The Case for Reparations in Digital Spaces

These are my remarks as part of the MLA 16 roundtable: Repair and Reparations in Digital Public Spaces.

As I begin to pull together my thoughts on the subject of repair and reparations, I find the ideas I had in January 2015 when Adeline and I, over plates of Korean fried chicken first began discussing the subject of reparations in digital spaces are not the same as they are today in January 2016.

Originally, and in keeping with our Texas location, I was most concerned with issues of how digital tools, themselves at best neutral, are used and abused to re-enforce and expand the hegemonic imperial nation state, to militarize and police the US Mexican border against and at the expense of economically and politically colonized bodies.

I’m still concerned with this, but I want to focus my remarks this afternoon on issues of repair versus reparation. Much has been discussed recently on care and repair practices. So why then use the term “reparation”? Repair can be a positive thing. The term denotes fixing, making something that doesn’t work or properly function or function better. But repair is also utilitarian and philosophically neutral. Repair is not revolutionary. Physical repairs, as Gloria Anzaldúa discusses in Borderlands, are forever being made to the border wall, the 1,950 mile open wound, where the ocean meets the shore, where Tijuana touches San Diego. This decade has seen much fence and wall building and repair. Yet no one, I believe, would call these repairs “reparations.”

“Reparation” is not neutral term. It has revolutionary resonances. Reparations speak not simply to fixing something that’s broken, but of making something or someone who was harmed whole. Reparations demand acknowledging responsibility for past injustices and active resistance to their replication. Reparations are not simply repairs but compensation. Reparation judges. It is repeatedly returned to in critical race theory, post-colonial and ethnic studies. To deny reparation is to ignore that theory, history and philosophy. Reparations, the current and past border situation would suggest acknowledging and teaching the history of Operation Wetback, of the braceros. Of resisting the militarized wall. Of, as Homi Bhaba wrote and as my fellow panelist Linda Garcia Merchant does in her work, haunting the unwritten history.

As was learned through the cynical use of deconstruction of video in the Rodney King beating case, when police defense lawyers used a deconstructed reading to see resistance and danger in King’s beaten body, neutral tools may not remain neutral. It is the nature of hegemony that a neutral tool will tend to work to repair and reinforce white, neoliberal capitalism. It is therefore important not only to repair and care for our digital spaces, but to construct and reconstruct them as spaces where reparations are made.

 

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