Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life
Editor: Alondra Nelson, Thuy Lin N. Tu, with Alicia Headlam Hines
Publisher: New York: NYU Press, 2000
Review Published: September 2005
Technicolor promises something of monumental importance, a much needed interrogation of the articulations of race and technology. Indeed, what makes the project proposed by Alondra Nelson and Thuy Linh N. Tu so exciting is that scholarship on technology, and cyberculture particularly, has neglected questions of race, racism, and racialization, and ethnic studies (broadly conceived) has failed to adequately address the ways communities of color have appropriated and retooled machines, whether they be computers or cars. In this context, Technicolor is at once heroic and tragic: an anthology that will prompt new conversations.
In Technicolor, Nelson and Tu bring together 11 contributions that push beyond debates over access and studies of marginalization to illuminate "the hidden circuits that link race and technology" (2). The volume is nothing if not eclectic. It maps the racialized contours through several distinct genres: interpretive analyses, personal narratives, and interviews. The contents cluster around cites of "high-tech labor," including programming and cyberdesign, music production, and creative production in Latino car culture and underground zines.
Two features of Technicolor recommend it to all scholars interested in technology and/or race. Perhaps most important, it complicates scholarly conventions, insisting that people of color must be understood as something other than victims. That is, in contrast with the tendency to emphasize how technology has hurt people of color or the ways in which social conditions limit the access of communities of color to technology, the editors assert and the contributions elaborate the myriad ways in racialized peoples and communities engage, operate, appropriate, and reinvent machinery and devices to fashion identities, create communities, earn a living, resist domination, and imagine possible futures. Technology emerges throughout Technicolor as something replete with contradictions, a space of empowerment, a context of negotiation, and a means toward unexpected and all too often invisible ends. As important as this intervention is, what made Technicolor even more compelling for me was its inclusion of the voices of creative people. On the one hand, it has illuminating interviews with the likes of McLean Mashingaidze Greaves (conducted by Andrew Ross), founder of cafelelosnegroes.com amongst other ventures, filmmaker Vivek Bald, and DJ Beth Coleman (conducted by Tricia Rose); on the other hand, it contains wonderful reflective essays by performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Slant magazine founder Mimi Nguyen. These contributions grant intimate portraits of technology in motion and approachable engagements with the core issues of the volume, without the burden of jargon or an analytical frame.
Despite its significant efforts to reframe technology, a number of weaknesses compromise Technicolor's capacity to foster a sea change in the field. Like many anthologies, Technicolor is uneven. Not surprisingly, the contributions vary in quality. More important, while variation in content and form can greatly enhance critical inquiry, here, the tensions are unproductive. The analytic chapters do not fit as well as might be desired with the interviews and the discussion of technologies and race appear to be more opportunistic than intentional. Worse, some readers may find the two reprints dated. Even if one remains mindful of the 2001 publication date, the inclusion of an essay published in 1996 and another in 1990 is puzzling.
More troubling, Technicolor suffers from two key conceptual problems. First, although it includes discussions of an array technologies, its rendering remains singular. It speaks in generic terms. Are all technologies the same? Are there any meaningful differences between computers and cars? Are there moral, political, and social concerns associated with and emanating from them (for people of color)? Why are so many of the technologies considered esteemed and obvious? Computers and dj-ing displace attention to more mundane technologies, such as the clock or the (cell)phone. Second, just as a more specified rendering of technology would have greatly enhanced Technicolor, so too would a more complicated understanding of race. Too often, race is taken for granted, a natural category, rather than a social construct and historical force. Lacking is a more explicit grounding of the ways in which technologies materialize race. Rather than intermittent or implied iterations, the editors should have focused more explicitly on racialization, on how machines make race (meaningful).
Finally, the introduction is arguably the weakest element of the text. On the one hand, the editors all but refuse to define the key terms (race, technology, everyday life), leaving the contributions which follow to float about untethered. On the other hand, and perhaps more troubling, they fail to give anything more than a cursory contextualization of the past and present articulations of race and technology. Readers hoping to walk away with a better understanding of the broader relationships between them or why such relationships are significant will be disappointed.
Acknowledging these limitations, without excusing them, does not mean that Technicolor is useless or unimportant. To be sure, the scattered focus and form may make it less than attractive for course adoption. It will, however, find use among scholars. The quality of individual contributions alone will encourage its inclusion in personal and institutional libraries. And, whatever its weaknesses, the novelty and effort of Technicolor suggest it will serve as an important foundation for subsequent inquiry into the articulations of technology and race, for, in the end, as the editors note in their introduction, the volume is "a much-needed first step toward a fuller understanding of race and technoculture" (9).
C. Richard King:
C. Richard King is associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at Washington State University. His work focuses on the racial politics of expressive culture, particularly sport, and collective memory. His current research ranges widely, exploring the contours of white nationalism and the use of racial metaphors in the culture wars. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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