Its perplexing how easy the term lynching and its associations are being so easily thrown around in this present moment of American culture. Considering how 'traditional' lynchings were racialized demonstrations of white supremacy and spectacle at the murder and destruction of black bodies I'm further perplexed by how 'digitized' lynching subverts hegemonic (white?) privilege and its impositions on the black body through voyeurism and anonymity. Transgressive definitions of digital anonymity signify shifting performance scripts of blackness in America's public sphere. The black body, once restricted to a role of anonymous victimization, symbolized a lack of concern for African Americans within a broader context of American life.
Technology complicates this victim discourse by blurring invisibility politics with subversion of privilege indicative of the voyeurism that frames the black body in this context. Considering the Amber Cole fiasco, Herman Cain's cry of being digitally lynched, and most recently the Penn State travesty, an intriguing and developing discourse surrounding lynching's 21st century rendition is how anonymity provides a messy framework for maneuvering such privilege and its intersections with respectability politics and shame. A couple of overarching tropes especially catch my attention:
I. Anonymity as Power
This dimension of negotiating anonymity and power in cyberspace is fairly traditional, considering how few people have ever been convicted of a lynching. It was often written off as murder at the hands of persons unknown. Particularly striking about anonymity and race in cyberspace, however, is how anonymity becomes gendered and subverts hegemonic white privilege and voyeurism as an imposition of black masculine power. Thinking about the Amber Cole video and a group of young black girls' pregnancy pact photos currently circulating across the Internet the young girls' bodies are immediately accessible and spectated by not only anonymous viewers but made accessible by boys who are never seen (with the exception of the young man receiving oral sex by Cole). Impositions of respectability and responsibility are forced on the girls through essentialized and historical notions of shame attached to black women's sexuality. These impositions are troubled, however, by the girls themselves because of tricky negotiations of the Internet as a celebrated space of invisibility and the deemed critical distance associated with that invisibility - 'you don't know me. This ain't real.' The complicated and often messy negotiations of voyeurism associated with the black body in these cases are multifaceted - i.e. the girls' viewing of themselves in the mirror and in the camera intending to distribute the photo via text or MMS, the viewers of the photo, and the girls' sexual partners and fathers of their babies. How, then, can we invest in such static invisibility and shame politics when these types of sexual and personal expression are fluid and outside of these boundaries?
II. The Digitized Cultural Erotic
My analysis of this trope is still in its development stages but it speaks to a growing interest about technology's role as an agent of this current blip in the trajectory of black sexuality discourse. Aside from an exhibition of power, historic lynchings heavily invested in paroling and (re)claiming a believed overstated black sexuality, especially black men. Controlling the 'threat' of black sexuality entailed severely violent reactions, many of which at the hands of privileged yet unknown lynch mob members. The 'technology' associated with these attacks was paranoia and mouth-to-mouth spread accusations resulting in a mob of white angst. I'm curious about how this angst transcribes for this current moment of American culture where eroticism is open but racial angst is deemed irrelevant and displaced because of the anxiety surrounding an open and public acknowledgement of race.
A chapter from Siobhan Brooks' Unequal Desires, a brilliant study of cultural and sexual capital in the sex industry, discusses the implications of technology on what she calls "erotic capital," a body's "value based on a socially constructed ideal model of beauty/attractiveness held by dominant culture" (6). Brooks' discussion of erotic capital is in conversation with Tricia Rose's observations about women and erotic expression in similar hypermasculine spaces like Hip Hop, observing how women in Hip Hop use the erotic as a source of power and are not restricted to erotic expression as a form of victimization. Pairing technology and youth culture with Brooks' and Rose's observations about the shifting cultural landscape of spectatorship and ownership of black womens' bodies is a useful framework for considering how today's young girls', members of what I call the android generation, view their sexuality and how it is expressed in a digital age. Is it possible to consider the Internet as a space of sex-positive black girls' expression without victimized and therefore stigmatic attachment to shame and (lack of ) respectability politics? Or will these young girls continue to be digitally lynched by being forwarded at the hands of persons unknown?