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Mobile Cultures: New Media in Queer Asia

Editor: Chris Berry, Fran Martin, Audrey Yue
Publisher: Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003
Review Published: December 2006

 REVIEW 1: Terri He
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Chris Berry, Fran Martin, & Audrey Yue

Mobile Cultures: New Media in Queer Asia, edited by Chris Berry, Fran Martin, and Audrey Yue, is a collection of essays examining the intersection of new media technology and East and South-east Asian queer sexuality. Eleven essays focused upon queer Asian identities, subjectivities, cultural politics and social milieus empirically explore and critically analyze contemporary issues related to sexuality and technology in a range of (inter)national contexts.

This book aims, as stated in the Introduction, to "focus on historical and social practice in an Asian rather than Western context" in order to serve as "a distinct feature ... that [challenges] much current thinking about new media" (11). This is, in my opinion, one of the most important interventions that this book makes, precisely because it is set against the backdrop of media and communication scholarships being predominantly associated with the West, the white, and the English-language. This point of departure in putting together a collection as such, which falls somewhat outside of the common scopes and perceptions of media studies compels a rethinking of the global and local, or universal and particular, between the so-called West and East. As a result, even though what is deemed "different" becomes perpetually the non-West, this book still functions as an effort to subvert this facile dichotomy of West and non-West by submitting, and thereby encouraging, ethnographic notes, empirical studies, and critical analyses and theorizations that are based on observations and interpretations produced in the non-West.

Moreover, Mobile Cultures not only pays attention to the extensive and yet neglected use of technology by the queer populations in Asia, but also highlights the fact that, if without some revision, rewriting, or even appropriation, "queer" certainly can be as hegemonic and domineering as the long-time social institution of heterosexuality. As much as "queer" is conceptualized as primarily Western, the following implication in "applying," (or even "importing") queer theories and discourses into largely non-Western places may be simply another form of cultural imperialism and neo-colonization, as in these locations many circumstances would simply make things too complex, contingent, and unbeneficial to be squeezed into the post-Stonewall model, Anglophone styles of coming-out, and various other gay-affirmative ideas. This is to say that queer as a word requires some broader, more "racialized" and "located" definitions, and that in the mean time queer as a concept has to be appropriated by the rising queer Asia (as well as other located identities or politics around the world) so as to create their niches as well as find footings in the globalized moment of understanding sexuality.

Switching the focus away from the dominant West, many essays in this book are unsurprisingly about the dynamics and problematics between local and global -- global being primarily the Anglo American and Western European. These chapters are perfectly aware of the Western/global influences on various discourses related to sexuality and technology in the local public arena, as well as the necessity of being vigorously engaged in constant dialogues and dialectics with the West. All in all, they contribute to the much needed empirical studies and under-researched -- albeit "different" -- kind of the Internet use, situated in glocalized sociocultural contexts in Asia. To summarize, these essays endeavour to address the Western influences in the process of negotiating between local and global.

However, what may be worth special attention is that it would be too demeaning to conclude that essays in this collection only deal with the translingual aspects of the migration of queer as a term. In many situations, such as in Tom Boellstorff and David Mullaly's portrayals of queers in Indonesia and Thailand, respectively, queer is contextualized by concepts that not only reinterpret the given meaning of "queer" but also by other demands of a more situated and subtly nuanced understanding of "subjectivity" and "(hetero)normativity." In attempts to theorize such notions, queer ultimately reveals some risks and limitations as the kind of human sexuality enabled and expressed via a technologically-mediated mode in these non-Western places -- online and otherwise -- are certainly widening and challenging the implicitly white, Western, and Anglophone queer. The racialized and localized queers, on their way voicing and expressing different sets of lived experiences and practical concerns, provide a possibility in general to open up the current Western articulations and understandings of sexuality.

In search of racialized and located definitions of queer, many chapters inevitably have to redefine its relation to or redraw the boundary of the English term queer. One of the examples may be what Mark McLelland has observed in Japan about Yaoi (boy-love; sex between young men) websites created by and for straight young women, and those Newhalf websites by and for transgender/transsexual people who see themselves as intermediate-sex entertainers. In these kinds of websites, they generally lack political stances and commitments that seek to oppose heteronormativity, but, on the other hand, rather simply provide "a respite from it" (53). McLelland states that, perhaps from the common understanding of queer politics, when queer is no longer about a kind of political attitude, its positioning as a way to create a community or an identification becomes impossible. But in these websites, as McLelland remarks, there is a sense of community as well as some collective identification, because the kind of queer sexuality in forms of Yaoi and Newhalf is more about entertainment than about politics, through which the communal sense is still enabled and accessible. Entertainment, as a result, suggests a new, or at least an alternative, way of forging a queerly sexualized community.

Another example from the book which is challenging in a more radical way may be the kind of boy-love comic stories "where [in a happy gay world] a minor can be a willing and active participant in the sexual act with an older partner without causing controversy," stated in Veruska Sabucco's "Guided Fan Fiction" about contemporary Yaoi comics (82). This is ultimately a much more controversial issue regarding Japanese Yaoi, as currently much public and mass media attention centers on homosexuality as associated with paedophilia. So, what this example makes is a highly interesting and provocative one. The observation and understanding of local Japanese sexuality represented in comics, websites, and other platforms of popular culture, on the one hand, suggests a break away or a departure from the Western frame of reference in reading and comprehending the contemporary non-Western representations of sexuality. But, on the other hand, looking into the localized Japanese popular culture via Yaoi exposes its dynamic power relations with the West, as "Western nations are putting pressure in Japan through international conventions to begin the process of Internet regulation [on Yaoi websites]" (65) while "the new meaning is superimposed on the original, [which creates] Western stories drawn in a Japanese style" (82). The conflicts and dynamics in response to this particular different possibility of exploring queer sexuality without being labelled as "unethical" is, perhaps from a Western point of view, an unsettling exploration.

What follows on the thematic of queer Asia's relationship with the West, while continuing to be very thought-provoking, are two chapters on Japan. The first is Larissa Hjorth's chapter working on "kawaii" ("cute" in Japanese) as a topic related to the idea of childhood, a highly gendered/feminized state often embodied by the famous product Hello Kitty. Hjorth's reading of kawaii is viewed from the perspective of "ma" ("pause") as a possible form of aesthetic blankness, a somewhat subdued possibility of subversion, or in Hjorth's words, "a 'blank canvas' where such 'voicelessness' categories as female sexuality can be performed, all under the veneer of seemingly reinforcing traditional power relations" (168). In exploring this kind of ma-mediated space for female nonconforming attitude towards gender and sexuality, Hjorth's research again has to, for one, defy many Western theoretical models and, for another, establish a kind of affirmative association of commodification with "character," both in terms of the "character" of, for example, Hello Kitty figure attached to a mobile phone and of an individual's "character." In this aspect, the ambiguous relationship between consumerism and activism in the late-capitalist Japanese society is intriguingly teased out as a critique on the "common wisdom" of rejecting fixed gender roles and silenced sexuality as being subjugated in the patriarchal system. There seems a need for recognizing different approaches, strategies, and ideas in comprehending silence.

Ways of approaching media use and understanding in Asia are certainly pluralized as well as challenged in this book. But in contending the ways of approaching these subject matters from a perspective that challenges mainstream understanding of sexuality as well as suggests a different one, there remains much more work to be done. In Katrien Jacobs' chapter on Shu Lea Cheang's sci-fi porn movie I.K.U., while bringing out the queering of mainstream heterosexuality via a critique on Japanese porn industry that has been prevailing for long in this East and South-east Asian region, it unfortunately fails to problematize the verb "queer," a verb that is so oftentimes applied and yet seldom theorized. "Queer" as a verb, though almost immediately seems to stand opposite to verbs such as "normalize," "normativize," and others, still requires its own contextualization and theorization as it is, in this case, specifically about the Japanese porn industry and its resulting social phenomena and transnational popularity. I think that this chapter would have been much more subversive, as Cheang's movie must have been, if some discussion of "queering" as an action, along with its risks, limitations, and negotiations with the local dynamics, can be provided.

On the other hand, a number of chapters does successfully illuminate some of the vital methodological concerns in trying to map out the queer Asia represented in various online arenas in India, Taiwan and Korea (for example, Sandip Roy's "From Khush List to Gay Bombay" and Chris Berry and Fran Martin's "Queer'n'Asian"). Although they are certainly preliminary and more likely to pose questions than finding answers, these works about queer webs are very situated, fully aware of their places and stances among the local "syncretic" cultures (89), the perceived "global queering" process, and the ethics and practicalities of being queer, which are almost always about being positioned as invisible, oppressed, or marginalized. These authors' readings of the local use of the Internet, therefore, function as a reminder of the existence of "other" forms of developments of sexuality and technology, not just seeing it homogenized or simply assimilated by the mainstream. This important reminder puts, or at least suggests, demands in revising the current Western models in making sense of the Internet and cyberethnographies (a term that easily refers to a number of books on Internet Studies, including Radhika Gajjala's (2004) Cyber Selves and Christine Hine's (2000) Virtual Ethnography) and devising sets of transnationalized, situated, and postcolonially informed methodologies for online research as a whole.

The focus on the online, as mentioned throughout this book, comes from the indispensability of the Internet in light of contemporary social applications and wide developments of networked technologies (for example, Baden Offord's "Singaporean Queering the Internet," Olivia Khoo's "Sexing the City," and Audrey Yue's "Paging 'New Asia'"). As a matter of fact, most of the chapters are devoted to studies of the Internet, while some are about a range of media technologies, including the Internet. As many of them simultaneously deal with the wider mediascapes in Asia, the high amount of attention that the Internet receives is noteworthy. This uneven distribution in representing the media in Asia perhaps reflects the current reality, since most of the Asian countries are indeed giving priorities to the developments of information and communication technologies due to economic and political concerns. As it follows, Mobile Cultures, not only places a long-awaited call for drawing more attention to the rising queer Asia, but also identifies an urgent need for continuous research and further developments in the methodologies for non-Western Internet scholarships, which may rightly be another book for the future.

In general, I find Mobile Cultures a pleasant read as it points out many important issues in studying non-Western and yet West-influenced sexuality expressed in a specific technological mode that is locally situated while globally connected. Mobile Cultures helps formulate some critical notions that unsettle the current mainstream conceptualization of sexuality and technology, and creatively offers many intriguing possibilities for theorizations of the local sexual (sub)cultures. However, the ratio of four chapters on Japan and two chapters on Singapore out of a total of eleven seems to indicate that relatively "Western" or "Westernized" countries still tend to receive much more exposure and interest among researchers. Other countries that have a reputation of being "more oriental," like China, continues to be under-represented.

Gajjla, R. (2004) Cyber Selves: Feminist Ethnographies of South Asian Women. Oxford: AltaMira Press.

Hine, C. (2000) Virtual Ethnography. London: Sage.


Terri He:
Terri He is currently a PhD candidate in the Centre for Women's Studies, University of York, United Kingdom. Her research interests include gender, sexuality, globalization, postcolonial studies, and queer theory. Her forthcoming publications are "Cyberqueer in Taiwan: An Attempt at Locating Histories of the Margins" in International Journal of Women's Studies, and "Glocalized Queerness: Taking for an Example an Online Community in Taiwan" (tentative title) in Queer Pop Culture, to be published by Palgrave-Mcmillan. She is now engaged in the book project of Internationalising Internet Studies by contributing an essay called "Hybridity Online: Observing and Representing the Cybercommunity of Spiteful Tots."  <tch500@york.ac.uk>

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