“Poor Impulse Control”: Remediation as a Decolonial Reading Practice

In my Indigenous new media and digital storytelling class, my students and I use remediation as a means to interrogate text and to consider what sovereignty might mean in terms of art. Remediation—refashioning one media in another—provides the opportunity to question modernist binaries between old and new, tradition and innovation, and to make art in conversation with authors. One of the pieces we work with is an excerpt from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which features the Aleut antagonist, Raven who has the words “Poor Impulse Control” tattooed across his forehead. “Poor Impulse Control” is also the methodology with which I asked my students to engage their work in the class: not with strict adherence to the authority of the written word but with an eye to remediating colonial narratives via new media and futurism.

scStephenson’s Snow Crash is roundly considered to be a foundational novel in the cyberpunk canon (that subgenre of science fiction that deals in computers and the Internet). Published in 1992, eight years subsequent to William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Stephenson opened up cyberspace to the possibility of world building. Whereas Neuromancer depicted digital communication as a collection of data, Snow Crash imagined it as a space where people lived, played, fought, and fucked. Stephenson’s Metaverse, the name he gave to this space, had very practical implications on the technical world IRL. Snow Crash served as the inspiration for Second Life, the online world that at one time had a larger GDP than Argentina. Stephenson is now “Chief Futurist” at tech startup Magic Leap where he is helping to imagine new worlds for the next generation of Virtual and Augmented Realities.

Snow Crash shaped the ways in which the world conceived cyberspace, yet how he did so remain largely under analyzed. Snow Crash remains a space of “default whiteness” (Nakamara 33). The racialized contexts he created his world out of go largely unacknowledged. This is particularly the case in the instance of Raven, one of the first Indigenous characters in cyberspace.

Raven has a complicated, colonial history. In 1969 and 1971 the United States Army detonated the largest underground nuclear explosion in U.S. history on Amchitka Island, the midway point of the Aleutian Islands, which were previously protected under the National Wildlife Act. The explosions rendered water sources in the area undrinkable, fish and game unfit for consumption, and led to the death of dozens of Aleutians as a result of radiation-linked cancers.AmchitkaAlaskaLoc The deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Energy, Dr. Paul Seligman, justified the damage as a price of War: “These were hazardous operations… The hazards were well understood, but the priorities at the time were weapons production and the defence of the nation.” Raven is a product of this colonial history, bent on revenge for the decimation of his people. He is also smart, and technically savvy. He uses Western technology with the same aptitude as his protagonist counterpart and is well-versed in traditional forms of technology.

Raven is the antagonist in Snow Crash, but not everyone thinks he’s an asshole. Mohawk artist and digital storyteller Skawennati wrote a short essay entitled, “Ohmygod! The Bad Guy is Native?” about how empowering it was for her to discover a capable, technologically savvy Indigenous person in a piece of science fiction: “if we want Indians in our future,” Skawennati writes, “it is up to up to put them there” (38). Skawennati has remediated Raven herself in the machinima series Timetraveller(tm), casting him briefly as a handsome young man in her own digital landscape.

Skawennati's Raven from Timetraveller(tm)

Skawennati’s Raven from Timetraveller(tm)

The remediation illustrates the potential to reclaim and reimagine Indigenous characters written by non-Indigenous authors towards decolonial storytelling.

Building out of Skawennati’s work, my students, who are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and I work to remediate Raven in a series of podplays (short rate plays designed for smartphones) that we record and disseminate through UBC’s radio station, CiTR. I provide the students with a short passage from the Snow Crash in which Raven features and they provide the music, sound effects, and their own voices (sometimes even their own languages) to (re)tell his story. By casting Raven in a podplay my students and I attempt to do at least a couple of things: 1) reimagine capable Indigenous peoples in futuristic spaces and 2) draw attention to the foundational contributions that colonialism, indigeneity, and Indigenous peoples have made to cyberspace, which is still largely, by default, assumed to be white. In moving towards both goals we aim to contribute to the deconstruction of the tradition/innovation binary and decolonize some of foundational cyberpunk motifs.

The remediations we make in my new media classes are nearly always messy and difficult to construct. Students are concerned about the autonomy of the text, how far they stray in their adaptations, how much new material they can integrate in support of their perspectives. Many of them wonder if Raven is redeemable, and if it is worth our time (or even ethical) to remediate a figure drawn out by a non-Indigenous man. I ask them to try to incorporate their concerns into their podplays and to think about how they can remediate Raven towards the knowledge they bring from their communities and from their other classes in FNIS. Some use music to unsettle passages, some translate passages into their own language. I’ve had students change Raven’s gender and others incorporate territory acknowledgements into their podplay. I had one student disregard Raven all together and turn in a remediation of a poem by Nisga poet Jordan Able (which was excellent).

When we sit down together to listen to all of the podcasts what becomes apparent is that the authority of the original text is less important than the ways in which the remediators are able to reimagine worlds through it. Where we started off with one “text,” we finish off with six or seven, all of which imagine Indigenous futures differently and all of which add new depth and dimension to Stephenson’s limited perspective. “Poor Impulse Control” becomes a way to deconstruct the colonial limitations of Snow Crash and to imagine and reimagine Indigenous futures in conversation with one another.

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