Last post, I started looking at David Walker’s Cyborg, and I noted that his arc, “Unplugged,” is not an origin story about how Victor Stone became Cyborg. Instead, it is an arc chronicling how Victor Stone, as Cyborg, becomes Victor Stone. It’s an arc tracing how Victor Stone becomes visible to his family and society. It’s an arc that, at its core, encapsulates the social construction of race and how that social construction dehumanizes individuals, affecting both the victims and perpetrators of racism. Today, I want to look at some more of Walker’s arc with this discussion in mind.
The narrative of “Unplugged” follows Victor, his father, and others as they try to defeat the Technosapiens, a group of beings made up of multiple races across the universe who infect the minds of their victims with a cyber-parasite. Once infected, the victim turns into a Technosapien and seeks to infect others. They hail from another universe and track Victor back to Earth, drawn to his song. Victor hacks into their shared network and defeats them. Essentially, this is the thumbnail plot of “Unplugged.”
We can, and should, read the Technosapiens through the lens of whiteness and the constructions of race. All of the characters who become infected in the arc are white, and one, Robert Zorroinski, visually mirrors the paramilitary vibe that Nate Powell explores in “About Face.” We do not get a back story for Robert except for the fact that he has lost an eye and has an articficial arm. We see him shaving his beard, and in this panel, we see that he has a tattoo on his left shoulder of an American flag and dog tags, so we can assume he has been in the military. He goes to an illegal surgeon who turns him into a cyborg, and he becomes infected by the Technosapiens.
While the Technosapiens infect victims, Victor works to figure out his new powers. Dreaming of his first encounter with the Technosapiens, where they killed him and he regenerated, he thinks about the various questions that people ask him. These questions, in essence, are microaggressions against Victor. Some people just ask questions about who Victor knows. Others, though, ask him if he eats food or how he goes to the bathroom. Other ask him about sex. Through each of these queries, Victor becomes less than human, he becomes exoticized and seen as the Other. The questions that he encounters sound similar to people asking to touch a Black person’s hair. Sa’iyda Shabazz talks about this and states, ” If you approach a black woman and want to touch her hair, don’t be surprised if she says no. How would you feel if a stranger came up to you and wanted to touch you all willy nilly? Not good, I’d venture to guess. So, put yourself in our shoes for a minute, and use some damn sense.”
Victor realizes that the Technosapiens want to find him because, as he tells his father, “the Technosapiens exist to absorb new tech, infect new victims, and find a way to operate more perfectly. At the risk of bragging, I’m the key to being more perfect.” As a representation of whiteness, the Technosapiens need Victor, a Black man, to feel better about themselves. They take from him, his perfect song, and construct him in order to feel better about themselves. This is the same thing that James Baldwin and W.E.B. DuBois talk about in varying ways. It’s the same thing that Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) raps about on “Rock-n-Roll“:
Guess that’s just the way shit goes
You steal my clothes and try to say they yours (yes they do)
Cause it’s a show filled with pimps and hoes
Trying to take everything that you made or control (there they go)
Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul
Bo Diddley is rock and roll (damn right)
You may dig on the Rolling Stones
But they ain’t the first place the credit belongs
The Technosapiens want to steal Victor’s essence so they can become more perfect. By attempting to do this, they dehumanize Victor, turning him into nothing more than a machine, nothing more than a tool to benefit the Technosapiens own existence and pleasure. A similar thing occurs in sports when white spectators view Black athletes as nothing more than pawns and entertainment. As Martenze Johnson wrote after Kevin Durant’s injury in the NBA finals, ” To audiences, black players are nothing more than the real-life versions of the characters on video games such as NBA2K and Madden NFL, incapable of actual feelings or pain (there’s a long-held belief that blacks have less-sensitive nerve endings than other races). “
Victor defeats the Technosapiens by tapping into their shared network, their psyche if you will. Inside, he asks them, “How many worlds have you conquered? How many races have been infected by this cyber parasite?” Victor knows that the cyber-parasite affects the human victims, turning them into cybernetic monsters. They try to stop him, pleading with him not to take anything away from them. He tells them, “Not taking anything away–I’m giving you back your humanity. . . . I’m not rewriting an operating system . . . I’m curing a disease!” Victor seeks to cure their psyche, not their physical existence. The disease of racism infects their minds, turning them into Technsapiens who seek some abstract form of perfection.
By attacking their psyche, Victor’s plan makes me think of the ways that we can combat the transmission of racist thought. I’ve written about this before with Solomon Northup, Todd Robertson’s 1992 photo of a young boy, dressed in KKK robes, staring at his reflection in a Black officer’s riot shield, and more. I would add to these discussions documentaries such as Deeyah Khan’s White Right: Meeting the Enemy who meets alt-right individuals in the US and , through her conversations with them, some of them leave the nationalist movements. It’s a powerful documentary showing the power of relationships. One of the men even tells her that he has never met a Muslim, yet he espouses Islamaphobic statements. This is one of the men who leaves at the end of the documentary. (You can watch the whole thing on Netflix.)
After defeating the Technosapiens Victor must regenerate himself. When he does, he regenerates without his cyborg features. He regenerates without his cybernetics. He can bring them back, but the initial appearance shocks him and those around him. Speaking with the Sarah from another dimension, she asks why he brought the cybernetics back. He tells her. “This is who I am. How the world knows me. I’m not ready for anything else.” For too long, Victor has defined himself based on the ways other view him that he does not know how to truly be himself. This is the same thing that DuBois writes about with double consciousness, always a severing of the true self and the ways that others define Victor.
The final pages of “Unplugged” show Robert and Victor becoming, outwardly, human. Three panels show Robert in his home, bandaged up. Where his cybernetic arm was is now a stump. Over three panels, the arm grows back, and he exclaims, “Yes!” He no longer has the disease. Or does he? The last two pages show Victor with his cat Smokey. He asks the Smokey if he can keep a secret, then he turns into a completely, from the outside, human form of himself. The last page shows Smokey cuddling up to Victor.
While Victor and Robert become, visibly at least, human, they still have the cybernetics in their bodies. This means that the residual parasitic ideas can still resurface. How do we keep them from resurfacing? How do we deprogram the racist thought that plagues our brains? How do we conquer this disease? “Unplugged” does not have any answers to these questions, but it does show us that we must confront it. If we don’t, we will continue to inflict pain and suffering, harming the entirety of society.
What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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