Theses Doctoral

Signs of Neon: Racial Capitalism, Technology, and African American Aesthetics in the Long 1960s

Bartell, Brian

This dissertation examines the underexplored importance of technology, and attendant forms of social organization, to artists, writers, and activists in the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Third World era. "Signs of Neon" borrows its title from the 1966 junk sculpture exhibition 66 Signs of Neon, led by the artist Noah Purifoy, in order to signal the ways that for black thought in the period technologies were understood to not simply be "new" and future-oriented, but as part of processes of production involving waste and "junk," histories of racial capitalism, and the racialized distribution of people. It is also intended to signal the importance of aesthetics to both conceptualizing these relationships and to imaging them otherwise. The dissertation analyzes the technological thought of a diverse group of artists and theorists, especially, James and Grace Lee Boggs, Noah Purifoy, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Paule Marshall, Charles Burnett, and Martin Luther King Jr. It argues that this was seen as a contradictory moment: because of technologies like automation and cybernation it was potentially liberating, no longer necessitating that black Americans be productive for white wealth, and at the same time one where, as James and Grace Lee Boggs argued, black communities were being technologically "undeveloped." Exploring these potentials and contradictions meant turning to the historically contingent relationship between processes of racialization and technology that dated to plantation slavery. While this was done in explicitly theoretical ways, "Signs of Neon" argues that a significant strain of black aesthetic practice was focused on the technological and that attention to it expands the boundaries of the Black Arts Movement and The Black Aesthetic. Consistent with the era's anthologies, this is an inter-media dissertation. However, instead of works of cultural autonomy these works focus on the processes described above. They suggest that an experimental and capacious black aesthetic practice was a privileged mode for conceptualizing the period's complex technological forms of organization, as well as the aesthetics' capacity for imaging new relationships and potential futures not reproductive for racial capitalism. While this dissertation is a historical one, it's aesthetic and analytical concerns continue to be relevant. In ending it considers the contemporaneity of this group's thought to the present, and especially to what Francoise Vergès has recently termed the "racial capitalocene."

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Bartell_columbia_0054D_14928.pdf Bartell_columbia_0054D_14928.pdf application/pdf 5.39 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Edwards, Brent Hayes
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 27, 2018