Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Calling Bullshit on the World's First "Cyborg Hate Crime"

Surveying the cyberspatial sprawl and the twitterspew on day three of the conversation about performance artist and sousveillance activist Steve Mann's assault in a Paris McDonalds (and I'm not one of the wags who are saying he was asking for it for going to McDonalds in Paris), I can see that a huge number of white guys in blocky spectacles and various stages of male pattern baldness have come to the consensus that this assault is or could be or should be considered the world's first "cyborg hate crime."

I initially commented on the assault here, then I replied to early suggestions of this character here, and then ridiculed the further suggestion of a boycott of McDonalds by pre-post-humans following the logic of this suggestion here. As I have said before, this isn't even the first time Steve Mann himself has been assaulted by folks who were perplexed or provoked by his prostheses, so those who are hyperventilating about the "first cyborg hate crime" don't have a prosthetic leg to stand on when they say such things. But I don't think that is a particularly interesting thing to say either, and what distresses me is that this is an occasion to say much more interesting things instead if we want to make an effort, and it should matter presumably to people who are talking about Steve Mann and claiming to care about Steve Mann that Steve Mann's art and activism has been a decades long effort to provoke precisely a deeper engagement with the prostheticization through which identification and dis-identification and embodiment are experienced and expressed in the world as well as with our immersion in elite incumbent surveillance and data-profiling and marketing.

So, too, since so much of this blather about the world's first "Cyborg Hate Crime" is presumably premised on worry and rage about Mann's assault, surely the actual specificity of the circumstances involved would be something folks would want to know more about? You can be sure that the politics playing out in the scene of this assault were more specific than anything the phrase "cyborg hate crime" puts anybody even remotely in a position to talk about. What if it turns out that Mann's attackers misrecognized his prosthesis as a sign of disability and part of what was happening is that they were assholes who like the idea of attacking a vulnerability they discern in the differently enabled? What if it turns out that the attackers experienced their documentation as a violation calling forth retaliation, a reaction Mann has definitely provoked before and has sometimes provoked deliberately to make a point in the spirit of quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Part of what should be occurring right about now to even the meanest intelligence is that certainly before now, and often, all too often, somebody has had their cellphone snatched and smashed by someone in a McDonalds annoyed by its ringtone or by the snotty affect of its user, somebody has had their walking stick or walker or prosthetic limb or thick spectacles messed with by awful jerks who think it is amusing to prey on the apparently vulnerable differently enabled folks in their midst, somebody has been assaulted because they seemed to signal through sartorial choices or bodily bearing an atypical sex-gender performance or membership in an ethnic minority, and so on and on and on and on.

Suddenly one is in a position to grasp that what might initially and superficially have seemed a new phenomenon in the world -- a person being assaulted for their prosthetic performance of personhood in the polis -- is in fact just a slightly unfamiliar form of an actually ubiquitous phenomenon, the ineradicably prosthetic character of both practices of embodied identification and practices of dis-identification, including the ones that body forth bigotry and violence. It turns out that the initial appearance of unfamiliarity is precisely the opening that allows us to grasp anew and more deeply the character of normative practices in which we are all of us involved.

When I wonder about whether the geeks in a rage about the attack on Mann's Eye-Glass in a McDonalds grasp its continuity with and hence are comparably incensed about the recent attack on a transperson in a McDonalds, the point isn't just to rain on the cyborg parade with a lecture on political correctness (though I should have expected that reaction, given that we're talking about the discourse of a whole hell of a lot of lame privileged straight white male gadget fetishists here, and you know I'm right). Rather than complain that I am forbidding anybody from articulating the material reality of an assault on a cyborg, what I am trying to do is use the assault as a teachable moment through which we come to grasp the extent to which the performance of socially legible selfhood is always crucially prosthetic. Definitely, to the extent that one wants to deploy the phrase "cyborg hate crime" in a way equal to its material resonance one needs to grasp just how many different incarnated figures that have little to do with techno-fetishistic fantasies of the "cyborgic" in the present-day consumer commercial marketing imaginary are indeed indispensably prostheticized.

And, hence, actually, yes I do indeed wonder to what extent some geek identification with Mann as an assaulted cyborg is enabled through a dis-identification with the assaulted trans person despite the fact that prostheticization is no less indispensable to the one as to the other, no less central to one violation as to the other. Again, the point of calling attention to this parallel is to provide an occasion to understand more about the very violation that these comments I'm responding to are claiming to be about. It's true that I think it is pretty facile to leap, as some are doing, to a recommendation of boycotting McDonalds over this assault when it isn't exactly clear what the connection of the organization is to the perpetrators of the violence here, especially given all the ways in which this sort of connection of institutional violence and misinformation is so much clearer in other instances that seem to involve similar problems and hence would seem to inspire similar concerns (environmental concerns, health concerns, concerns about McDonalds use of UK libel laws to attack public critics).

In conclusion, I do hope it is possible to read this intervention as more than vapid scolding from a position of presumed superiority, but as an occasion to connect this event to a wider context that enriches the intuitions this violation has inspired in the first place. In the absence of that, sorry (actually, not), but too much of the commentary around this event just looks way too much like rich privileged white guys wanting to pretend they are a persecuted minority vulnerable to hate crimes now because of their self-congratulatory gizmo consumerism. To the extent that this is the case, needless to say, I call bullshit.

1 comment:

sqrrel said...

A good post, but you should put a space in trans person. It's not terribly othering like "transwoman" is, but it's good practice to use trans as an adjective rather than a prefix generally.