I. Black Overkill in the Digital Field
“For black bodies, being ‘animated’—a condition that GIFs, by nature of their form, automatically impose—already marks you as other. . . . On an infinite loop in GIFs, this hyperanimation re-enacts the spectacle [of violent racialization] for our consumption, puppets made to rise and fall, victims without sanctuary. . . . In looping, the larger context is cropped out and we are left only with the most inflammatory, most affecting moment.”
℘ Monica Torres, “Instant Replay,” Real Life
As of October 1, 2018, the Washington Post‘s “Fatal Force” project, a dynamic archive that chronicles reported incidents of police brutality, has documented over 90 instances in which on-duty police officers have shot and killed unarmed Black men and women since January 1, 2015, the date of the project’s inception. Many of these killings, including the murders of Eric Harris, Walter Scott, and Keith L. Scott, were captured on video, either by cellphone, body camera, or dashboard camera. “Fatal Force” develops its archive by including a rich diversity of sources, ranging from official governmental statements to news reports and citizen-created video footage. With the advent of video recording technologies’ integration into cellphones, many of the scenes of state violence that would have otherwise eluded the public eye have been forced to reckon with the ease of information transmission across digital space and time.
For all that is politically promising about the possibility of raising awareness of police brutality and the violent excess of the state apparatus, the unchecked dissemination of images of police brutality across social media platforms bears an unexpectedly sinister side. As Monica Torres painfully describes in “Instant Replay,” for example, mere hours after a video recording of a Chicago police officer fatally shooting seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald was released, the clip rocketed along the circuitry of sociodigital media ecologies, forcibly published, republished, cut, spliced, shortened, dilated, and transformed into digital forms better able to exploit the infrastructural velocity of social media technologies. One such transformation to which the video of McDonald’s murder was subjected was its reproduction as a GIF, a digital-image file whose hallmark technical affordances are its small file size and capacity to play moving images on an endlessly recurring loop. Torres contends that, with the scene of McDonald’s murder transformed into GIF content, McDonald has been forcibly conscripted into the role of a marionette whose death is the infinitely repeating—therefore infinitely deferred—coup de grâce of police brutality. McDonald dies thousands of times in the scene looped by the GIF, only to be placed once again in the state’s violent crosshairs, what can only be described as the grotesque (re)staging of a scene whose dramatic irony runs co-extensively with its murderous impulse.
GIFs have experienced a surge in social and cultural popularity, and their use in the deeply politicized context mentioned above represents only one of their multiple uses. And, with the multiplication of these usage patterns, modes of content creation, and cultural-communicative purposes, the GIF has also become embroiled in more pernicious social networks, those of violence, appropriate, and cultural derision. An article written in August 2017 by freelance journalist and doctoral student Lauren Michele Jackson, entitled “We Need to Talk about Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs,” comments on one such pattern—the disproportionate use of movement-images featuring Black men and women as GIF content. The extensive production of GIFs featuring Black men and women has enabled, argues Jackson, for the practice and permissibility of “digital blackface,” a term describing “various types of minstrel performance that become available in cyberspace.” Digital minstrel performance is enabled by the relative anonymity of digital worlds, the ease with which digital content can be reproduced and transformed for display across different digital media platforms, and the refusal to recognize in the reproduction and transmission of such GIFs the magnification of systems of violently subordinating racialization.
Of Mammies, Minstrels, and Machines endeavors to think the phenomenon of digital blackface alongside the vast dissemination of police brutality footage on social media platforms. At first blush, the content of the two media forms seems decidedly disparate, particularly in light of the different scenes of transmission: although footage of police brutality and GIFs trading in digital blackface are both commonly shared on social media websites, that is, shared by one user for the spectation and consumption of many other users, GIFs are also frequent content of direct, intersubjective exchanges, that is, exchanges between two persons mediated by, for example, a cellphone text-messaging system. The spontaneity of GIF transmission in the explicitly intersubjective context may, some could argue, make it difficult to trace out the relationship between macrological systems of racialized violence and micrological moments of casual digital talk.
Arguing otherwise, I contend here that that scene of police brutality and the scene of the racialized GIF can and must be recognized as situated in a reciprocally constitutive relation. The ontological violence indexed by scenes of police brutality footage—the mortal injunction that commands Black men and women to instantaneously detach from their bodily frames if they are to survive the state’s violent policing apparatus—operates through a conditioning of Black bodies to render themselves machine-like, or, insofar as the two terms are binaristically intertwined, that which cannot be human. The infinite looping of Black bodies caught in the extractive cycling of the GIF mobilizes that automatic repetition to transform the Black body into an uncanny figure, a machine that executes its program in loop and is therefore definitely outside the ontological status of the human.
Each of the above tabs contains one portion of the analytical narrative Of Mammies, Minstrels, and Machines weaves. These threads can be read independently of one another, though undergirding motifs of my inquiry are present in them all. The final tab, “Medium, Affect, Humanity II,” includes a rejoinder to my attention to the ontological status of the human, an auto-critique that questions how the digital formation of this project has enabled new lines of flight and previously unimagined sites of inquiry.
N.B. This project builds upon a work bearing the same title that I recently completed. Rather than think about the translation of that text into digital form as akin to the creation of a supplementary object, one whose additions to an archival record are additions in excess, unnecessary for the argument to be fully articulated on its own terms, I would instead propose that this project should be understood in a complementary, almost dialectical relation with the aforementioned text. To work with digital objects, particular digital objects whose hallmark capacity is the indefinite repetition of their movement-image content, is delimited by the medium through which such work is effected.
The textual form, canonical, conventional, and no doubt necessary, cannot adequately contend with the particular rigors required of interrogating certain digital objects. The GIF would certainly be one such object, where much of the analysis of the image depends upon an interrogation of its visual morphology. If reproduced on the page, the GIF is no longer animated; indeed, its placement on the place is a doubling of the contracting stasis that inaugurated the GIF’s production within digital milieux. What this project’s digital form offers, then, is the opportunity to speak through and with the images constitutive of my archive as they are caught in their mandated repetition. In its digital creation, Of Mammies, Minstrels, and Machines examines content considered in its textual form in new ways, and it offers fresh analysis on questions not broached in the textual iteration. I take this to be the promise of digital humanistic inquiry, whereby the meaning of “text” is further diluted, bent and reshaped to accommodate contesting visions of the critical theoretical process.