You, a Scyborg

A 2013 talk by Roderick Ferguson, a foundational intellectual in queer of color critique, inaugurated A Black Studies Project at UC San Diego. He pointed out that the alleged demise of revolutionary thought after the 1970s was overstated by tracing how the third world demands of revolutionary groups in the 1960s and early 1970s were taken up and transformed by the queer of color left, through the development of the Third World Gay Revolution out of the whiter Gay Liberation Front. Ferguson’s purpose was not to narrate a history of socialism, nor of revolution, but rather to express the way that queer desire composes desiring machines that reconstruct institutions (and radical organizations too). Queer of color sexuality was not a “natural” political identity and, furthermore, not automatically a “revolutionary” one, and certainly not one recognized as such by people of color. Rather, it became so through many gears rubbing against each other—bodies, literally, rubbing against each other. Ferguson calls these rubbings “associations,” that is, the radical idea that all social texts should be open for revision through unexpected contacts, transmissions, and queer translations (Ferguson here is drawing from Roland Barthes). Through these associations of rubbings, frictions, and greasings of gears, new formations come into play. Queer of color not only became revolutionary but became a revolutionary that was previously unrecognized. In so doing, queer of color radicalism also queered the revolutionary platforms of the third world liberation movements.[1]

It is in Ferguson’s frame of queer desiring machines that I consider the scyborg (by associating with and deviating a bit from Donna Haraway’s formulation of the cyborg) as the agentive body within the institutional machinery. If we think of the university as a machine that is the composite of many other machines, these machines are never perfect loyalists to colonialism—in fact, they are quite disloyal. They break down and produce and travel in unexpected lines of flight—flights that are at once enabled by the university yet irreverent of that mothership of a machine. This same disloyalty applies to the machined people, you. And thus there’s some hope, the hope of the scyborg. Organisms in the machinery are scyborgian: as students, staff, faculty, alumni, and college escapees, technologies of the university have been grafted onto you. Your witch’s flight pulls bits of the assemblage with you and sprays technology throughout its path.

The agency of the scyborg is precisely that it is a reorganizer of institutional machinery; it subverts machinery against the master code of its makers; it rewires machinery to its own intentions. It’s that elliptical gear that makes the machine work (for freedom sometimes) by helping the machine (of unfreedom) break down. The lopsided bot, the scyborg, the queer gear with a g-limp—if there is anything to fear and to hope for in the university, it could be you, and it could be me.

Scyborgs have made a third university. The scyborg is essential in producing the third world university. The scyborg is machined person, technologically enhanced by legitimated knowledge and stamped with the university’s brand. S-he is the perfect masculine expression of education: an autonomous individual who will reproduce the logics of the university without being told. The scyborg is the university’s colonial hope. Albert Memmi describes being a Tunisian Jew at the Sorbonne in the 1950s, wondering whether he would be allowed to take his exams. “It is not a right,” said the president of the exams jury. “It is a hope. . . . Let us say that it is a colonial hope.”[2] Scyborgs are creatures of colonial desire: please be successful, be pretty, be human. The scyborg’s privilege is a manifestation of the first world university’s noblesse oblige. Thus a successful scyborg proves that the university is ethical. However, on the flip side, the scyborg is a source of colonial anxiety: please do not fail us, reject us, betray us. The scyborg has hir desires too. Hirs is a decolonial hope. S-he is never a completely loyal colonialist and can often be caught in the basement library, building the third world university.

To recognize the scyborg, I return to the three examples of colonial schools in Kenya, North America, and the Philippines. I do so to ask that we recognize the nineteenth- and twentieth-century scyborgs that Christian missions, the U.S. Army, and other colonial machines might have created by accident.

I opened this book with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s memoirs of Alliance High School and wartime Kenya. The importance of starting with a Black example, and an African example, is to choose a starting point that does not disaggregate Indigeneity and Blackness in the conversations about colonialism, even though the modes of operation of colonialism upon the Black and the Indigenous are very divergent.

At Alliance High School, wa Thiong’o was inspired by Oliver Twist, in part out of identification with the story boy’s hunger; in part, perhaps, he aspired to be Charles Dickens. If so, I believe he accomplished it. However, what the Dickens he became is not something that missionary schools could have recognized. He published his first novel in English while at the University of Leeds in 1964. Returning to Kenya, he organized the highly successful but politically explicit theater production of his 1977 play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I will marry when I want), which was shut down by the Kenyatta regime. Wa Thiong’o was imprisoned for a year in the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. There he wrote the first modern novel in the Gĩkũyũ language, Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ (Devil on the cross), on prison-issued toilet paper.

Luther Standing Bear was one of the first students at Carlisle Industrial School for Indians when it opened in 1879 and, indeed, a model student who looked up to the founder, Captain “kill-the-Indian-save-the-man” Pratt. He even became a recruiter for the school. However, he went on to oppose the Dawes Act that privatized Indian land held in common; to argue for bilingual education for Native children; and to challenge the paradigms of property, Eurocentric history, and assimilation—arguments and alliances that successfully brought about the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which officially reversed the Dawes Act and assimilationist schooling and provided pathways for tribes to reestablish sovereignty and tribal government. Troy Richardson, drawing from Gerald Vizenor, writes that Standing Bear’s thoughts and deeds suggest a “shadow curriculum” of a deep sovereignty beyond their immediate referents in the (English) world. “Shadows are possibilities, neither empty nor over-determined by words or referents but instances of possibilities.”[3] For such aviators of Indigenous futurity, “consciousness is a rush of shadows in the distance.”[4]

As a third example, the U.S. Army began educating Filipino schoolchildren in 1900 as a strategy of conquest in the Philippine–American War. Officers served as school superintendents, enlisted men as teachers, enrolling fifty thousand students in 1904 and more than one million in 1935. Colonial schools were considered part of military operations, serving a strategic purpose in quelling resistance. In The Miseducation of the Filipino, Renato Constantino asserts, “Education, therefore, serves as a weapon in wars of colonial conquest.”[5]

But like the graduates of the boarding schools of Kenya, many of the graduates of these colonial schools defied the schools’ intended purpose of making colonial middle management by coming to the United States—exploiting the unintended loophole that colonized Filipinos were U.S. nationals. As Veta Schlimgen explains,

the desires and ambitions cultivated in the “culture of education” created a new—and unanticipated—(im)migration dynamic when, during the 1920s, Filipino students retraced the steps of American colonizers. They migrated to the mainland states, and they sought college degrees. Filipino student migration during the 1920s increased remarkably. In 1919, about 450 Filipino students studied in the states. Five years later, nearly 2000 did and, in 1930, the number of enrolled students hovered around 3000. These numbers might seem small to us now but in the context of student migration during the interwar years, they are significant. During the 1920s, Filipino students constituted about twenty percent of non-native born students.[6]

Furthermore, “during the first half of the 1920s, students (rather than laborers) made up the majority of Filipino migrants to the mainland U.S.” This unexpected product of the colonial desiring machine ultimately helped to mobilize history on the side of brown labor unionists in West Coast farms and canneries. Notable organizers within the Cannery Workers’ and Farm Laborers’ Union were first accomplished students. Victorio Velasco, after earning a degree in journalism, was shunted into cannery work and farm labor in Seattle. He went on to edit Filipino community newspapers that were critical to creating a collective Filipino workers’ political voice. Chris Mensalvas quit law school because, as a U.S. “noncitizen national” from the Philippines, he was prohibited from practicing law. “I spent three years in college and then I went to organize our people on the farms.”[7] Trinidad Rojo, who completed his PhD in sociology at Stanford University, became president of the Cannery Workers’ and Farm Laborers’ Union in 1939. Their work became one root of the United Farm Worker movement best associated with Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez.

The technological fact of the matter is that Rojo, Mensalves, Standing Bear, and wa Thiong’o are scyborg, and their flights through the colonial assemblages reveal a warp in the patterning of power. Scyborgs are possible “men” fit for assimilation—the colonial hope is that the whiteness of the normative human can be extended to the very people who were premised as non-human, gender-deviant savages. Thus I have selected these male examples to bring attention to how, upon entry into schooling, they were all already premised as not men. Natives must get haircuts and Western suits; African boys need to be converted into Christian men; even with suits and Christian names, Filipino men were feared as sexual contagions in white working-class society. You can infer how these same masculinizing technologies are appended onto those of you who are not cis-men and how, despite your colonial equipment, you will never become a complete colonialist stud. The first world university wants you to become masculine in the most disciplined sense of the word and will provide you with the necessary prosthesis and will cut off your tail. But you, as scyborg, might use these technologies to bend the fabric of power to suit your decolonial desires.

Are you scyborg? is not an ontological question. It is a technological reality. In formulating the scyborg, I am attempting to connect the person—the being—with the web of intentions beyond the being. In a crude sense, I am connecting agency and structure—although I despise that duality.

Structure as a term by itself has useful explanatory value. I see structure as a limited analytic about how power works. I see agency as a discourse preoccupied with individual freedom within a structuralist analysis. To be sure, there are theorizations of agency that do not participate in this preoccupation, ones that theorize agency as a capacity for action that is enabled by systems. However, I am problematizing the general usage of the term agency as a hopeful signifier for resistance. Such positioning is an individualistic theory of change, wherein collective agency is relegated to a mass of individuals operating in unison. That kind of “collective” springs from a theory of individuals.[8] By contrast, the scyborg springs from assemblage. To speak of scyborgs as autonomous, unplugged individuals is meaningless. It only makes sense to discuss the scyborg as plugged in to technological grids. The scyborg is inherently a plurality and only occasionally becomes singular when a condensation of machines produces intentionality—hopefully a decolonial intentionality, such as a third world university. Fortunately, the decolonial spirit is also personal, and it does not always await a mass mobilization or an ignited fire of the people (as anticolonial revolution is often portrayed). It happens at the scales of cells, tissues, organs, rhizomes—it is the person and the transpersonal. It is always happening. So conceptualized, the scyborg may be personal in scale but is wired into telescoping scales of the assemblage.

In considering the plugged-in scyborg, I am drawing from foundational femtech thinkers who established how the cyborgian body extends beyond the organic boundaries of the person: for example, when you troll someone online, your agential self extends well beyond your skin, across space and beyond corporeality, via your plugs in technological assemblages. Furthermore, “self” is not only extended by technology but can also be divided, fractured, and tapped by it—as in the case of disaggregating the fetus from the mother and womb through ultrasound, or in transnational surrogacy, call centers, and the technology-assisted ways that Global South people’s vital energies are sapped and redistributed to support the lives of the Global North.[9]

So the scyborg for me, as a “being” who is only analytically meaningful when we consider your entanglements in the machinery of assemblages, is a fitting way to discuss structural agency.[10] The scyborg is a being who is in no way discretely individual. A scyborg is a being in assemblage. Your agential capacity extends beyond your being, into the system’s capacity. Your agency is system. This is why I put the s in front of cyborg.

Scyborg is not an identity. Although I am addressing you, as scyborg, I understand that you are a very plural group of beings. Being scyborg does not describe your total reality. Scyborgs are not total beings, nor whole beings, nor perfectly discrete beings for that matter. Scyborg is not ontological. Scyborg is more like an adjective.[11] It describes a technological condition of being embedded in an assemblage of machines. Different scyborgs have different powers in shaping assemblage. What your particular powers are is important for you to figure out. Certainly most of us are scyborg, but of particular interest to me is the scyborg who is embedded in the university, who assembles decolonial machines.

The university is in assemblage. One might consider how (1) the university is an assemblage. It is a giant machine composed of myriad working parts, multiple systems. Each part can still be thought of as a discrete organism to be unplugged and replugged somewhere else. (2) The university is in assemblage.[12] It is imbricated with other assemblages. The university assemblage is connected to the military–industrial complex, itself another assemblage. At my university, UC San Diego, we have particularly intimate connections with the U.S. Navy. One can easily see how the military–industrial and academic–industrial complexes are in assemblage in terms of engineering contracts with the military; the ways that anthropologists might be recruited to serve as cultural consultants for the military; or how Arabic- and Farsi-speaking undergraduates are actively recruited by the CIA. The university is in assemblage with other corporate capitalist assemblages, such as pharmaceutical and high-tech industries. It is, like all assemblages, discrete from yet amalgamated with other assemblages in an endless matrix of couplings. (3) As assemblages, the priorities of “scale,” as captured in the conventional hierarchical dichotomies of micro versus macro, historical versus ephemeral, data versus anecdote, echo into one another. So a small glimpse into a university classroom very quickly telescopes into scales of heterosexism, racial capitalism, and so on. The webs of pedagogical machinery are at once giant and intimate. It may feel like lying face down on a monumental precipice, close enough to see the cracks in the stone as well as the chasm just centimeters away. I think this is why some scyborgs feel vertigo in the college classroom.

Your vertigo is your intuition speaking. You are sensing how power “in your face” is jointed to global latticeworks of power. As Simon Leung reminds us, state-legitimated force is felt at the scale of the visage and the viscera: “The look of law: It’s on your face. It’s on your case. It’s down your throat. It’s up your ass. That is, if your ass has not been rendered to disappear altogether.”[13] Julie Burelle notes that “moments of vertiginous consciousness” are these sudden apprehensions of the fatal couplings of the personal and structural scales: “a sensation of sudden clarity, a sinking of the solar plexus if you will, about the violence that continues to hold one’s settler-colonial privilege in place.”[14]

Ruth Wilson Gilmore pushes us to analyze the geographies of these “fatal couplings of power and difference” as multiscalar. For Gilmore, the “warfare state is also the racial-gendered state,” as the industrial killings of racialized enemy others are jointed to the domestication of racial-gendered industries within the state. Thus who you are is not at all distant from power that is exercised on bodies and lands geographically distant from your body. The goal is “to figure out what [and who] makes oppressive and liberatory structures work, and what [and who] makes them fall apart.”[15] Just as Gilmore seeks a multiscalar object of analysis, I seek a multiscalar subject of power.[16] Scyborg agency is multiscalar; the witch’s flight is the ripple in the patterning of power.

The scyborg’s medium is assemblage. When we take assemblages seriously as both analytical of power and as the medium for it, then the question becomes, how do you hack assemblages? The scyborg is a sculptor of assemblage[17]—s-he splices one machine to another, de/links apparatuses from/to one another, places machines to work in making new machines, disassembles and reassembles the machine. The scyborg can connect Black radical thought to the paper-producing academic–industrial complex and set the print command to “manifesto.” The scyborg is like R2D2 in the Death Star, opening escape tunnels, lowering and raising doors to new passageways, making the death machine run backward, and ultimately releasing the plans for its destruction.[18] The scyborg is an artist in the un/patterning of relations of power.[19]

The scyborg loves dirty work.[20] Scyborgs do not care whether the assemblage they are retooling is first, second, or third world. Categorical thinking is not the point. Nothing is too dirty for scyborg dreaming: MBA programs, transnational capital, Department of Defense grants. Scyborgs are ideology-agnostic, which creates possibilities in every direction of the witch’s flight—not just possibilities that we like. This is why some of you are not always decolonial in behavior. Thankfully, your newly assembled machine will break down. Some other scyborgs will reassemble the busted gears to drive decolonial dreams. To dream it is to ride the ruin.

Scyborgs are creating the free university. Scyborg desires are connecting the neoliberal motor that drove President Obama’s campaign for tuition-free community college to antipoverty organizing and to critical education. One of the interesting ways this is being done is by connecting free universities to the rhetoric of democracy and citizenship. Democracy is not decolonization. Democratization will expand, at best, the normative class of citizens through reinvestments in settler colonialism and new articulations of antiblackness. However, “democracy” as a discourse was also ready material for assemblage, a gear to attach to build the free university. The dream of universal education is born from the reality of exclusive schooling. This dream may shift as educational expansion creates new imbalances, such as inflated credentials, the devaluing of unschooled knowledge, new gaps between educational training and employment, or gaps between the trained workforce and the available supply of jobs. However, in building the free university assemblage and watching it fall apart, perhaps something unpredictable will come of its ruin. As to what, and whether the free university will be decolonizing, will be answered in scyborg assemblage.

To be very clear, I am not advocating for rescuing the university from its own neoliberal desires but rather for assembling decolonizing machines, to plug the university into decolonizing assemblages.

Close to my heart, Roses in Concrete Community School opened its doors in 2015 in Ohlone, what some call Oakland, California. This school is part of a larger self-determination project for a mostly Black and Brown community, in which we hope for a pre-K–16 educational institution, community-based economies, and land.[21]

Also in 2015, also in what is now called Oakland, longtime Indigenous educators and activists Corrina Gould (Chochenyo/Karkin Ohlone) and Johnella LaRose (Shoshone Bannock) created the first women-led urban Indigenous land trust built upon “the belief that land is the foundation” that can bring all peoples together in “the return of Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone lands . . . to Indigenous stewardship.” Sogorea Te’ Land Trust also reworks Western concepts of “land tax,” nonprofit status, and inheritance. Decolonizing land relations is the heart that reworks this machinery. Sogorea Te’ not only calls on but indeed provides an avenue for people living in Ohlone lands “to heal from the legacies of colonialism and genocide, to remember different ways of living, and to do the work that our ancestors and future generations are calling us to do.”[22]

Nearby Roses in Concrete is an abandoned U.S. Navy base the size of a small town. California community colleges are talking expansion, while the tuition-free college movement had nearly found a federal reality under President Obama. A scyborg might connect these pieces—might imagine how the machines of freedom schools and free community colleges could purchase land, land that could become part of an Indigenous land trust.

Roses in Concrete has a sister school in Aoteroa that originated from a Māori bilingual program Te Whānau o Tupuranga (Centre for Māori Education) and Fanau Pasifika (Centre for Pasifika Education), which became a school in 2006 and then became Kia Aroha College in 2011. Similar to Roses, Kia Aroha College is built on a holistic “scholar warrior” culture that developed the school over twenty-five years into a “culturally-located, bilingual learning model based in a secure cultural identity, stable positive relationships, and aroha (authentic caring and love).”[23] This craft of creating Indigenous space in an urban colonial context requires a constant rearrangement of settler law, Indigenous rights, state educational ministry systems, built schooling environments, and community systems of Indigenous education. Furthermore, these associations between school makers in Māori/Pasifika and in U.S. ghetto colonial contexts produce new shared scyborg flight plans. These technologies are driven and repurposed by scyborg desires.

Where I am now, on Kumeyaay land at UC San Diego, we are at the confluence of the engineering apparatus, the naval and sea industries, the U.S.–Mexican border, the white utopian project of Black exclusion, the settler project of Native disappearance, the transnational project of international (read model Asian) recruitment. Scyborgs might reorganize these technologies into third university organisms with decolonizing programs: a project of water, a project of transnational/Indigenous solidarity, a project of Black assertion, a project of islands.

As I write, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (my other I) are supporting a collective of collectives, the Land Relationships Super Collective, that connects different land-based movements across North America with one another to share strategies, resources, learnings, and so on. As Eve and I are both university professors, the university plays into this as an institution that must be refused, and yet also as an organism, an assemblage of machines, that we can make work, make space in, make liquid enough to allow us to contribute to land rematriation projects directly.

The third world university will be built by scyborg labor. This is not a revolutionary call for scyborgs of the world to unite. This is a call to gear-in and do the dirty work of desiring machines. Through desires’ dirty work, we might recommission these first world scraps into a third world machine.

A Scyborg Commencement

It is a technological fact that you are scyborg. As such, you permeate the system; your capacities are system; and depending on what femtech powers you might be able to access, you have some influence over what assemblages do. You as scyborg are not the only agentive body in assemblage. There are other sculptors, and assemblages themselves will act however and do whatever they please. However, the scyborg is your agentive body. It is personal. It is a “personal” that operates from assemblage. You are your own personal scyborg.

You are not just a scyborg. There are other ways to analyze your agency. You could also be a monster, an orphan, a ghost. You might jump scale.[24] You might cut and break.[25] Your scyborg agency does not preclude the other choices that you have. In whatever case, you are a disturbance in the electromagnetic field. I see your shimmering outline.

You as scyborg are constructed in assemblage, and you are interpellated by assemblage, and yet you can also operate through the university and other assemblages because of some of its technologies that you appropriate. This technological condition is only sensible within assemblage. Should you graduate or get expelled or get unplugged, you would no longer be scyborg in the same ways (without the same technological powers, without the same access to the matrix of technologies). Scyborg is an impermanent condition. Technologies change. Technological beings become obsolete. Try to be restful when you finally reach that junk heap.

Scyborgs are part machine and part ghost. Scyborgs gain an inheritance from the university at the price exacted upon their body, their kin, and their future—paid in blood and in kinship and in unpayable debt. This is not poetry—this is the student debt, the mortgage of the family home, the disowning and disavowal of the student by hir community, the obligation to become something successful and skillful and seductive.

If you are a student, you accrue other forms of debt besides student loans. Signithia Fordham talks about “Black children’s success in school as conferring the burden of acting white. It is indeed a burden.”[26] Some people will only envy your school-issued rocket boots and comment on how much you’ve changed—which is a coded insult for how much you have forgotten, even if you have not.

Scyborgs inherit a lot and a load. Therefore scyborgs are not inherently decolonial. The scyborg hirself has a chance at freedom, that is, at freedom’s doppelganger—a lot of land, a bit of wealth, a right to rights. The scyborg might be foolish not to reach for this mirage of freedom.

There is no freedom in the scyborg. It is not a liberated figure. Scyborgs are privileged. Scyborgs are technologically enhanced colonial subjects. This is not a scyborg manifesto.

It’s not so bad. The scyborg carries the third world university in hir gears, and the fourth world in hir soul.

I have a scyborg friend; perhaps I have more than one. Once we planned Earthseed together. Once we built a freedom school together. Once again, you build it. One day, you will build another Black life center. Once more, we talk about your community college, and your Black Star solar company and planting solar forests in asphalt schoolyards, and jobs for (y)our communities. One another, we augment each other’s scyborg powers. One and others, scyborg dreams become blueprints, become realities, become ruins, become soil for scyborg schemes. Only the bad guys build things that last forever. Scyborg friend, another world is dreaming your dreams.

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