Race, Rhetoric, and Reality: Adam Banks and Chuck D

For Steve’s class on Tuesday we read Adam Banks’s Race, Rhetoric, and Technology and was lucky enough to have Adam, a former SU prof now at Kentucky, Skype in. Then on Wednesday night, the family and I went to see Chuck D give a talk he called “Combating the Weapons of Mass Distraction” which was sponsored by our Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. Both experiences were inspiring, and both addressed issues of race and access.

There’s a nice summary of Adam’s book plus our conversation with him over on Hitt’s page, but essentially RRT argues that when it comes to the Digital Divide, our conversation has to be about transformative access; and in order for tech to be truly transformative we (the field of comp/rhet and beyond) have to go beyond material access to address other functions of technology, namely “critique, use, and design” (44). To get there Adam broadens the definition of technology to go beyond the artifact (somewhat out of necessity) to include processes, discursive practices, and tropes. So, for example, if racism is literally coded into various social constructs — the legal system is one example Adam uses since it imprisons a disproportionate number of blacks — then we need to think about how to undo that code. Drawing from Derek Bell, Adam argues that the jeremiad, “an African American rhetorical form that is both a warning and a lament” (95) is one such “countertechnology” that does this work.

I was reminded of the jeremiad on Wednesday night when Chuck D addressed a group of mostly black undergrads. Although the talk was informal and a little scattered at times, Chuck’s main point was this: “You chasin’ the money, you runnin’ in the desert.” He called attention several times to the Occupy Wall Street as a sign of inequality that is going to lead to a social collapse, and encouraged us to think about what it means to “get money.” “If you don’t know what money is how you gonna get it?” If you’re not “a nerd at your goddamn major,” you’re going to finish college with nothing but debt. Although Chuck underscored these warnings (and framed them through hip hop many times), he was also funny and hopeful. He often reflected on what’s possible in college based on his experiences, at one point talking about the importance of brotherhood and collaboration: “I got four majors out of friendship and paid for one.” And at one point Chuck, also an avid Tweeter, held up his smartphone and said “There ain’t no excuse for you to not have an answer today … it’s impossible to not see somethin’ comin’ at you.”

Throughout Adam’s book, which was written six years ago (read: a long ass time in tech terms), I did wonder what role mobile devices are playing in the black community and how that changes the access game when it comes to his axis of critique, use and design. It makes me think about some of the affordances and limits of those devices as reading and writing tools. In a way we did talk little about this when a classmate of mine asked Adam about the role of Twitter in the black community, which does have a proportionately high rate of use among nonwhites. Adam had some interesting ideas about future work in those areas which was rich for discussion about the role of public and private discourse, counterpublics, and the underground.

There were other interesting, subtler connections between Adam’s project and Chuck’s talk: the function of hip hop in both liberation and domestication, African American intellectual identity, and the role of language in all of it. But both experiences also have me thinking about how I can bring some of this work back in to the classroom next semester since I’m betting on getting a WRT 205 course that I’d like to center on either remix culture or countertechnology, hip hop, or countercultural music more generally. Adam had some cool ideas in this regard; the intellectual mix tape, a petcha kutcha style assignment and other ideas are worth trying out. I’ll be revisiting those when the time comes.