Dissertation Abstract

For the curious and not-so-curious alike, I give you my dissertation abstract:

Hacking the Empire: Reading Virtual Spaces in Postcolonial Fiction

This dissertation examines representations of digital technologies in later twentieth and early twenty-first century postcolonial literature. The role of technology in the process of colonization has been well documented, most recently in Daniel R. Headrick’s Power over Peoples: Technology, Environments, and Western Imperialism, 1400 to the Present (2010). What remains to be seen, however, is how the “digital revolution” will play into the narrative of western technologies and the continued exploitation of the global south. Two competing perspectives dominate this discourse: that digital technologies enable the expansion of global capitalism and the exploitation of a global workforce (Hardt & Negri 2001), and that these technologies–the internet in particular–are democratizing, liberating forces, as demonstrated in the so-called Arab Spring. Yet these binaries tend to ignore the complexity of what happens as technologies are adopted and extended in postcolonial spaces. I will argue that in both literature and in the physical world, postcolonial engagements with the digital adopt a hacker ethos which seeks to craft the new out of the old, to redeploy in new and unintended ways technologies once thought the province of the developed north. This hacker ethos–with its practice of constructing subversive spaces within larger networks of power (both digital and political)–can be observed in the way postcolonial authors (including Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Indra Sinha, Bharati Mukherjee and others) deploy virtual spaces within the framework of larger narratives. Learning to read virtual spaces within the standing debates surrounding postcolonial spaces not only provides a framework for reading and interpreting postcolonial engagements with the digital, but also opens up new ways of reading extra-narrative spaces in earlier postcolonial texts.

My chapters trace the deployment of virtual spaces across postcolonial literature in a number of contexts. In chapter one of my dissertation I build on Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s theories of empire and consider the construction of alternative private networks of power within hegemonic networks. I specifically look at the subversive work of “hacktivists” (those who use digital hacking tools as a form of political activism) and argue that these groups represents an instance of what Hardt and Negri call “counter-empire” and can serve as a useful model for theorizing how virtual spaces can and have been used as sites of anti-hegemonic resistance. I then deploy the concept of hacktivism in a reading of the Midnight’s Children Council in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which I further juxtapose against Rushdie’s most recent novel, Luka and the Fire of Life. In chapter two I consider the geographic specificity of internet adoption, with a particular focus on the rise of cell phone usage in Africa. The centrality of cell phones in Africa is played out in Lauren Beuke’s South African cyberpunk novel Moxyland, where civil discipline is meted out in the form of a suspended cell phone contract, conjuring the ghost of apartheid and the non-status of the refugee. In chapter three I consider virtual spaces in postcolonial literature from a ecocritical perspective and argue that digital and textual virtual spaces offer a unique place from which to re-imagine the natural world and the treatment of postcolonized spaces as the toxic dumping ground of the global north. In my final chapter I invert the dynamic above and consider the digital representations of empire and postcolonial spaces in the digital sphere, specifically through a careful reading of contemporary game studies and what are called “empire building games.” My analysis will include a digital project where I will explore the possibilities of what Alexander Galloway calls “counter-gaming” as a way of resisting the internal logic of the game and thus creating a space for critical play within a game genre defined by the strict adherence to the logic of empire. Through my focus on the imbrication of virtual and postcolonial spaces, the chapters of my dissertation will provide a framework for further analysis of the relationship between digital technologies and postcolonial spaces and how the digital is represented in the literature of the global south.

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