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Watch This Space: Spectacle and Speed on the Internet

On the digital sublime.

After the Beirut explosion in August, my friend L made an Instagram story observing how grief and trauma in marginalised communities and developing nations lasts far longer— generations, even—than the support and attention that is often paid by the “Global North”. I believe we cannot always bear the blame of our own ignorance but L’s post resonated with me, especially in the context of social media and how we try to use it to craft a tool for caring and community. 

I was reminded of Rob Dixon’s idea of “slow violence”, which I described in an Honi article last year as the normalisation of incremental violence and trauma in the absence of immediate horror and critical shock value that usually compels sympathy and brief action. Dixon writes within the context of environmental and climate catastrophe but race and technology are inextricably linked here, too. Without an immediate object of spectacle, the attention paid on social and public media is selective and often quite niche. 

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Spectacle is a necessary condition for white supremacy. When it does not manifest in covert forms, white supremacy is the most emphatic and twisted stage show of all. As Ashlee Marie Preston writes, “the consumption of Black pain is as American as apple pie… sharing images of Black death on social media won’t save Black lives”. Various US news reports of George Floyd’s arrest and murder in Minneapolis are archived on Youtube, ranging from 100 thousand to over 2 million views. With traditional television news subsumed into social media practices (and vice versa), footage of Floyd’s murder was inevitably threaded globally into millions of feeds, including my own. This happened immediately, alongside the massive uptick of Black Lives Matter and “allyship” social media posts by non-Black people. But anti-racism does not require the reproduction of Bla(c)k trauma. This especially includes visual reproductions. Henry Giroux describes this as “the neolibral dystopian dream machine” where “war, violence, and politics have taken on a new disturbing form of urgency within image-based cultures”.

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Social media mandates spectral power through the way it continues to favour instant reactions, gratification and “share”-ability. Here, Liat Berdugo explains that spectral is as in “spectrum” — the field of colour as wavelengths of visible light — but also “specter, or ghost — the haunting that so often occurs when conflicts are visually recorded, and when recordings of violence, death, and ordinary complicity can be replayed, recirculated, relived, republished, haunting us as they search for a reckoning”. How can we hold space for those holding hurt and trauma if we render everything a spectacle? What does it mean to be a witness via the digital sphere? 

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According to Lisa Nakamura, the “digital sublime” is created when “technologies [are] mythologised as both convenient and infallible”. We expect the infrastructure of the internet to be perfect — or at least optimised. When our initial reactions to seeing harm and violence on the internet are negative, the digital sublime is the way this expectation spurs us towards neutralisation and normalisation, towards feeling better about the questionable ways we as a society use technology. In Franny Choi’s poem “Catastrophe is Next to Godliness”, she confesses “I want the clarity of catastrophe but not the catastrophe. / Like Everyone else, I want a storm I can dance in, / I want an excuse to change my life.”  The clarity but not the catastrophe itself. It is this want for incandescence and lucidity, in the face of chaos and collapse, that seems to linger a scroll or a tap away. And when the chase for clarity over a certain event or issue becomes irrelevant, so many just move speedily onto the next thing, abandoning our responsibility to those who encounter violence. This is not sustainable and it is not, for so many of us, survivable. 

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Legacy Russell’s cyberfeminist manifesto Glitch Feminism suggests that the glitch — the malfunction and mistiming of technology — “pushes back against the speed at which images of Black bodies and queer bodies are consumed online”. The glitch is a spatial-temporal disruption that acts as an intermediary allowing for visions of joy and plenitude, beyond mere survival, to rush in. It rejects, in the words of Doreen Massey, the “internalisation of ‘the system’ that can potentially corrode our ability to imagine that things could be otherwise”. Forming a feminism around this idea critically expands upon cyberfeminism and Black feminisms in the context of rejecting codes, rejecting binaries and interrogating visibility in society. Abolitionist in tone and practice, Russell says that the “broader goal of glitch feminism is to recognise that bodies not intended to survive and exist across these current systems are the ones that will push this world to its breaking point. And that’s a good thing”.

Recently, I’ve been trying to be more intentional with what I share online, reminding myself that because the border between online and offline is now beyond blurred, ongoing care for the people and communities I love is a process that now expands onto the internet. There is productivity, and then there is pause. Anti-racism requires both from us, urgently, but then again, do take your time.

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