plant.
Zeros and Ones: Digital Womenand the New Technoculture
(New York: Prentlce
many parts of the world electricity is still a rare commodity or the possibility
Hall. 1997) and Esther Dyson.
that connecting depends on pancapitalist enterprises-to be free you have to
Design for L~vingn the Digital Age
(New York:Broadway Books, 1997).
pay. He reiterated this ideal in a report on his recent journey to Africa, tellingly
John Perry Barlow, speech delivered at sympo-
published in the form of an explorer's travelogue in the January 1998 issue
slum Mythos lnformatlon-Welcome to theWired World, Ars Electronica 1995, Linz.
Much material has been published about the
Such utopian universalism can be seen as replacing the ideals of the "civi-
relatlon between travel literature and imperialism.For an excellent discussion of thls topic, see Mary
lizing mission" of earlier colonialisms. As Edward Said has eloquently argued,
Louise Pratt,
Imperial Eyes, Travel Writing, and
humanitarian rhetoric is crucial for imperialist projects, since it is through
(New York: Routledge. 1992).
such rhetoric that decent people come to willingly support imperialism.'
7. Edward Said,
Culture and Imperialism
(NewYork: Alfred A. Knopf. 1993), 9-1 l
The promoters of these ideas in electronic media theory could not afford to
siliconemixedwithpaint pig-ment, steel pipe
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Seoul.PhotoYoon Hyung-moon.
James Brook and lain A. Boal, Resrstlng theVirtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information(San Francisco: City Lights. 1995).9. Barlow, speech; Dyson, 52.10. For an excellent discussion of English as aninstrument of empire, see Joe Lockland, "Resist-ing Cyber-English." in Bad Subjects, no. 24 (Febru-ary 1996). The Brazilian artist Rejane Spitz hasdiscussed the frustration that illiterate peopleexperience in basic banking transactions at auto-matic tellers in Brazil in "Qualitative, Dialectical.and Experiential Domains of Electronic Art,"FISEA, Minneapolis, 1993.I I. John Perry Barlow, "Africa Rising: EverythingYou Know about Africa Is Wrong," Wired, January1988. 158.12. Phil Mariani and Jonathan Crary, "In theShadow of the West: Edward Said," in Discourses:Conversations In Postmodern
and Culture, ed.Russell Ferguson, William Olander, Marcia Tucker,and Karen Fiss (New York: New Museum ofContemporary Art. 1990), 95-96.
acknowledge the existence of postcolonial studies, a field concerned with theanalysis of colonial discourses and imperialist strategies, at least not until theyfelt sure that their goals were reasonably well accomplished. What allows usto discuss issues of colonialism in relation to electronic media today is the factthat the incorporation into the global market of parts of the world that canafford connectivity has already occurred. Despite recent urgent calls to "resistthe virtual life," there is no possibility of turning back.8At the opening of this decade, prominent electronic media artists con-tended that electronic communication would help facilitate global peace as theexchange of text, sound, and image among virtual strangers would increasehuman empathy and understanding. These artists include Roy Ascott, BruceBrieland, Kit Galloway, and Sherri Rabinowitz, among many others. Givinglittle attention to economic and educational limitations, Barlow and EstherDyson of the Electronic Frontier Foundation still predict the imminent wiringof everyone on the planet.9 But in most of the world, connecting requiresmoney, utility infrastructure, literacy, and competency in English.'" Like therhetoric of the civilizing mission in previous colonialisms, utopian rhetoricsof electronic media occlude the practical project of creating new markets andwork forces for capitalist enterprises. In electronic media this applies to alllevels of production, from writing code to the assembly line. In his explorer'stravelogue Barlow muses: "Will there be data sweatshops? Probably, but, justas the sweatshops of New York were a way station for families whose proge-nies are now psychiatrists on Long Island, so, too, will these pass."" He doesnot specify who would reap the economic benefits from these sweatshops.At present one cannot disassociate the manufacture and distribution of thesetechnologies from economic profits made in the developed world or from anongoing process of the colonization of knowledge that began with the bookand continued with media such as film and television. In Said's opinion, thesetechnologies are crucial for the construction of identity in formerly colonizedregions, since colonized peoples learn about themselves through these formsof kn~wledge.'~A survey of critical writing in both postcolonial studies and electronicmedia theory discloses an overwhelming preoccupation with the body, iden-tity, history, feminism, and agency that could be used imaginatively towardcommon ends. However, the theorization of these and other subjects in thetwo fields is frequently in opposition. Can postcolonial studies and electronicmedia theory be productively reconciled, in spite of the obstacles that stand inthe way? Such a reconciliation might temper imperialist initiatives presentedin the guise of utopianism in electronic media theory and bring a more globalperspective to both fields.
The Body: Flesh versusVirtualization
While in cultural studies, the adjective posthuman refers to subjectivities outsidethe metanarrative of humanism, such as women, queers, and people of color,in electronic media theory it usually indicates the increasing irrelevance of theflesh. Many cybertheorists envision the future as one in which fleshed humanshave evolved to greater integration with machines or disappeared altogether.They constantly reiterate the theories of artificial intelligence gurus Hans

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