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Corporate actors increasingly use networked technology as a storytelling device, drawing on a long federal history of writing citizens through surveillance, data aggregation, and analysis. Social and juridical infrastructures are racing to keep up with the rapid pace of data-based technological development, but existing guardrails around aggregation serve instead to foster an environment of algorithmic data storytelling. In this context, narratives written by data are deemed more truthful than the stories told by the data’s subject. Dirty Computers: Erotic Data Poetics turns to Black womanist poetics to glean an alternative ideological framework for collecting, analyzing, and using data. In this dissertation, I argue that queer womanist writer Audre Lorde’s concept of the erotic allows us to think about information capture and analysis as a generative collective poetics rather than institutional datafication and itemization. In chapter one, “Surveillance States,” I explore and contextualize federal surveillance ideology through Black women’s surveillance history. In chapter two, “Zami: Erotic Data,” I analyze Lorde’s biomythography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name as an erotic analysis of her life. The text distills the facts of her young adulthood to their most salient and revelatory elements—largely stories about loving other women—and leaving out that which was not an erotic measure. Zami stands in stark contrast to the federal narrative of Lorde’s young adulthood as it is captured in her FBI file. The project then turns to compare the narratives produced by surveillant analytics and erotic analytics. In chapter three, “Data States,” I read data analysis company/federal contractor Palantir Technologies against itself, focusing on its contracts with the Chicago Police Department to analyze CPD surveillance data. In chapter four, “Riot: Erotic Analysis,” I explore poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s analysis of the 1968 MLK assassination riots in her chapbook Riot. Though the text predates Palantir Technologies by many decades, they offer an interesting comparison point on the topic of capturing, reading, and writing data. Both work to read and speak data about Black Chicago citizens in crisis, but arrive at critically different ends. In chapter five, “Pynk: Erotic Objects,” I conclude my analysis by considering how Janelle Monáe and her contemporary singers negotiate control over their surveillance. The entire project uses Monáe’s Dirty Computer (2018) and the dirty computer protagonist Jane 57821 as a theoretical starting point to vision escaping surveillance, and this chapter returns here. The mysteriousness of her information narrative ultimately functions as a pathway of escape from the surveillance network. Finally, in the “Return” the project explores the idea of technocultural choreography from two endpoints; the platform company end, and the culturally grounded movement end. Platform companies design technologies that attempt to datafy and predict user behavior in order to influence it, akin to teaching users the choreography of a new dance. However, an exploration of movement choreography through the lens of virtual reality technology elucidates a level of embodied and grounded nuance that cannot easily be algorithmically delimited.

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233 pages


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McCullough, Kate

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Woubshet, Dagmawi
Levy, Karen

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English Language and Literature

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Ph. D., English Language and Literature

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International


dissertation or thesis

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