“O Susanna” a Racist Precursor of Transhumanist Ideology? N. Katherine Hayles

N. Katherine Hayles

Katherine Hayles has another  book out on new media, technogenesis and the emerging field she calls the digital humanities.  A short review of the book from the University of Chicago  follows at the end of this section.

Here however I would like to post an excerpt from the chapter in Hayles’s book called from: Technogenesis: Telegraph Code Books and the place of the Human in which she explores one theme that has run through her work since “How We Became Posthuman” namely, the shift in thinking about the human from embodied subject to placeholder for information.

In the following passages from a chapter on the history of the telegraph in citing the work of Paul Gilmore’s the Telegraph in Black and White (2002) Hayles explores how the telegraph helped  construct in the cultural imagination the notion of a dematerialized human body. She writes “In the new regime the telegraph established, a zone of indeterminacy in which bodies seemed to take on the attributes of dematerialized information, and information seemed to take on the physicality of bodies. ” The earliest expression of this indeterminacy of bodies that the telegraph facilitated in the cultural imagination often found expression in imperialist and racist ideologies.  The example used here is taken from the Stephen Foster’s well known song “O Susanna” which is chilling not only for its insidious racism but also for locating white supremacist and imperialist thinking in the earliest formulations of what can be called transhumanist ideology.

“The racial implications of the dynamic between information and the cultural imagination of bodies are explored by Gilmore in relation to Stephen Foster’s well known song “O Susanna” the first verse includes such whimsical lines as:

     ”  It rain’d all night the day I left.

The weather it was dry

The sun so hot I froze to death

 Susanna don’t you cry “

Gilmore points to the second verse is much less known than the first. The rarely heard second verse is also much less charming:

“I jumped aboard de telegraph

And trabbled down the ribber

De’lectric fluid magnifies

And killed five hundred nigger.”

Focusing on the grotesque and violent nature of the imagery, Gilmore argues, “Because electricity was understood as both a physical and spiritual force, the telegraph was read as separating thought from the body and thus making the body archaic, and as rematerializing the thought in the form of electricity, thus raising the possibility of a new kind of body. …. The telegraph’s technological reconfiguration of the mind/body dualism gave rise to a number of competing but interrelated racially inflected readings (806)”

Gilmore’s argument is compelling, especially since the telegraph was used by imperialist powers to coordinate and control distant colonies on a daily basis, a feat that would have been impossible had messages traveled more slowly by ship or train. In this sense too, the telegraph was deeply implicated in racist practices.

His (Gilmore’s) reading of Foster’s song, however, is at best incomplete. He does not cite the remainder of the second verse, which suggest a very different interpretation:

De bullgine bust, de horse run off

I really thought I’d die

I shut my eyes to hold my breath

Susanna don’t you cry!

“Bullgine” was shipboard slang for a ship’s engine, usually used in a derogatory sense. Ships were often pulled along shallow sections of the Mississippi and other rivers by horses. Electric fluid, although associated with the telegraph was also commonly used to describe lightening, which became an increasing hazard as shipbuilding moved from wood to iron construction, with the result that lightening strikes became common occurrences on riverboats, killing in several instances hundreds of people. In Old Times on the Upper Mississippi, George Byron Merrick (1909) reports that Telegraph was such a common name for riverboats that there “was a great confusion of any one attempting to localize a disaster that had happened to one of that name in the past” These facts suggest a more straightforward reading of the enigmatic second verse. The speaker jumped on a riverboat named Telegraph, which was struck by lightening, frightening the horse pulling the boat and killing “five hundred nigger”

This interpretation does not of course, negate the racial violence depicted in the verse, nor does it explain why the speaker uses the rather obscure phrase “de ‘lectric fluid magnified” rather than simply calling it a lightening strike. Rather, the gruesome imagery, the nonsensical nature of the first stanze, and the paradoxical line in the second (“I shut my eyes to hold my breath”) suggest that both interpretations are in play, the commonsensical and mysterious. There is an oscillation between reading “telegraph” as a ship(in which case there was nothing magical about the disaster) and “telegraph” as a communication technology in which bodies could be transported along telegraph lines as if they were dematerialized messages, albeit with fatal consequences if the ‘”lectric fluid” “happened to magnify”.  The whimsically paradoxical nature of the lyrics now can be seen in another light. They insist on the necessity of holding two incomplete thoughts together in the mind at once, as if anticipating the oscillation between commonsensical understanding of telegraphy as an everyday technology and as a mysterious reconfiguration of human bodies and technics.

Telegraph code books embody a similar kind of ambiguity. On the one hand, they were used in straightforward business practices to save money. On the other hand, through their information compression techniques, their separation of natural language phrases from code words, and their increasingly algorithmic nature of code construction, they point the way toward a dematerialized view of information that would, a century beyond their heyday, find expression in the idea that human minds already exists as dematerialized information patterns and so can be uploaded to a computer without significant loss of identity (Moravec 1990, 2000). Norbert Wiener writing at the dawn of the computer age in The Human Use of Human Beings (1954) , carried this dynamic to its logical extreme when he speculated whether it would be possible to telegraph a human being (103). A number of writers have pointed to the risky nature of such a dematerialized view of human bodies, ranging from Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man ((2006) to Greg Egan in Permutation City (1995). In historical context they are recapitulating in other keys the explosive (racially inflected) disaster conjured in Stephen Foster’s  minstrel song.” (Hayles 2010)


How We Think
by N. Katherine Hayles

 “How do we think?” N. Katherine Hayles poses this question at the beginning of this bracing exploration of the idea that we think through, with, and alongside media. As the age of print passes and new technologies appear every day, this proposition has become far more complicated, particularly for the traditionally print-based disciplines in the humanities and qualitative social sciences.With a rift growing between digital scholarship and its print-based counterpart, Hayles argues for contemporary technogenesis—the belief that humans and technics are coevolving—and advocates for what she calls comparative media studies, a new approach to locating digital work within print traditions and vice versa.Hayles examines the evolution of the field from the traditional humanities and how the digital humanities are changing academic scholarship, research, teaching, and publication. She goes on to depict the neurological consequences of working in digital media, where skimming and scanning, or “hyper reading,” and analysis through machine algorithms are forms of reading as valid as close reading once was. Hayles contends that we must recognize all three types of reading and understand the limitations and possibilities of each. In addition to illustrating what a comparative media perspective entails, Hayles explores the technogenesis spiral in its full complexity. She considers the effects of early databases such as telegraph code books and confronts our changing perceptions of time and space in the digital age, illustrating this through three innovative digital productions—Steve Tomasula’s electronic novel, TOC; Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts; and Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions.

Deepening our understanding of the extraordinary transformative powers digital technologies have placed in the hands of humanists, How We Think presents a cogent rationale for tackling the challenges facing the humanities toda

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