- Computers with Color Monitors: Disembodied Black Screen Images 1988–1996
In the farewell panels of Outland, a particular facet of white imagination achieves a realized eschatology. Oliver Wendell Jones, the black child famous for his precocious use of his personal computer, makes his final exit from the Sunday newspapers (2/19/95; see fig. 1) with a “microprocessor in ear” and a “color monitor in face.” Indeed, [End Page 283] as a review of depictions of digitality in recent popular films will reveal, images of computer operators are carefully monitored for facial color. In the bizarre drawing of Jones, a piece of cultural logic simply reaches its conclusion: the black body itself becomes a personal computer.
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The impulse that places black faces in front of flickering, black computer screens is nowhere more visible than at the movies. For the last decade, black techno-wizards (usually male) have consistently populated the most profitable Hollywood action blockbusters. All-time heavyweight box-office champs like Die Hard (1988), The Hunt for Red October (1990), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Jurassic Park (1993) and Mission: Impossible (1996) all furnish prime examples of this black screen phenomenon. 1 A reading of key characters and scenes from these and other popular films—written, produced, and directed by whites—will attempt to unpack what is at stake in this highly selective depiction of the human/digital interface.
Outland’s Opus provides a hint: his reaction to Oliver’s cyborgian transformation is one of obvious discomfort and a nostalgia for physical presence. In later panels, he gradually edges away almost out of the frame, and while Oliver attempts to reassure him about the virtues of Internet access, Opus mutters “I’m not feeling too connected” and “you can’t hug in cyberspace.” Opus does not wish to participate in the virtual interaction Oliver proffers; when Oliver extends a diskette and instructs Opus that “you have to load me,” Opus demurs in cowering horror.
Such encounters with new technology have been clearly diagnosed in Vivian Sobchack’s phenomenological analysis: “All surface, electronic space cannot be inhabited. It denies or prosthetically transforms the spectator’s physical body.” 2 Katherine Hayles similarly notes how certain “materialities of informatics” can “create the bodily impression of immateriality.” 3 Sobchack concludes her essay with a poignant description of the threat of the digital embrace: “Devaluing the physically lived body and the concrete materiality of the world, electronic presence suggests that we are all in imminent danger of becoming merely ghosts in the machine.” 4 We may all be in danger, but some whites might wish to displace that fear, at least in their escapist fictions, onto an available other. Or to particularize the compulsion further, whites who fear the devaluation of their own physically lived bodies might especially wish such immaterialization upon those others whose bodies they most fear. The manifest testimony [End Page 284] of recent movies, brought into conjunction with observations of cyberphobia, suggests a first axiom: If digital small screen technology tends to disembody the subject, then in whites’ big screen narratives, the black male becomes the preferred object of this disembodiment.
In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison notes the strongly nurtured prejudice against analyzing the racial marking of cultural roles: “To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference . . . every well-bred instinct argues against noticing.” 5 Perhaps those instincts argue even louder when there are no doubt some good intentions behind the portrayals at hand. Yet it is worth a second look to test the reach of Morrison’s suspicions regarding the “sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence.” 6
In his preface to James Snead’s posthumously published White Screens/Black Images, Cornel West calls for an analysis of film beyond a “narrow political seeking out of positive or negative black images.” 7 He particularly wishes Snead were around to make sense of “the contemporary preoccupation with black images—as...