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Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet

Author: Lisa Nakamura
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007
Review Published: July 2009

 REVIEW 1: Yuya Kiuchi
 REVIEW 2: Nicholas Knouf
 REVIEW 3: Koen Leurs
 REVIEW 4: Andrea L. Volpe
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Lisa Nakamura

Lisa Nakamura's Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet is one of the latest scholarly investigations of the online visual culture that interacts with the identity formation process among a growing number of users from various racial, ethnic, class, gender, and other groups. As the author humbly and honestly admits, the academy has yet to reach a consensus as to what and how to study about the Internet and new media practices (68). Nakamura's latest work, however, suggests different ways to analyze how our racial identities are negotiated in our online activities.

The author not only lives up to her existing high-quality standard of scholarship but also exceeds it in her latest work. As an author and an editor of various articles, books, and anthologies in the field, including Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet and Race in Cyberspace, Nakamura has analyzed various examples of online identity formation processes and the intersection of race and digital culture extensively. On the one hand, she continues to delve into numerous case studies in Digitizing Race. Nakamura studies various web sites, movies, community discussion groups, and others. On the other hand, what is more unique about this book compared to her previous ones is her strengthened theoretical backbone. She is successful, for example in Chapter 3 in which she examines The Matrix trilogy and Minority Report, in applying Donna Haraway's cyborg theory. She makes a convincing argument about how the Internet re-embodies rather than disembodies non-white and female bodies.

What is most significant about Digitizing Race is that it introduces us to most updated academic discourse on race and online visual culture. Race continues to be a heated topic of discussion. Nakamura concurs with Vijay Prashad (2001) who claims that the "gentler form of racism [is] the greatest problem of the twenty-first century" (3). We are now aware that utopian ideas about the Internet breaking down racial barriers and the idea that digital media would be capable of erasing race, both contentions that were popular during the early age of the Internet, no longer hold true. Instead, as Nakamura and other scholars have demonstrated over the last ten years or more, racial divisions persist both online and offline. Nakamura's work addresses this long lasting problem in the digital environment.

At the same time, she separates herself from traditional works on the Internet. Much of past scholarship on digital culture had had difficulty detaching itself with the heydays of the Internet studies in the 1990s that closely examined MOOs, MUDs, other text-based communities, and other first-generation examples. Instead, Nakamura argues we now live in "a post-Internet age" (2). The Internet has become sufficiently popular that it is now a site where not only hegemonic but also counterhegemonic visual images can be created and distributed (13). Although recent scholarship on the Internet has had made similar arguments, Digitizing Race is one of the first works to truly show how the Internet in the post-Internet age differs from that in the past.

Nakamura uses "visual capital" as the foundational idea for her work. She explains that it is "a commodity that we mark as desirable by conferring on it the status of a language unto itself." It is also "a system of social differentiation based on users'/viewers' relative access to technologies of global media." Nakamura's aim in this work is to examine "the ways that visual capital is created, consumed, and circulated on the Internet." Her guiding question is "if we are starting to understand what the subject of interactivity might look like or be formed, what or who is its object?" (15). She answers the question by examining five sets of examples.

In Chapter 1, Nakamura examines how user icons on AOL Instant Messenger signify ethnic, national, gender, and linguistic identities. Although they are small-sized visual images, they function as person-to-person communication tools that avatars do not. User icons therefore are not just for entertainment, but also for socializing. They reflect their users' identities, create them, and enable interaction between users. Nakamura correctly points out that many of the IM users are from minority groups that have not traditionally been involved in image production online or with a very limited amount. On one level, as her example of an icon of a Muslim female image shows, these small-sized images are one of the major means for users from such groups to express their identity. On another, it is also a form of resistance. She argues that AIM icons have the "ability to express identities that are resistant to normativity and presented alternatively to commercially produced images of the networked body" (69).

Chapter 2 studies what was originally a humorous web site that in reality addresses a more serious issue of racial profiling. The web site, www.alllooksame.com asks its viewers to decide if pictures represent Korean, Japanese, or Chinese people. At the end, the web site tells how many questions they answered correctly. Nakamura argues that the web site attests that racial codes are visual. To determine to which racial group someone belongs in third-parties eyes, it is frequently the appearance of the particular individual that classifies them into racial categories. In addition, although scholarly investigations have proven how useless race and ethnicity are for example for census, the web site challenges its visitors by taking them to an environment where race is solely determined by visual cues.

Although other scholars have made very similar arguments already, Nakamura shows an interesting dichotomy in technology and its users in Chapter 3. For example, in The Matrix trilogy, the non-white character acting as the commander of the ship and the intermediator between the matrix and the real world is surrounded in an environment that is far from cyberutopianism. When the interface is between technology and white characters, the image becomes futuristic and more typical of science fiction movies. Such different images between whiteness and blackness (and non-whiteness) in films underline "whiteness as a racial formation with its own visual culture and machine aesthetics" (98).

Chapter 4 sheds a new light on Nakamura and other digital culture scholars' previous discussions on avatars. Although her main focus shifts slightly away from race, this chapter eloquently argues that the Internet is not necessarily a place where disembodiment takes place as previous scholars had claimed but is also a locus where re-embodiment happens. Pregnant women's use of avatars to represent themselves rather than establishing a fake identity suggests that not all Internet users are interested in identity tourism. Nakamura implies that while female bodies had been where objectification, commercialization, and even pornification of the body have taken place, the avatars represent their agency to establish the "real female body" in the digital culture (136). With ultrasound images of babies yet to be born and information about their respective pregnancy, the female body embodied online is both re-embodiment and visualization of feminine bodies.

In the final chapter, Nakamura addresses some issues concerning access and gap. She articulates on the difference between existing in the digital culture and being represented in it. Her case studies have shown that despite an increasing amount of minority presence, their representation has not been as fair as it could and should be. Nakamura argues that whether or not someone has access to the Internet is no longer a valid question. What is more impending is what kind of access is available to them. While this point resonates with what has been discussed regarding diverse forms of media from radio, movies, television, and others, Nakamura is one of the few to problematize the status quo as explicitly and extensively.

Any scholarly project on digital culture cannot escape the inevitable difficulty of keeping up with its rapid speed of change. Nakamura's work is no exception. With a bulk of her research taking place in 2004 and earlier, Digitizing Race does not address what is now more consequential than AIM, the alllooksame web site, and others. Viewer-produced racial images on YouTube, identities expressed on Facebook, and others are where digitizing of race is taking place in 2009. The book, however, should not be dismissed for being "so early 2000s." Nakamura offers new perspectives into digitized racial identities that experience not erasure but creation, undergo not disembodiment but re-embodiment, and deserve not simple existence but fair representation.

Prashad, Vijay. Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity. Boston, Beacon Press, 2001.

Yuya Kiuchi:
Yuya Kiuchi obtained his Ph.D. in American Studies from Michigan State University. He serves on the advisory board for the Journal of Popular Culture. His publications include a translation of Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father into Japanese.  <kiuchiyu@msu.edu>

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