VI. Coda: On Digitally Mediated Inquiry

At the conclusion of the material-textual iteration of this project, I endeavored to propose an intervention on the circuitry of desire and recognition that subtended the economy of racialized reaction GIF exchange. My interest there was focused on the scene of interpersonal communication via cellphone messaging systems between non-Black, or, more specifically, white, subject-users. Following the intellectual threads carefully woven by Jackson in her article on digital blackface, I sought to attend to the curious question of intentionality. The critical hermeneutic opened by Jackson’s formulation of digital blackface addressed this question of intentionality through an inversion of the very terms on which it has been elliptically advanced within racist discourses. Rather than existentially conditioning intentions of racialized abjection on the express avowal of anti-Black sentiment, Jackson acknowledges an ordering of the social that is always already implicitly dependent on racialization for its existence. The character of intention, if recourse to that sign can retain any political purchase, must be exhumed by tracking the contours and coordinates of intention’s many silhouettes. The point at which outside and inside are putatively partitioned, the perimeter line of the silhouetted image, becomes the space of productive investigation.

To that end, I argued for an understanding of racialized GIF exchange in the context just described as a scene of affective charge wherein the image served as the polarizing conduit. The exchange of the racialized reaction GIF functioned as the ephemeral invocation of nostalgia toward a social ordering in which outright control over Black bodies would not need to be obliquely ciphered through systems such as mass incarceration, urban cordoning and infrastructural destruction, and endless conditions of labor displacement. To make the GIF of a Black body perform at one’s behest was to make the GIF perform for the consumption of the ontologically equivalent other. Such was the structure of a scene of mutual recognition, wherein the affective resonance of subjective security in the self’s particularity could be iteratively fortified and intersubjectively constituted.

Rather than further dilate on the questions engendered by that choreography of subject-making, I would like to turn to a different affective scene, one for which I provided no account in Of Mammies, Minstrels, and Machines‘ material-textual iteration. The process of writing a text about digital objects whose mediatic specificity is the endless automaticity of their movement is a somewhat paradoxical enterprise, particularly at the level of theoretical-political praxis. To write about the GIF as I did in this project’s complementary form required that I submit those images to a hollowing stasis that both robbed them of their particularity and occluded, however inadvertently, the profound ontological stakes indissociably bound to their movement. While this latter statement may seem self-evident, if not entirely facile, I would interrogate the intuitive availability of that disposition. Accordingly, I want to underscore the importance of engaging the digital object on the terrain of its immanence — that is, within the many folds of digital worlds — by expounding on this heretofore unremarked scene of affective force-relations. The scene to which I turn is auto-critically staged, mediated by the phenomenological encounter with the digital object in all its animacy. It is the scene opened up the possibility of digital humanist inquiry oriented toward the digital object.

The above images are the extracted individual frames that, when sequentially run, play the GIF of Leakes I earlier discussed. I separate out these frames so that they may be seen in their singularity and, as a consequence, so that the forced dissolution of their cinematic relationship may be recognized as a form of stasis-making similar in kind, though different in degree, to the stasis-making to which I submitted this image in my materially contained analysis. Leakes’ hand, once exhibiting a smooth movement, is now caught in a perpetual blur; her eyes appear to remain closed across the images, contrary to what is represented when they are collectively animated. The images appear hollowed out, and the affective charge that might follow from watching this GIF on repeat is altogether absent. Instead, the vacuity of the collection engenders a similarly sensation of voidedness, as though something is missing, some kernel of intelligibility now lost that dulls the political virulence of which this image’s constant exchange is capable.

I have argued that the process of the making-machine of Black subjects operates through a dialectical integration whose constituent elements take form in a temporally simultaneous register. To develop this claim, I turned to a selection of tweets made by Meghan McCain. This material was not included in my prior account; moreover, its inclusion was readily enabled by the platform on which I pursued my inquiry. By this, I mean to suggest that the mediation of my encounter with these objects of scrutiny by a digital platform allowed me to engage these digital objects in their actual unfolding and situatedness. They were not muted, passive objects, abstracted by belabored description and attempts at linguistic capture. Instead, their active animacy and animatedness became newly apparent, and the sensation of being affectively struck by my encounter with this densely unfolding digital milieu transfigured the very character of the analysis I proposed. Here, the medium, the site that mediated my experience of the digital object, disordered my expectations of its affectivity; what lacked epistemological existence before now moved into view, shaped by this new experience of my own animatedness against that of these objects.

I mark out this space to underscore what is rendered politically possible by inquiries constitutively informed by the digital and the humanistic alongside one another. It is for this reason that I opened this project with the statement that this digital apparatus should not be understood as a supplement of or a prosthesis used by its material-textual version. Catalyzed by the same intellectual aims yet pursued through an expanded, animated archive, this project opened up new paths of analytical engagement that I had not been able to consider.

What remains to be pursued, accordingly, is to situate the tensions espoused by the digital and the material in dialogue, further pressing this analysis and its methods to better grasp the complex problematic of the racialized reaction GIF and the scenes of digital blackface.