• Andrew Field

Race, Fundamentalism, and the Algorithm

Ralph Ellison

There is an anecdote about Ralph Ellison that I have always enjoyed. The anecdote goes like this: Ellison worked on Invisible Man for seven years. He'd been in the army, came back, got a grant, and worked on the novel while his wife supported him. He was a Black man living in a mostly white part of New York, and none of his neighbors understood him or what he was doing and trying to do. For seven years, he worked and worked and worked and worked, on himself, on his book, on his relationship to his country, and he produced an original work of art that gave us a new way of thinking about literature, people, and Blackness.

I think one of the greatest contributions of Invisible Man is his notion of invisibility, but let me come back to that in a second.

After seven years, when Ellison was pretty much done with the book, he needed to figure out how to end it. And he couldn't. The ending of a book is important - Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow that our memory is often (always?) shaped more by how an experience ends than the actual experience. So what did Ellison do? He drank some whiskey and finished it, meaning he said, "look, I did my work, I'm going to have a drink and just put an end to this now." For an analogy with a white man, I think of Doc in Back to the Future, who has run out of options near the end of the film, and then just hits his head against the wheel of the Delorian, and things resume their suspenseful momentum.

When Ellison worked on his next novel, he started something he never finished; and while over the course of his career he wrote much more worthy works, that second novel was never completed. Why?

I don't think we have an adequate understanding in this country that it is harder to be Black and it is harder to be a woman, generally speaking. Black people and women, no matter how strong, are more vulnerable, because people see them as targets of their projections. This is probably why, sometimes, the Black community is so strong, and also, sometimes, why women are so powerfully able to support each other, and read men better than they (men) read themselves.

Ellison didn't finish his novel because he was weak. He didn't finish his novel because he faced an amount of pressure as an individual that would have destroyed a character with less integrity.

We can say the same thing of Jay Wright, or Thylias Moss. We don't think about the pressure these individuals face, as the ice tip of our culture and the voices of large groups of people, even when - and often when - the people they authentically represent have never heard of them or, if they have, do not like or understand them. It is very hard to speak for large groups of people, because speaking requires honesty, and people don't like honesty. It's why people to this day call Philip Roth a "self-hating Jew," or "self-absorbed," when they are only describing themselves. It is like a person taking an ax to a mirror, and then blaming a separate person behind the mirror for their anger and action.

When people see only their reflection in the mirror, and not others, then we are given fundamentalists, meaning people whose reading, of books or situations, are less trustworthy. Fundamentalists do not think, because if they did, they would realize that Jews, or Muslims, or other more mature Christians, or Hindus, or Buddhists, are different people than them, and have no obligation to worship Jesus Christ if they don't want to. To say, "I will kill you, or judge you, if you don't worship Jesus" is to be unable to recognize that different people have different stances in the world, and that that's the opposite of the algorithm, and therefore a good thing. If a person who can only see their own reflection in the world, and not others, lives on the internet, where personalization simply gives them more angles on their hairstyle and shoes and gravatars, then they will not grow up to become more powerful readers. And then they will start trying to convert other people, in more direct or more insidious ways.

We are talking again about narcissism, because narcissists are people who look in the mirror but do not see what others see, and this is analogous to online dating. Online dating, to my mind, is all smoke and mirrors. When I tried it, I realized that all the women, with all due respect, often looked nothing like their pictures, and that there was an enormous and jarring difference between talking to a woman online and talking to them in person. Online dating is duplicitous because it tries to preserve the lie of the gravatar. But when you look at the actual person, you realize that the people we talk to online are often like cold steel rods with googly eyes attached to them, meaning false actors.

Google is the same way. You can find anything on it. If you want to read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and use it to confirm your toxic judgment, you can do that. If you want to convince yourself that Covid is not real, you can do that. A fundamentalist does not realize this, though - that these types of practices are only straightjackets, echo chambers. But a person - let's say Johnson's common reader - does, and they use this knowledge to grow, and learn how to honor the other in the self.

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