From the European South

a transdisciplinary journal of postcolonial humanities

Central/marginal processing units: race, multitasking, and representations of simultaneity in The Intuitionist



Our co-authored essay offers a rethinking of recent cultural and technological transformations through a time-oriented rereading of the postmodern racial allegory put in place in The Intuitionist, the science fiction debut by African American author Colson Whitehead. Published in 1998, shortly after the big “humanistic machine” (Fiormonte, Numerico, Tomasi 2015) called the internet went public, Whitehead’s novel provides a metaphorical frame to now disclose the virtual re-engineering of the human. To elucidate this transformation, we focus on the pivotal and often overlooked component of computer research in the 1960s, i.e., the development of Compatible Time-Sharing Systems (first MULTICS in 1965, then UNIX in 1969). The Time-Sharing intuition would result in a modular model capable of multitasking (distributed but simultaneous parallel algorithmic processes) typical of today’s major operating systems. Our reading of the novel’s racialization of time at the moments where the central theme of multitasking disrupts organized chronocentrism focuses on multiple levels: epistemologically (as Carassai’s reading of the intuitionist knowledge production is placed in conversation with computational procedures) and cognitively (as shown by Pessin’s analysis of the cognitive dimensions represented in how the narrator renders the simultaneity of past, present, and future events through complementing frames). The novel’s representation can be reread as prophetic, as the epistemic possibilities of Whitehead’s protagonist with regard to intuition are today virtually emulated by computational multitasking and yet, at the same time, ideologically denied by computational design. This juxtaposition between the human and computational structures of simultaneity is extended into the cognitive domain, as the human brain’s expression of the performance of multiple tasks is structured differently from machines. Instead of the hardware/software metaphor, as the load increases, both human and computational systems begin to falter. In these breakdowns, the divisions between intuitive, rational, historical, and procedural are reinscribed and interrogated, producing several different operating frames of racialized time and highlighting the difference in labor required of the Black characters to exist in their own temporal frames as well as the white timeframes imposed on them.


Race, cognition, computers, digital culture, time, identity



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