Week 7: Race and/as Technology (?)

For this week, I read Wendy Chun’s introduction to an edited special issue on ‘Race as Technology’. I was trying to find scholarship that speaks to the interaction of caste identities and digital technologies for my writing but was unable to find a solid piece that inaugurates this discussion.

I also re-read Prof Philip’s chapter from ‘Tactical Biopolitics’ on the implications of digitizing traditional/indigenous agricultural knowledge in India. She points out that the two communities (agriculture and indigenous rights activists on the one hand and free software enthusiasts on the other) that meet to digitize traditional natural knowledge bring their expertise to the dialog but despite that, both remain uncritical about the reconfiguration (or the reticular/ontogenetic) of knowledge as it gets encoded into new formal avenues. She says:

Traditional knowledge, by virtue of being entered into database fields that fix the “traditional” as static, is detemporalized in a precise recording at a particular historical moment. How are we to include a dynamic understanding of it unless we acknowledge the ongoing construction of tradition? What knowledge status would be then accorded to, say, the patent claims of a University of Mississippi researcher who might now draw extensively upon this database in order to devise new pharmaceuticals or pesticides, but stabilizes these compounds in a lab, and thus satisfies the novelty and originality requirements?
What fields should such databases contain? What narratives (of rationality, innovation, usability, testability, repeatability) must be applied to so-called traditional knowledge in order for it to fit the fi elds? How is authorship attributed, and in what ways does such an attribution cathect a messy contextual system with the bildungsroman narrative of solo scientific discovery and individual genius?

externalized via a classic analytical model which sees scientifi c knowledge as separate and
unique, is here “taken care of” by the new apolitical technology of databases.

It is precisely this “fixing” of knowledge – its codification, representation and then its simultaneous, continuous life as “in-forming” the governance of life that needs critical attention. In that sense, merely housing indigenous knowledge in digital containers will not automatically solve problems of authorship, patent fights etc.

Quickly jumping back to Wendy Chun’s piece, she does a similar exercise in thinking through the two categories of race and technology where, while keeping open the question of refurbishing race as a concept at all, she show how race (as doing, as how races does or operates and what it does to the world) is a technology. She illustrates this through the examples of segregation (as a visual and spatial technology), blood (as epidermal technology) and compares the shift from biological to cultural reasons for constructing the racial other. She ends the essay with this quote that I found particularly useful for my own work (in thinking through what we might want to do if we ask for a critical project on the ethics of caste-ing technology):

Race as technology thus problematizes the usual modes of visualization and revelation, while at the same time making possible new modes of agency and causality. Importantly, it displaces ontological questions of race — debates over what race really is and is not, focused on discerning the difference between ideology and truth — with ethical ones: what relations does race set up? The formulation
of race as technology also opens up the possibility that, although the idea and the experience of race has been used for racist ends, the best way to fight racism might not be to deny the existence of race but to make race do different things.

Finally, I am still thinking/reading on the transferability of race theory to caste because they both are built on a different conceptualization of the body (albeit both unwanted bodies). There are some obvious similarities to the public experience of both (discrimination, exploitation as labor, representation) but I want to be more careful with this.