#BlackoutDay: Tactical Representation in the Internet Commons

by Daniel Kissinger and Maisha Manson

“The self-defense of revolution is confronted not only by the brutalities but also by the false image of enclosure” (Harney and Moten, Undercommons 18).

We write from occupied Duwamish territory. We write for black life. These lives, these bodies can’t and should not be allowed to be obliterated by hegemonic representational forms, by the institutions from where we write, by the government, by white supremacy.

In the past 25 years the Internet has become an essential force for communication and political organizing. It has also become a contested zone of representation and access. Many problems of representation and visibility are played out and reinscribed, and the question too, is posed of how can we make this better? Working with Viviane Saleh-Hanna’s idea of “forward-haunting,” a black feminist reinterpretation of Derridean hauntology, which speaks the capacity of the past to re-live itself into the present and future, proposes a study focusing on the #BlackoutDay movement through what we are describing as tactical (self) representation (in play with Munoz’s “tactical misrecognition”), which can be used as a forward-haunting practice for representational and anti-racist recuperation of common Internet spaces.

We are driven by the central question: What forms of representational resistance are possible, with which we can ensure the cultivation and maintenance of a just and equitable Internet “commons” that does not reify and reenact the systems of violence and domination which constrict the lived experiences of minoritized people? Our example of  tactical representation, #BlackoutDay, forward-haunts the reality of racial equity in its finitude and impossibility. While #BlackoutDay has been covered extensively through social and news media, our library search returned no published articles with any more than a passing reference to #BlackoutDay. Our essay brings this contemporary action into conversation with genealogies of cultural studies scholarship, extending the significance of the movement past simply positive representation into a claim- and stake-making project which will reverberate and forward-haunt future projects of tactical representation on the Internet.

#BlackoutDay was initiated to rectify “the lack of representation and celebration of everyday black people in mainstream spaces” (#TheBlackout). Tumblr, as that which we are considering an Internet commons, is not only ranked among the most active websites in the world, but also the format of the website allows for the holistic growth of interest- and identity-based communities and channels of communication. The #BlackoutDay project is a (now annual) series of coordinated days throughout the year, during which users purposefully and exclusively circulate selfies of non-celebrity black people. #BlackoutDay has since spread to other forms of social media - most notably on Twitter and Instagram. It is a forceful takeover of the Internet. #BlackoutDay can only be expressed as a possession. All involved have no choice but to see black people, living and dead, everywhere. Creating a day of visibility for black art and bodies.

Rather than only engaging the “niche” spaces which minoritized peoples and communities make for themselves on the Internet, we argue for the necessity of flexibility of action and engagement in representational recuperation to ongoing whitewashing of the “commons” of the Internet. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff notes that (at the time of writing) “cyberspace connects 2.5 billion people, powers more than one trillion devices, and creates more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day” (Chertoff 10). This massive network demands a “code of conduct universally supported by a global community” (Chertoff 15).

One code which must be enacted is that of equitable representation, which is impossible while white supremacy remains unchecked. Andrea Sharp notes how "whiteness is a political project and it is also a logic… a way of sorting oneself and others into categories of those who must be protected and those who are, or soon will be, expendable.” Tactical representation combats this sorting, this generation of expendability, which as a part of ending white supremacy had always been a matter of life and death. Taken into conversation with Sharpe’s notion of whiteness Fred Moten and Stefano Harney demand that “politics is an ongoing attack on the common – the general and generative antagonism – from within the surround” (Undercommons 17). It is primarily in the spirit of Harney and Moten’s “Politics Surrounded” that we refer to the Internet as commons, and in this commons #BlackoutDay is a political intervention, a generative antagonism, a reminder that black lives and black life has always already been existent inside and out of these “common” spaces.

Tactical representation works in its indeterminacy, recuperates through its ever fleeting results, demanding the internet and thus the world to witness. #BlackoutDay is one particular reminder of the reality of the constellation of black lives. #BlackoutDay functions as a tool, a weapon in the general antagonism against the erasure of black life. As Moten and Harney note, “we run looking for a weapon and keep running looking to drop it. And we can drop it, because however armed, however hard, the enemy we face is also illusory” (Undercommons 19). This movement as tactical representation forces us to engage, both momentarily and strategically, with the violent erasure of black life, lives, and representation. Erasure begets erasure, reforming and rebirthing systems of power and violence which can only ever be haunted by the vibrancy which #BlackoutDay makes present, undeniable.

#BlackoutDay in its fleeting manifestation of tactical representation still haunts the Internet, as a possession in both senses as ownership and as a visceral hold - being possessed and possessing systems of imagination and representation in what we’ve ironically called the Internet commons. Saleh-Hannah necessitates how "modernity and its institutions stand haunted by the ghosts of their own victims and the descendants of those who survived, serving as a constant reminder of racial colonialism’s own failures, blood-thirstiness and savage ways" (Saleh-Hanna 11). #BlackoutDay is one such haunting. Mobilizing tactical representation is to battle whiteness, to say “I am, I’m seen,” that “you can’t erase this face, can’t eradicate these bodies from perception.” This act of tactical representation ripples still, in #blackexcellence, in those who participated and experienced, in memory and dismissal.

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Maisha Manson is a graduate student in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Master of Arts in Cultural Studies program.  A writer and artist originally from San Diego, they completed a BA in Deaf Education at CSU Northridge. Their research analyzes intersecting systems of oppression—regarding ability, race, class, gender and sexual identity through ghost stories and poetry.

Daniel Kissinger is a graduate student in M.A. in Cultural Studies at the University of Washington, Bothell. They graduated from Colby College with a degree in Anthropology and Cinema Studies.  An avid horror film geek, their current research focuses on radical futurities generated through stories of ghosts and hauntings. 

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Chertoff, Michael. “The Strategic Significance of the Internet Commons.” Strategic Studies Quarterly vol. 8, no. 2, 2014, pp. 10-16.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Minor Compositions, 2013.

miller, nchamah. “Hauntology and History in Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx.” 2003. Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.

Moten, Fred, and Stefano Harney. “Politics Surrounded.” South Atlantic Quarterly vol. 110, no. 4, 2011, pp. 985–988.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Saleh-Hanna, Viviane. “Black Feminist Hauntology: Rememory the Ghosts of Abolition?” Champ pénal, vol. XII, 2015, champpenal.revues.org/9168. Accessed 11 Nov. 2016.

Sharpe, Christina. “Lose Your Kin.” The New Inquiry.  16 Nov. 2016, thenewinquiry.com/essays/lose-your-kin/.  Accessed 7 Mar 2017. 

#TheBlackout. “Official #BlackoutDay Masterpost (Created: March 29, 2015. Updated: March 6th, 2017).” #TheBlackout - Home of #BlackoutDay. 6 Mar. 2017, tumblr.theblackout.org/post/114966275331/official-blackoutday-masterpost-created-march. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.