Notes on Coleman: Race as Technology

Beth Coleman’s (2009) “Race as Technology” in Camera Obscura 70, V. 24/1.

177 “moves race away from the biological and genetic systems that have historically dominated its definition”

177-178 “I argue in this essay that technology’s embedded function of self-extension may be exploited to liberate race from an inherited position of abjection toward a greater expression of agency. In this case, agency indicates presence, will, and movement—the ability to move freely as a being—and it is not restricted to individuals but also includes systems: it concerns how beings are subjected in systems of power, ideology, and other networks.”

—- “liberate race from an inherited position of abjection” how can we understand that inherited position, and is it related to a psychoanalytic notion of abjection?

178 “For the moment, let us call ‘race as technology’ a disruptive technology that changes the terms of engagement with an all-too-familiar system of representation and power” [Emphasis added].

To consider this, “race…must first be denatured—that is, estranged from its history as a biological fact (a fact that has no scientific value perhaps, but constitutes, nonetheless, a received fact).” 

Here Coleman cites UNESCO’s 1952 dismissal of race as a legitimate category for scientific inquiry…its clarification (many times confirmed and elaborated since) that race is not a genetically determined concept; that the racial status “black” for example is conferred inconsistently, as are other notions of “Asia,” “Africa,” “Orient,” “Near/far/middle East,” “Balkan,” or even “Native,” in relation to perceived or desired boundaries of narrative for white ethnicity. 

Stuart Hall: white ethnicity’s boundaries are always necessary formations underlying the description of racial categories, but they remain invisible from the equation.

Robert Fiske: whiteness deploys power via “exnomination,” a process that removes or reduces any mark of Anglo- or N/WEuro- identity, “unnaming” that identity, through the naming of other identities. Unnaming whiteness confers on it a status of universality in relation to particulars.

BUT, the stakes of this conversation aren’t limited to concepts and identity particulars, and Coleman’s argument about race as a physical tool helps to strengthen that point:  “Imagine a contraption with a spring or a handle that creates movement and diversifies articulation. Not a trap, but rather a trapdoor through which one can scoot off to greener pastures. As an object of history, race has been used as a contraption by one people to subject another. An ideological concept of race such as this carries a very practical purpose. It vividly and violently produces race-based terrorism, systems of apartheid, and demoralizing pain.”

“[No break?] A notion of race as technology, however, moves toward an aesthetic category of human being, where mutability of identity, reach of individual agency, and conditions of culture all influence each each other.”

182 “In aspiring to disinterest in an object that has been so terribly interesting for us, we can dislocate race from its historically embedded status as a de facto biological object. Creating a distance from the inherited logic of race, conceptualizing race as technology enables an aesthetics and an ethics of race: an agent can judge the strategic value of one mode of representation over another.”

BLC: But wait, haven’t we been confronted for decades now in the US with a theatre of disinterest from race? Isn’t that what proposition 209 is? How does Coleman aspire to this kind of empirical, quasi-anaesthetized view of race as a social construct, when the (various kinds of) invisibility of the construct are precisely what empower it? (See Fiske, Hall, above.) Is this really a radical move? (Open question.)

199-200 Coleman answers: “In asking the reader to consider race as technology, I…participate in the critique of racial instrumentalization, but in a fashion that exploits the nature of technology toward the human and the affective as opposed to toward dehumanization. Paradoxically, I engage terms such as denaturing and disruption to reach this goal of removing race from an overdetermined history of lack and toward a revaluation in productive difference. I engage a similar double gesture in linking disinterest (a quality that is neither embedded nor exclusively subjective)…with delight (a quality of pure affect)…

What is that “double gesture”? Coleman passes Kant through the lens of her own thinking in two different refractions simultaneously: first she asks us to consider Kant’s notion of judgment and disinterest as a foundation on which to wonder whether:

1.  How is our judgment of racial difference conditioned by aesthetics of “interest” or “delight” in the Kantian sense? 

2.  How does Kant’s consideration of interest and delight in the process of human judgment make use of racial difference as a tool?

3. [Possible implicit third dimension: Coleman, a woman of color, at least temporarily pretends to be “disinterested” in Kant’s exploitation of racial difference through a racialized “contortionist subject.” The disinterest is hilighted by her earlier declaration of the personal, and even violent, stakes of the conversation … which she has suspended in her academic exploration of Kant.]


184 “Perhaps this ‘light subject’ portends a metaphysics of race, in which race and technology are linked not to settle human limits but instead to explore human thresholds. Occupying such a position of mobility is not without its risks… Being in flux can be much riskier than knowing one’s place, even if that place represents the lowest level of society.”

189 “The mechanism of race…is not a metal or wood contraption, but rather a thing that functions systetmatically…it is not a thing itself but an array of procedures…”

194 “What [Gregory] Bateson’s (1972) question [‘is a blind man’s cane part of the man?’] points to is a fundamental shift in Western conceptions of autonomy: the human subject, in a cybernetic system, is always set in relation to other kinds of agents, such as machines.”


Neutrality: A Theoretical Limit with Great Importance (Heller Response to Coleman)

Philosophically speaking, does neutrality exist? Can one be neutral? Are humans capable of neutrality? Can we even perceive neutrality if it exists? Or, are we a species that is inherently biased, so therefore, we cannot see neutrality, even if it were neutral. If one is to argue that nothing is neutral, one must then ask, “at what point in its construction (or among its parts) was it ever in a state of neutrality?” Unless one can rewind a state of a thing to a point where it was “neutral,” then we have a paradox: one must start with a state of neutrality in order to evolve to non-neutrality.

In Beth Coleman’s article on Race as a Technology, she proposes that technology is neutral when she says, “the ability to render results rests with the maker, not with the tools.” She further asks the reader to consider that “race” – the human tendency to discern between peoples based on physical, cultural or historical characteristics – is merely a tool by which humans can do either good or evil. That is, we employ a neutral tool called “race” to draw dividing lines for purposes whose results are not neutral.

I personally agree with that disposition, but not for the reasons she argues. And these reasons avoid concerns down the logic chain that Coleman otherwise leaves unresolved. What does Coleman think people will do differently now that they think of race as a neutral tool? Will we suddenly become enlightened? Introspective of our true natures? That we will change our behaviors? The fact is, the concept of race evolved because it served a purpose, and unless people understand that fundamental process, and prescribe a new approach or methodology for analysis, we will simply recreate the same mindset. In short, we’re going to misuse the tool, irrespective of its neutrality.

It is correct to think of neutrality as a tool, and Coleman correctly cites many great thinkers and philosophers that pose compelling arguments in favor of trying to think neutrally. Their rationale is rooted in the logic that doing so avoids problems of ambiguities and differences of opinion, taste, and deeper matters when observing events in the world. If we can see things objectively, neutrally, then we can agree on the state of things so we can then make better sense of the world and deal with it properly.

Coleman seeks to attribute race as a tool because technology’s inherent neutrality puts the onus on humans to accept full responsibility for how we employ the tool. If the tool is biased, then it allows us to evade responsibility for our actions. So, as long as we regard race as a neutral tool, which it may or not actually be, we are more accountable for our actions.

And it is here where Coleman’s prescription falls short. While it’s entirely appropriate to regard race as a neutral tool, that’s just the beginning. Humans cannot merely move towards the center of anything; they’ll just pass it right by and swing to the opposite extreme – it serves as a proportional counter-weight against an imbalance. Dictators often win popular support through rhetoric against the prior dictator. Smokers find alternative “vices.” Over-eaters become anorexic. And so on. The problem with Coleman’s advice is beyond merely regarding race as a neutral tool. There’s the preponderance of human behavior that must be accounted for.

The concept of race is a byproduct of a broader, natural, instinctive human condition: We categorize and classify things in order to make sense of the world, to create order from chaos. This process allows us to create symbolic and abstract lines and boundaries around things in the analog world into discrete and ordered structures: Land borders, colors, good and evil, and of course, peoples. We must build shelter, defend against enemies, and mate to perpetuate the species. To survive, we don’t need to actually stop and ponder, “Is that person really trying to hurt me?” “Is that wind really an angry god?” “Is this sickness really a sign of the devil?”

We were certainly able to survive with incorrect knowledge, and this inherent, base instinct to over-simplify and categorize the world permitted this. But, we were also static. And this did not change till the scientific method was introduced. It was the main revelation that forced people to think in terms of neutrality: the world can be examined from all sides, tested, theorized, and evaluated. These are very different methods than emotional reactions to observations in the world. We strove to observe the world from a position of neutrality, even though it is against our human natures to do so. It is us that we strove to be the neutral tool, not just the tools we used.

The value of neutrality is that it allows for a better, more informed understanding of the world, despite our natures to react viscerally. And an informed understanding is a circuitous spiral around an idea. It is circumspect: Viewing a postulate from all sides, willing to question one’s own position, eager consider opposing views, all while gaining the weight of knowledge, which spirals towards the middle: neutrality. It is that extreme, theoretical limit that we cannot reach because, as much as we may try (and we should), we are still a non-neutral, emotional, biased species. Those qualities are what we need to live and enjoy life.

Yes, “race” is a tool and it is neutral. But the underlying problems will not be addressed unless humans themselves are taught to seek self-neutrality: To objectively seek that middle ground where knowledge and understanding is obtained through perpetual acquisition of knowledge. 


Dewey Dewey Dewey

UNPULSER: and abbreviated manualAdditive rhythm is rhythm whose timespans are made of multiples of a basic (usually small) unit of time, that serves as a micropulse or a beat subdivision.


Algorithms working off rations.  Rational but random.

Graphic elements are in circle, ratio’s are the timing.  Gravity has impact

Time is running around in a circle

50% that there will be note

smaller circles are less complex

larger circle have more complex/ ratios


Compulse, expectancy in music


Pulse-repeating patterns, unpulse nondisclosed repitition.

Importance of Ambigouity, rhythm


Rhythm- series of events


Ambiguous- no narrative,

empirical philosophers,


Dewey Dewey Dewey,

Dewey 1st half of his article focuses on the idea experience, which he defines as those situations or episodes. He says there is no stopping of an experience, only pauses. The theoretic formulation of the process connects our experience to a human cognition. An experience can be efficient in action so much that the human is not conscience of the experience.  Involuntary or propriocentric. He states these as overdoings.  An experience can be theoretical or esthetic which he defines as appreciative, perceiving, and enjoying.  It denotes the consumer’s rather than the producer’s standpoint.

Experience is unique

Experience as emotional:


Emotional event as opposed to shock. I was very interested in this aspect of his writing as it pertains to my work.  The first film that I directed last fall is a short thriller where I designed the set, costume, and the performance to enhance a feeling of panic or terror, This film is the first of a series of five films the first film being the opener to the audiences emotions.  I felt that fear could allow for this opening in using both shock as well as memory triggers.  Dewey states that the emotional event is different than shock and that “ the jump of fright becomes emotional fear when there is found or thought to exist a threatening object that must be dealt with or escaped from. “


NOTES-blc "Persuade Into What..." (Fallman) — Borgmann overview

Fallman, Daniel (2007). “Persuade Into What? Why Human-Computer Interaction Needs a Philosophy of Technology.” In Lecture Notes in Computer Science.” 4744/2007, pp 295-306.

2.2   Borgmann’s Focal Things and Practices

Borgmann is Heideggerian/dystopian/romantic (rather than pragmatic/Deweyian)

“Borgmann suggests that we need to be cautious and rethink the [engineering-like, design-oriented, “usefulness”] relationship—and the often assumed correspondence—between what we consider as useful and what we think of as good in terms of technology” …(Fallman quoting Borgmann:) “One the one hand, ambulances save lives and so are eminently useful; on the other hand, cars save us bodily exertion and the annoyances of fellow pedestrians or passengers and are thus, at least in part, a threat to the goods of community and our physical health in the form of exercise” [14, p. 21].

“This junction between the useful and the good—that some technologies may be both useful and good, while some technologies that are useful for some purposes might also be harmful, less good, in a broader context—is at the heart of Borgmann’s understanding of technology.”

Focal things are signified by “Commanding presence, continuity with the world and centering power”; 


e.g. a hearth, which aside from its functional relation as heating and/or cooking, maintains cultural and symbolic focus as a “natural gathering point around which most activities were either centered or in some way related to.”

Commanding presence puts demands on us, entrains “patience, endurance, skill…resoluteness”

Continuity with the world— it “connects us with other activities”; (Fallman quoting Borgmann:) “a focal thing is not an isolated entity; it exists as a material center in a complicated network of human relationships and relationships to its natural and cultural setting” [14, p. 23]

Centering power— it “comes to affirm the place where one lives and the direction of one’s life; …provides a centering experience, …” develops over time a sense that “this is the right thing to do and the right way of living.” 

Focal things “tend to unify means and ends. Achievement and enjoyment are brought together; so are individual and community; mind and body; and body and world.”


2.2.1   The Device Paradigm

“Nevertheless, according to Borgmann, the understanding and appreciation of the role of focal things and practices seems to have disappeared from modern technology. It seems that the latter is rather guided by another kind of promise:” (Fallman quoting Borgmann:) “Technology … promises to bring the forces of nature and culture under control, to liberate us from misery and toil, and to enrich our lives. […] implied in the technological mode of taking up with the world there is a promise that this approach to reality will, by way of the domination of nature, yield liberation and enrichment” [1, p. 41].

“…we are typically not freed up at all by technology but rather made passive—and if we are freed up it is only to have time for more technology. In this downward spiral, we become consumers, increasingly disengaged from things and from each other.”

“modern technology, propelled by the advances in information technology, tends to operate to deconstruct things and reconstitute them into devices, which contributes to the style of modern life being short of a natural center, a hearth,…” (Fallman quoting Borgmann:) “In this rising tide of technological devices, disposability supersedes commanding presence, discontinuity wins over continuity, and glamorous thrills trump centering experiences” [14, p. 24].

Fallman quoting Borgmann re: the irony of technology: “The good life that devices obtain disappoints our deeper aspirations. The promise of technology, pursued limitlessly, is simultaneously alluring and disengaging” [14, p. 31].


NOTES-blc "Persuade Into What..." (Fallman) — Ihde overview

Fallman, Daniel (2007). “Persuade Into What? Why Human-Computer Interaction Needs a Philosophy of Technology.” In Lecture Notes in Computer Science.” 4744/2007, pp 295-306.


“Ihde, who has “repeatedly insisted that the materiality of technologies be maintained” [8, p. 26], holds that if one absorbs techniques—as certain ways of practice and thought—into technology that tends to yield technology as an overly general and abstract term 


Advantages to “giving prominence to human-technology relations” are (1) it enables distinction between technology and technique (see above quote); (2) helps overcome “often suggested and presumed” neutrality of technologies and (3) facilitates “the possibility of preserving in one’s analysis the dynamic and actional nature of that relationship. Even though technologies are artificial, it is nevertheless important to realize that they are part of human praxis; used, designed, developed, repaired, discarded, and so on.”


“…three basic kinds of relations between humans, technology, and world”:

1. embodiment relation [users embody a praxis; involves transparency or ‘seeing-through’-ness; (Human—Technology)—>World.]

2. hermeneutical relation [users’ focus is on instrument and its mediation, requires constructed meaning or interpretative skill; Human—>(Technology—World)]

3. alterity relation [quasi-otherness (less other than people, animals / more other than inanimate objs.); seeming ‘life of its own’; world is de-emphasized context or background; Human—>Technology—(—World)]

1. Embodiment relation 

“First, in the discussion on the non-neutral and mediating role of optical technologies it is noticeable that eyeglasses for instance allow their users to embody their praxis through the technology,” = existential relationship.

“For a technology to hold an embodiment relation it must also be technically transparent—its material or physical characteristic must be such that it allows ‘seeing through’.” — [BLC: again, Fallman’s is a visual metaphor, but unnecessarily restricted to optics (with the nod to aurality with “hearing aids and the like”…). The magnifying capacity of audio microphones, amplifiers, and speakers, are often idealized in terms of their role of being between perceivers and perceived ‘as though not there,’ even as they magnify(/amplify). If a seemingly “non-transparent” deployment of a technology seems to be a circumvention of its idealized purpose, then embodiment is among the standard relations precipitated by the technology.]

FORMALIZATION: According to Ihde, the embodiment relation between a human user, technology, and the world can be formalized as: (Human—Technology)—>World.


2. Hermeneutical relation

Distinguish optically magnifying technologies from others: both are still mediators, appearing between human and world, however “…in the latter case, the user’s perceptual focus is not on the world but on the technological instrument itself”

“The hermeneutical relationship is hence referential, in that it places the user’s immediate perceptual focus on the technology in between the user and the world.”


  FORMALIZATION: The instrument is only transparent in a hermeneutical sense if the user has acquired the skills necessary to be able to read it. This relationship may thus, according to Ihde, be formalized as: Human—>(Technology—World).

3. Alterity relation

“The difference between this human–technology relation and the two previously introduced is that it is…primarily a relation to or with technology”; not mediated, or referenced; however “a form of quasi-otherness [in?] relation to technology that in at least some limited way seems to take on a life of its own:…” e.g. a spinning top, BLC: ‘the ghost in the machine,’ “there is the sense of interacting with something other than me, the technological competitor. In competition there is a kind of dialogue or exchange. It is the quasi-animation, the quasi-otherness of the technology that fascinates and challenges.”


FORMALIZATION: One of the interesting characteristics of the alterity relation is however that the world remains a deemphasized context or background, as the relationship is primarily a relationship to or with technology. Ihde formalizes the alterity relation as: Human—>Technology—(—World).