- A Future Perfect: Queer Digital Sovereignty in Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed and full-metal indigiqueer
Oji-Cree debut author Joshua Whitehead’s book of linked poems, full-metal indigiqueer, opens with a visual representation of the birth of its hybridized, biological-technological Trickster narrator, zoa.1 This birthing sequence spans a series of black pages. A small white dot the size of a pinhead on the first black sheet grows in size on each consecutive page until it reveals a white space filled with binary code, and superimposed on it, zoa’s ontological claim: “H3R314M” (17). That newly birthed singularity exists relationally as well as adaptively: “i lrn: / youthisme.” Next, the entity seeks “home,” seeks the maternal source, nikâwiy, and “paint[s] my face with pixels” to become “warpathtoo” (19). This startling opening image merges the technological (pixels, artificial intelligence) with the biological (“i seek nikâwiy”): zoa orients themself to the world as a being (“14M”) but a specifically Anishinaabe being, an identity already coded in patterns of relationality, reciprocity, and kinship (“youthisme”) as well as one embedded in matrices of colonial violence and Indigenous survivance (“lookmaimwarpathtoo”) (19).2 Throughout the poem sequence, zoa’s disembodied technological self is also always [End Page 491] an embodied, Indigenous, biological self. In addition to being a remarkable literary creation, zoa poses a striking challenge to Katherine Hayles’s call in How We Became Human for scholars to combine literary analysis with cybernetics in order to “liberate the resources of narrative so that they work against the grain of abstraction running through the teleology of disembodiment” in the digital era (22). Hayles extends this call in How We Think, but even then she focuses primarily on the scholar in the digital age, whose embodiment “takes the form of extended cognition” (3). Looking specifically at the queer Indigenous body and the possibilities of digital media, Whitehead’s work deepens our understanding of embodiment in the digital age, with a specific focus on online digital communication through social media networks, the creation of online avatars, and web-based interpersonal communication. For zoa, existing as a digital being liberates them3 from the artificial boundaries imposed by inter- and intrapersonal colonial spaces without damaging or delimiting their essential queerness, Indigeneity, and, most importantly, their capacity to be (as a singularity) and to represent (as an idea) sovereign spaces, nations, and persons.
In other words, Whitehead’s Indigiqueer “cyborg trickster” first disembodies the locus of identity from embodied to cybernetic abstraction in order to then permeate the disembodied world of information technologies and re-body those knowledge indices. In a blog post for “Spotlight,” Whitehead explains “They [zoa] act much like a virus: cybernetic, venereal, biowarfare, nanotech, to infect and invade the canon in order to recentre an Indigiqueer presence” (“Spotlight #15”). Whitehead’s debut novel Jonny Appleseed,4 about a Two-Spirit cybersex worker transplanted to an urban center, traverses similar terrain: the novel explores the intersections of queer personhood, place, and technology in national and personal identity in the context of Indigenous literary sovereignty. In short, both zoa and Jonny (the eponymous protagonist of Jonny Appleseed) represent an [End Page 492] important moment in discussions of cybernetics in literary scholarship: they are depicted as politically and literarily sovereign people, not despite their technological identities and locations, but because of them.
To explore the complicated idea of queer, cyber-literary creations as a significant intervention in Indigenous literary sovereignty, I examine these two threads: first, the significance of queerness in conceptions of Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous notions of nationalism and citizenship; and, second, the ability of digital technologies to offer mediated sites of kinship, connection, and survivance that extend notions of place-based sovereignty into notions of ideological and identity-based sovereignty. In Whitehead’s two works, this fluidity of identity, this being-in-transit, is presented neither as a destabilized nor delocalized condition; instead, being-intransit creates the conditions for a powerful, adaptive sovereignty rich with possibilities for the new century.
Queer and Indigenous Literary Sovereignty
This essay analyzes the intersections of embodied and digital communities and queer experience in Whitehead’s full-metal indigiqueer and Jonny...