Skip to main content

New World Networks

Nihad M. Farooq  
   Nihad farooq

A simple Google image search for "network" yields a kaleidoscope of options—from a biologist's map of protein cells to a visualization of the Twitter universe. Physicists and computer scientists have also worked on mapping the ever-expanding network of the Internet itself. One of these maps, rendered in 2002 by physicist Albert-László Barabási, depicts the directed networks of the Web "through the topology of continents, archipelagos, and islands," in which the centralized "continental" traffic of the Internet is surrounded by smaller "disconnected" islands and peripheral "tendrils," dispersed and separated from the major continents. These networks spread across and beyond the mappable space, often drifting beyond the margins of the constructed visual plane (Terranova48; Barabási 166-67).

 An earlier chapter in the evolution of network visualization took place in 1963, aboard the New Hellas, which carried a group of thirty-four intellectuals from around the world for the inaugural installment of an annual, week-long retreat through the Greek Islands. The Delos retreats, as they came to be known, were the brainchild of Greek architect and urban planner Constantinos Doxiadis, father of ekistics (the science of human settlements). The purpose of these symposia, as architect Mark Wigley has explained, was to mix "intellectual activity" with "sensual pleasure," as the boat traveled the isles. The group would have intense theoretical debates about architectural discourse in the morning, and would leave the boat in the afternoon to swim, tour, eat, and enjoy the offerings of the islands. The retreats included experts from fields as diverse as psychiatry, engineering, anthropology, literature, history, and metallurgy. Among them was theorist Marshall McLuhan, who advocated, along with Doxiadis, for a joint vision of networks and settlements as living, changing "organisms" that were "at once biological and technological, a technology with a biology" (Wigley 377).

 Networks became the theme of subsequent Delos retreats, helping to solidify McLuhan's notion of the electronic "global village," and Buckminster Fuller's notion of the computer as a prosthetic brain. In one of his more animated presentations, Fuller actually rolled around on the floor of the ship to demonstrate his ideas of synergy (Wigley 386). These trips, then, both theorized and performed the rudiments of network structure: adrift amidst the islands, the group agreed to forego all forms of media communication (though announcements and press releases always turned them into media events before the group even set sail), and created a community out of this staged severance that would have global implications. This staged "primitivism" went right through to the closing ceremony of the inaugural session, in which a declaration (urging universities to create academic disciplines devoted to the study of human settlements) was signed by everyone in an ancient theater on the island of Delos (380).

There is a striking peculiarity to all of these images—of a model of the Web that resembles an infinite series of continents and archipelagos, of a sailing vessel that brings together diverse peoples to ruminate on the links between embodied and virtual networks, and of an annual retreat that performs a white fantasy of primitivism as an inspiration for technological innovation. They all link the organic to the technological, and the historic to the contemporary. The cartographic imagery of the Web and the imperialist "New World" fantasy of the Delos retreat remind us, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have done, that empire, too, functions as "a network of powers and counterpowers" (166).This evolving vision of the postindustrial new world of the information age, expressed as it is through the familiar visual cues of empire—of maps, ships, islands, and declarations—also hearkens back to the original New World architects who first linked the embodied and the virtual together in Atlantic waters, as they reached the "meta-archipelago" of the Americas aboard slave ships over four centuries ago (Benítez-Rojo 4).

The New World archipelago, as Caribbeanist scholars like Antonio Benítez-Rojo and Édouard Glissant have described it, merged the histories of Europeans, Africans, and indigenous populations together in a complicated web that mirrored the "sociocultural fluidity" of today's virtual Web, with its own "historiographic turbulence and its ethnological and linguistic clamor." Benítez-Rojo described this New World space as a "repeating island," not unlike like today's expansive Internet mapped by Barabási and others, continuously "unfolding and bifurcating until it reaches all the seas and lands of the earth, while at the same time it inspires multidisciplinary maps of unexpected design" (3).

 Like images of the contemporary Internet universe, the culture of this historic meta-archipelago also resists mapping and situatedness, because it is similarly rhizomatic, "a network spreading either in the ground or in the air, with no predatory rootstock taking over permanently" (Glissant 11; Deleuze and Guattari 7). Slave networks of this earlier period—diverse, invisible, and proliferating– were like the virtual networks of today, traceable only through the flow of information.

These are the links I seek to trace in my research here at the Warren Center. In my new book project, "Virtual Emancipation: Slavery and New World Networks," I employ historical and contemporary readings of literature and social network theory to look back at earlier acts of social and political resistance that thwarted narratives of origin and the traceability of individual acts even as they relied on hierarchical structures within the institution of slavery to achieve their aims. From carefully-orchestrated slave revolts like those in Haiti and Louisiana, to spontaneous and continued acts of marronage that sprouted in independent communities in Brazil, Suriname, Jamaica, and other parts of the Americas, I trace the emergence, the survival, and the spread of community networks forged by alliances of communal kinship and secrecy, and backed by a common desire for freedom that was (economically) wrested from, but (ideologically) parallel to, the founding propositions of New World settlement.

Slave Networks

In Digital Diaspora (2009), race and media scholar Anna Everett discusses the emergence of African diasporic consciousness in "the darkened abyss below the decks" of European slave ships during the Middle Passage. "Severed from the familiar terrain of their homelands and dispatched to the overcrowded bowels of slave vessels," she explains, these "ethnically and nationally diverse Africans" forged "a virtual community of intercultural kinship structures," and developed "paralinguistic and transnational communicative systems," as well as "new languages in which to express them" (2). Some of these new social relations, as historians like Richard Price have also demonstrated, were formed in the journey itself. "Saramaccan máti and sîbi," ritual kinship forms that imply solidarity, he explains, "referred originally to the experience of having shared passage aboard the same slave ship" (27-8).

These burgeoning networks, of course, lay the foundation for the formation of maroon communities, the foment of revolt at sea and on land, and the movement of information across the Atlantic, as scholars like Keletso Atkins, Orlando Patterson, Marcus Rediker, Julius Scott, and many others have discussed. For example, Atkins points to the "Afro-North American sailors" and "sea kafirs" from the United States and the Caribbean who were key players in a Black Atlantic communication network that "gathered news and disseminated accounts" as far south as the Cape of Good Hope about the revolution in Saint Domingue in the 1790s. This intelligence "relayed by word of mouth along trade routes, inspired resistance in slave communities throughout the region" (23). In this broader Atlantic space, explains Atkins, "the Cape of Good Hope was strategically positioned at the southernmost end of a great commercial and information highway. It carried a flow of news—including sensational rumors, foretelling immediate emancipation, whispered intelligence of slave insurrections," and of course, "continuous updates on Saint Domingue" (24).

The movement of information across networks in and beyond the New World and its colonial metropoles is similar to the way information moves across the Internet—not in terms of simultaneity, of course, but certainly in its multidirectional proliferation, in the collapse of geographic and cultural distance, and in the use of ephemerality and invisibility. The way this space has been described by scholars of the Black Atlantic is similarly diffuse and as constitutionally expansive as the map of the Internet. Indeed, from sixteenth-century maroon communities to Sun Ra's Space is the Place (1974), New World architects of the African Diaspora have been re-rendering space in this dispersive way long before the architectural planners of the 1960s and the Internet mappers of the 1990s.

Network Temporality

The spatial terminology used to define the Internet—cyberspace, website, email address—belies its ephemerality, mobility, and nowhereness. Even the old-school tagline of "information superhighway" was at least more accurate, as it suggested movement and flow. But as the Delos intellectuals performed with their exploratory voyage out to sea, metaphors and histories of conquest, territory, and the marking of space are irrepressible. And so the Internet came to be defined as a new "electronic frontier" that had to be harnessed and populated by the right minds for the right purpose (Rheingold 1993). From the chaos of data and information would emerge the harmony of the virtual network.

Slave networks resisted this spatial harmony in two key ways. First, they emphasized and relied on the productivity of chaos as a camouflaging strategy for achieving their goals of freedom. Second, they understood that networks are inherently temporal not spatial. This is, in particular, what makes slave networks an interesting and useful comparison to our contemporary networked lives. For the enslaved, as an accidental assemblage of people in the transatlantic network, the organizing connection was one of shared trauma and shared journey, or more specifically, of "cultural unmaking," as Hortense Spillers has called it (75). But this unmaking and eventual transformative remaking is not locatable as a singular site of trauma, but rather is an ongoing and multiple process of remaking. From kin to culture to religion to politics, slave communities carved a new world ontology out of uprootedness and spacelessness—a temporal ontology that revolved around movement, performance, and change. For "real networks," as researcher Duncan Watts has explained, are not "objects of pure structure whose properties are fixed in time" as they have been viewed in the past. Instead, they "represent populations of individual components that are actually doing something—generating power, sending data... making decisions" (28).

Props and staging aside, Doxiadis had also argued that "the real dimensions of cities is not space, but time" (Wigley 378). To understand these dimensions, we must replace the fictional ideal of settlement, borders, and form with the constitutive reality of migration and change. Migration, too, is not simply the movement of people from one space to another, but rather, a movement that continuously alters people and space—the becoming that happens in and through duration, as philosopher Henri Bergson has argued. For Bergson, movement is not merely "a linear translation of an object through space," but rather, a complicated process of potential growth that emphasizes "the virtuality of duration," or "the qualitative change that every movement brings, not only to that which moves, but also the space that it moves in" (Terranova 51).

 Édouard Glissant's idea of "circular nomadism" exemplifies this in specifically cultural terms, as the nomadic group ensures its survival through constant movement, forming "an impossible settlement," like the Arawak, for example, who moved from island to island in the Caribbean, and like African maroons, rebels, and planners who resisted the unilateral direction of their commodification (12). These early networks, as I argue in my own work, did not just occupy the New World, but rather did something novel to and for this space. Keenly aware of the spatial and legal parameters of personhood, they also understood the porousness of these borders, and "hacked" them whenever they could (Everett 160).

Established maroon communities were, of course, dependent on space and territory to solidify their separatist claims, but the key to their viability was inaccessibility. From the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia to the rugged "cockpit country" of Trelawny, Jamaica, these bands of fugitives staked out portions of land that were strategically nowhere to those outside the group. Even those who were new to the community were led in by blindfold or circuitous routes so they could not betray their location to enemies and outsiders (Price 5, 17). Acts of petit maronnage—of repetitive, periodic truancy—are also good examples of this kind of invisible viability and power, as are the more complicated movements of individual fugitives.

Harriet Jacobs' 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl stands as one such example of the performance of a network temporality that resists the terms of spatial confinement. Readers can see how attenuated space gives way to a wider temporality in Jacobs' detailed narration of her slow escape. In a preamble to her eventual journey to the North, Jacobs first hides from her master in the home of her (free) grandmother, close to the North Carolina plantation where Jacobs had been enslaved since birth. By burying her body for seven years in the coffin-like garret above her grandmother's house, "covered with nothing but shingles . . . only nine feet long and seven wide . . . with no admission for either light or air" (114), Jacobs trades her (legally limited, nineteenth-century) physical mobility for a ghostly social mobility, relying on a network of family and friends below to deliver her letters to her master. Through these letters (which she has people from her network mail from New York during her exile), Jacobs' words move in place of her body, and she is able to make Flint chase her narrative ghost across the northeast for years. Her disembodied presence and her puppeteering of the people below allow her to exercise a virtual, non-corporeal power that prophesies a more contemporary performance of personhood in the virtual space of the information age.

Such performances resisted political erasure but they also resisted the constant informational accounting of slave bodies, as evidenced in the numerous, detailed advertisements written by masters in search of fugitive slaves like Jacobs herself, in the immaculate ledgers kept by captains of slave ships, and of course, in rulings like the three-fifths compromise that would allow southern U.S. states to count their slave demographic in determining seats available in the House of Representatives. Information technology certainly had a vital role to play in the transatlantic slave trade, but it worked alongside these resistant networks—the ghosts inside its meticulously ordered machinery.

These acts of disruption, whether temporary or permanent, help us to think about slave temporality as resistant to fixity and situatedness in the same way that information flows are resistant. The sudden erasure of space and time for slaves boarded onto European sailing vessels—the social death of which Orlando Patterson has famously written, and the birth of a necropolitics that emerges from it, as Achille Mbembe has discussed—opened the possibility of a new model of becoming that was inherently mobile, resistant, and political.

Technologies of Race and Emancipation: Past and Present

Slave experience in the New World, as my work explores it, is not intended to stand as a symbolic or heroic origin story of contemporary social network theory. And certainly, the physical, psychological, and political costs of slavery require a more sustained and expansive treatment than what I am able to offer in this brief introduction. Rather, what this comparison seeks to encourage is a reconceptualization of race as a technology and foundational element of New World political formation. As Wendy Chun has elegantly argued, a reconfiguration of "race as technology" allows us to "shift the focus from the what of race to the how of race, from knowing race to doing race" (38). It also collapses the manufactured distance between disciplinary practices such as biology, engineering, art, and culture, which are part of the same technological apparatus of making, unmaking, and becoming. Without this shift in focus from disciplinary and disciplining spaces to an interdisciplinary process that emphasizes the productive centrality of race in the construction of globality, there can be no radical politics of difference—only the mapping, ordering, managing, or obliteration of it, all of which are byproducts of an old, disciplinary order invested in the fiction of stasis.

As our Sawyer Seminar, "Black Freedom in the Atlantic World," explores the unauthorized movement of bodies, ideas, and artifacts across Atlantic spaces in the Age of Emancipation, we are continually addressing similar questions about the spread of information, people, and objects across the New World, and the limits of the archive in tracing and documenting these filtered or occluded histories. A facile reading of the information age might lead us to utopian conclusions about the democratic potential of today's networks, and the long-anticipated arrival of a global, electronically-mediated revolution, as McLuhan had forecast, in which there are, finally, "no secrets." But our seminar discussions about the original hackers of the New World reveal the ways in which networks, as inherently informational and performative, are in fact capable of keeping all manner of secrets, thereby always holding the potential to dismantle the system from the inside (viii).

This political hacking continues in the networked political revolutions of today, as in January 2011, when the Egyptian government failed in its attempt to shut down protests through the disabling of Internet access and mobile messaging systems. Thousands of young Egyptians managed to spread the word, and blanketed the streets of Cairo, Port Said, Alexandria, Mansoura, Ismailia, Damietta, and Suez, among others, demanding an end to Hosni Mubarak's thirty-year rule. Journalists and social media theorists have, of course, pointed to the significant role played by Facebook, Twitter, and blogs in contributing to the diffuse yet organized nature of these protests; the use of social media enabled an unprecedented number of separate demonstrations to occur simultaneously on what was dubbed beforehand—in online posts and tweets—as an upcoming "day of wrath."

But as I've outlined here, and hope to elucidate in my larger project, the power of social networks to achieve such momentum has a long, if less well-documented history in the Americas and throughout the world, especially within the complex structure of New World slavery. Exactly two centuries prior to these catalyzing events of the Arab Spring, for example, we can look back to the German Coast Uprising of January 1811, in which slaves spread word of a planned revolt among hundreds of their peers at plantations up and down the east coast of the Mississippi. Although Charles Deslondes is often credited as the hero of the uprising, historians have now pointed to as many as 11 separate leaders, representing various ethnic groups, and a vast network of communication that extended back through the Caribbean.

I believe that slave organizers of January 1811 have much to teach us about the kinds of social networks that inspired radical change in 2011. For as slave ships repeated their journeys across and back through Atlantic ports, new patterns of kinship were formed, sometimes temporary, sometimes lasting, and a new kind of network collectivity emerged. This new collectivity, as I've attempted to show, was not tied to the traditional organizations of geography, culture, or blood kin, but, like today's global Internet, was a collectivity that emerged and strengthened precisely because of its lack of boundaries or traceable origin—anonymity and alienation became acts of strategic camouflage: because they were suddenly nowhere and no one, they could use information to be everyone everywhere—a collective movement against oppression.

Professor Nihad M. Farooq is the 2012/2013 William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow from Georgia Technical Institute.

Works Cited

Atkins, Keletso. "'Kafir Time': Preindustrial Temporal Concepts and Labour Discipline in Nineteenth-Century Colonial Natal." Journal of African History 29.2 (1988): 229-44.

Barabási, Albert-László. Linked: The New Science of Networks. Cambridge, MA: Perseus. 2002.

Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Trans. James Maraniss. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1996.

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Trans. N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer. New York: Zone Books, 1988 [1896].

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. "Race and/as Technology, or How to Do Things to Race. "Race After the Internet. Eds. Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White. New York: Routledge, 2012. 38-60.

Doxiadis, C.A. and J.G. Pappioannou. Ecumenopolis: The Inevitable City of the Future. New York & London: Norton, 1974.

Everett, Anna. Digital Diaspora: A Race for Cyberspace. Albany, New York: SUNY, 2009.

Fuller, Buckminster. "The Prospects of Humanity: 1965-1985." Ekistics 18 (October 1964): 232-42.

Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000.

Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon, 2000.

Mbembe, Achille. "Necropolitics." Trans. Libby Meintjes. Public Culture 15.1 (Winter 2003): 11-40.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Bruce R. Powers. The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the Twenty-first Century. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982.

Price, Richard, ed. Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. New York: Anchor, 1973.

Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Scott, Julius S. The Common Wind: Currents of Afro-American Communication in the Era of the Haitian Revolution. Diss. Duke University, 1986. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1987.

Spillers, Hortense J. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book." Diacritics 17.2 (Summer 1987): 64-81.

Space is the Place. Dir. John Coney; Sun Ra. 1974. VHS. Rhapsody Films, 1993.

Terranova, Tiziana. Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age. London & Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto, 2004.

Watts, Duncan J. Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. New York & London: Norton, 2003.

Wigley, Mark. "Network Fever." New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader. Eds. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan. New York: Routledge, 2006. 375-397.