MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 261-283
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Slave Cyborgs and the Black Infovirus:
Ishmael Reed's Cybernetic Aesthetics
Michael A. Chaney
There has been an alarming scarcity of critical work on the intersection of race and technology in contemporary literature, a concern that Amiri Baraka poses in Kawaida as a question of intergalactic mobility: "What are the black purposes of space travel?" (31). Hazarding an answer, Robert Fox invokes Ishmael Reed to deploy a hasty analogy—"It is not simply a matter of replacing flights to Canada with flights to the stars" (94)—but then Fox qualifies his witticism, without completing his train of thought, in a parenthetical musing that attests to Reed's more complicated relationship to technology: "although it is worth recalling that Reed's Raven makes his journey on a 747; technology does get you there—but where?" (94). What began as a tidy example of an unsophisticated use of technology, Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada (1976), ultimately leads to an admission of greater ambiguity that disables the very enterprise of theorizing Reed's technology. Indeed, as Robert Fox's rhetorical aporia suggests, attempting to make Reed synonymous with simplistic notions of technology (Fox points to radio and early film) soon leads to more questions. Alongside a thorough critical record on Reed's "HooDoo" aesthetics, postmodern conventionality, slave narrative revisions, and pop cultural allusions, one finds, by contrast, a dearth of criticism dealing with Reed's use of technology. One may easily [End Page 261] misrecognize Reed for a writer less aware of technology than say, Samuel Delaney, an argument that Fox goes on to make.
This paper works toward a series of possible answers to the question that Fox's discarded analogy ends with—where does technology lead to in Flight to Canada? And of course this "where" may indicate not so much a physical space as a reorientation in subjectivity. But before we hypothesize the implications of Reed's technicity we must come to an agreement on what kind of technology predominates in his texts. Fox historicizes Reed's primary concern with radio as a way to figuratively banish Reed and his fiction to a historical era less interpenetrated by commodification and what we might now refer to as telepresence communications technologies: "The influence of radio on Baraka and Reed, however, is worth reemphasizing because it roots them in a pre-McLuhanite era, a fact that distinguishes them from younger artists who have grown up in a far more saturated media environment" (93). Fox interprets Reed's focus on radio, film, and television as criteria excluding him from more recent black authors such as Samuel Delaney. Such periodizing induces Fox to associate Reed with an earlier, implicitly ineffectual form of postmodernism that J. Hoberman describes as "the genuinely populist, sixties post-modernism of Pop Art and underground movies" (68). To Fox and other critics who hierarchicize creativity within a phases-of-commodity matrix à la Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard, Reed's radio metaphors are, at best, prototypical references to information viruses, and at worst, nostalgic pleas for a return to precommodity culture. This myopic highlighting of radio as technology manqué disregards Reed's subtle interlacing of technologies more contiguous with the 1990s than the 1970s.
In what follows I will explore Reed's fascination, apparent since Mumbo Jumbo (1972), with African-American culture as a viral form of information that eventually causes an imperialist crisis of communication control (cybernetics) and his analogy between two kinds of hybrids in Flight To Canada—the man-machine cyborg represented by Uncle Robin and the animal-man hybridizing of slaves by proslavery apologists. The critical trope of the cyborg allows us to figuratively rescue Reed's works from the kind of critical determinism already demonstrated in Fox. Read alongside Reed's fictional instantiation of the slave-cyborg, Donna Haraway's utopian cyborg and Harryette Mullen's dystopian media cyborg enable a critical approach that permits temporary hold on Reed's elusive fiction without flattening its multifaceted aesthetic or foreclosing its various contextual...