Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet
Author: Lisa Nakamura
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007
Review Published: July 2009
After November 4th, 2008, commentators in the United States heralded a "post-racial" era, one triggered by the election of Barack Obama as president. The rhetoric was framed such that, if the US had been able to elect a black man president, that there were now no more barriers to peoples of color, that we now had a level playing field and opportunities were therefore equal. Obama's election would allow us to move beyond such "petty" concerns such as "race" and move into an era of discussions across political boundaries and the development of increased consensus regarding shared concerns.
It is within this milieux that I write regarding Lisa Nakamura's 2007 monograph Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet published by University of Minnesota Press, a book that, according to the back-cover blurb, shows how "people of color and women use the Internet to vigorously articulate their own types of virtual community, avatar bodies, and racial politics." And indeed the text crosses not only boundaries of race but gender, class, and ethnicity as well, suggesting immediately the problem of considering these issues from a racial point of view alone. Nakamura's text, even if it predates Obama's election, could not be read at a better time, as with it we can make connections between the supposedly "post-racial" society in which we now live, and the mid-nineties emancipatory rhetoric of the Internet that shared the decade with the administration of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, a then-logic of "colorblindness," and the spread of the neoliberal agenda (2-3). Nakamura begins her work by connecting it to debates within cultural studies regarding the need to consider networked and online forms of visuality, especially the material substrates that underlie representations created by amateur, "low-end," and do-it-yourself users. Her goal throughout the book is to "posit a theory of digital racial formation, which would parse the ways that digital modes of cultural production and reception are complicit with this ongoing process [the negotiation between subjects and objects]" (14). To do this, Nakamura wants to look at "smaller-scale, more intimate uses of digital signification by audiences that may be less ambitious or less confident with computer production technology," suggesting that to do so is a necessary move since, as she intimates, "popular Internet cultures are ignored in favor of 'artistic' ones that most people will never see" (30), a contention that I will write more about later. Her desire to look at the so-called "low-end" is also related to notions of class, since to only look at artifacts made from high-end technology is necessarily going to exclude work by those without access to such expensive hardware and software (32).
The present text is a continuation of her earlier book Cybertypes: Race, Identity, and Ethnicity on the Internet in which she considered how digital culture fostered identity tourism and the construction of exotic Others. Digitizing Race, on the other hand, is more concerned with how:
The multilayered visual culture of the Internet is anything but a space of utopian pan-humanism where differences between genders, races, and nationalities are leveled out; on the contrary, it is an intensely active, productive space of visual signification where these differences are intensified, modulated, reiterated, and challenged by form objects of interactivity, whose subjectivity is expressed by their negotiations of the shifting terrain of identity, whose seismic adjustments are partly driven by their own participations within it, the result of several major cultures shifts and a digital technology industry and both compels and confounds vision.Thus there is a shift in emphasis from how subjects are constructed by digital technologies to how these same subjects construct themselves through different forms of mediation. This foregrounds agency as a key component, one that sees Internet users of different races, classes, genders, and ethnicities not as passive spectators or entirely on the "wrong" side of the digital divide, but rather as active agents in the development and spread of their own identities through digital media.
In the first chapter, "'Ramadan Is Almoast [sic] Here!' The Visual Culture of AIM Buddies, Race, Gander, and Nation on the Internet," Nakamura views instant messenger (IM) icons as one of the prime means by which "IM users literally build themselves as subjects of interactivity" (38). For Nakamura this is important, since the people she examines are often the subject of state surveillance and are thus not able to control the presentation of their own image(s) (38). IM buddy icons become a means by which idiosyncratic, particular, and context-relevant images can be created and shared. The icons themselves are rather small, and thus detailed images can only be shown in a sequence, frame-by-frame; nevertheless, according to Nakamura, these sequences of images cannot be easily analysed using conventional tools from narrative cinematic analysis given the absence of diegetic content (42). Because of the prevalence of IM technologies as well, the icons become an ubiquitous tool in the creation of online subjectivity by a wide variety of users with varying levels of technical ability: "AIM buddies belie the technologically determinist argument that 'better' image quality, smoothly streaming video images, higher image resolutions, and photo-realism or near photo-realism are always more valued and preferred by the user" (43). Nakamura examines icons on the buddyicon.info website where, by her count at the time, there were 28,838 IM icons to download in a plethora of categories as well as regular requests from registered users for assistance in creating new ones. The collaboration between more savvy users and those making requests allows a type of "suturing together [of] media, communication, and identity" (54), one that is arranged on the website without concern for ideology, as evidenced through examples of "gaypride" and "homophobe" icons being featured at the same time, as well as icons making reference to Ramadan, 9-11, and Christianity all using stylized images of women who share the same basic body imagery. (I will come to this similarity shortly.) In the end Nakamura suggests that the "ability to swap out slides in animated GIFs of female identity ... creates a type of volitional ethnicity that can work as part of a new economy of digital visual capital, with several users figuratively sharing a common body but modifying it with references to Islam, Christianity, 9/11, or brand preferences that cause it to parse differently" (69). This contention, however, would tend to efface the workings of capitalism in the immaterial age, where differentiation not only is used to create new markets, but immaterial labor provides the motor for the production of digital capital; this activity, then, not only features in the production of subjectivity, but is also easily recuperated into the system.
The second chapter, "Alllooksame? Mediating Visual Cultures of Race on the Web," uses the well-known website alllooksame.com as a vehicle for questioning identity politics and issues of the digital divide. This site asks users to look at images of "Asians" and determine whether or not they are Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. (Unexamined is how this site itself constructs "Asianness" as limited to the largest economies in the geographic area, as long as you exclude southeast Asia.) The visual design of the site is constructed in the form of a multiple-choice test using tropes of "bubbles" and bar codes familiar to those who have taken standardized tests. Self-identified Asians on the website's discussion board commiserate over their bad scores (81) -- scores that nevertheless could be entirely made-up, since there is no way of verifying the site's results, but point to the problems with the visual identification of races or ethnicities based on appearance alone, and could therefore be connected with historical controversies over physiognomy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Nakamura writes: "Thus the site works to deconstruct the idea of race as code, as well as the notion that this code operates visually. It emphasizes the ways in which the visual has always had primacy in our understandings of race" (75). The extensive online participation of Asian-Americans, both on alllooksame.com as well as all over the Internet, and as evidenced by a Pew Internet and American Life study, suggests for Nakamura that notions of the digital divide are grossly simplified: "To formulate a critical practice that takes account of the nuances of participation online in terms of identity, power, and race, it is vital to know as well the specific conditions under which new media are produced as well as consumed, circulated, and exchanged" (86). Thus it is not enough to examine questions of access alone, but is also necessary to understand the processes of production by users of different races, classes, ethnicities, and genders. By participating in Internet culture through sites like alllooksame.com, "Asian Americans [have] created networked spaces for questioning identity that pinpoint the lines of fracture between race, nationality, and ethnicity" (94).
In the third chapter, "The Social Optics of Race and Networked Interfaces in The Matrix Trilogy and Minority Report," Nakamura returns to some of her earlier concerns in Cybertypes with a reconsideration of the role of "racialized" computer interfaces in the two films, as well as the Apple iPod advertising campaign that began in 2004. For Nakamura there is a direct connection between the types of interfaces used and the racial identity of the bodies that use them: "As might be expected, white users enjoy a privileged visual relationship with digital networked interfaces, either eschewing the use of the interface altogether or interacting with it sans keyboard mouse, and other hardware devices and instead using gestural computing. In contrast, black users are depicted as witnesses and support staff to these feats of interface use" (97). In the later films of the The Matrix Trilogy, Nakamura views white operators in white clothing using clean and transparent technology, while black operators of the rebel ships appear "grubby," using "analog-style" technology that could be linked to a particular "Afro-futuristic visual culture" (99). Similarly, in Minority Report, the replacement of the main character's eyes by those of an Asian businessman are seen by critics of the film in terms of their potential use in surveillance technologies, while entirely skipping over any direct discussion of race (121). This is all the while immigrants are today faced across the world with the gruesome choice of selling organs in order to live within the underside of informational capitalism. The transplantation of the Asian eyes in the white main character -- and I should note as well the ways in which the physiognomy of the Asian eye continues to be the subject of surgery in order to "Westernize" it -- creates a form of hybridity that causes a loss of ability to use the clean, gestural interfaces (130): the mark of whiteness for Nakamura.
Nakamura returns to amateur production of digital images in the fourth chapter, "Avatars and the Visual Culture of Reproduction on the Web." Here she considers the role of images on pregnancy-related websites and discussion boards, sites that already discipline mothers in certain forms of pre-natal care and are overrun with graphics of ultrasounds that create certain forms of socio-technical "bonding" before birth (132, 133). Mothers-to-be pepper their posts with medical terminology and acronyms, showing how they are already enculturated into the medical discourse (153). Nevertheless for Nakamura, the production of avatars and "signatures" for posts on the boards signals a "reappropriation of the medicalized gaze": "When these women make graphical images of themselves as pregnant avatars to insert in their bulletin board posts online, they are producing a counterdiscourse that challenges the binarism of hypervisible/invisible pregnant bodies" (158). For example, miscarriages are often visually represented in the signatures in a vernacular fashion, making present what is an extremely private and emotional event. Avatars are additionally composed of similar graphics as those discussed with regards to IM icons; indeed, women "swap-out" non-pregnant with pregnant bodies as the pregnancy goes on (137), suggesting a logic of modularity at the same time as a prediction of the future. These avatars, like the IM icons, are produced using simple tools, suggesting the need for a new type of analysis that "brings a critical stance to popular new media practices," rather than valorizing image production using discourse that has been developed to talk about new media art (161). While Nakamura gestures to the "normative domestic behavior" that these images display, she argues that they additionally "are evidence of eclectic digital production that reflects the reality of reproductive labor and its attendant loses" (170).
The final chapter, "Measuring Race on the Internet: Users, Identity, and Cultural Difference in the United States," again returns to the representation of Asian-Americans in popular culture, this time with regards to survey data, online petitions, and magazine spreads. While these surveys seem to suggest Internet usage by Asian-Americans as being on par with those of Whites, Nakamura critiques them for defining Asian-Americans as those who speak English, thus creating a double bind for non-English-speaking Asians: "they are a digital minority whose racial formation and public perception are that of a digital majority" (172). This occurs while counting Internet "participation" in terms of "measuring access or consumption" while failing to measure "digital production" (171). To extend these analyses in both directions, Nakamura suggests, would both show Asian Americans as holding a privileged relationship to technology while also working in low-skill, low-wage assembly of digital artifacts, such as the women of color with "nimble fingers" described by Coco Fusco. This is highlighted through an analysis of a controversial magazine spread that purported to draw a link between the appearance of certain types of Asian and gay men (suggesting an indivisible homology). The furor raised by this spread resulted in an online petition, the comments on which nevertheless reproduced some of the divisions within the Asian community, including an existing, latent homophobia (194). However, Nakamura again suggests that Asian-American use of the potential of new media "deploys interactivity to destabilize the distinctions between users and
producers, as well as questioning a rigid and essentialized notion of Asian American 'authenticity'" (185).
In an epilogue, Nakamura wraps up the book by describing her work as an attempt to "rematerialize the Internet," loosening it from its roots in a discourse of the ephemeral or the colorblind (203). This strategy requires understanding online image production by "nonnormative" bodies within existing social, cultural, and industrial projects, some of which seek to recuperate the very activity that Nakamura finds emancipatory. Nevertheless, by seeing these activities for what they are to the participants themselves -- that is, the creation of subjectivity on their own terms, absent control by others -- would mean reconceptualizing our idea of cultural production on the Internet.
Nakamura's book hopes to contribute a much-needed corrective to simple rhetoric that would see minorities as passive consumers of the Internet -- or would not see them entirely. It builds upon recent work in postcolonial studies that demolishes the historical idea of minority use of technology as non-existent or somehow "inferior" to Western notions of use. However, as I have intimated throughout this review, I worry about the valorization of the activities described by Nakamura absent an extended discussion of how differentiation works within contemporary capitalism. While indeed minority users of the Internet are creating their own forms, the examples discussed by Nakamura often involved choices from a list: whether it is a list of images to be used in icon or avatar creation, or the choice to sign an online petition. This is customization, the rearrangement of what already exists, rather than the development of alternatives that do not play by the same rules. The content of the choices themselves is still controlled by someone else; it might be the helpful user on a bulletin board who offers to create an icon for free, or it might be a corporate entity that creates a myriad of options for a variety of markets. Even so, the choices are circumscribed by actors outside of the scene, their motives unexamined. This is not to critique the actors Nakamura studies, it is rather to situate them in the structures of contemporary capitalism. I would argue, pace Nakamura, that the reconfiguration of these images signify less the development of unfettered minority cultural production online, and reflect more the awareness by corporate actors of the need to pay attention to different races, cultures, ethnicities, and genders in an age of globalization.
Using Nakamura's own methodology, that of visual culture analysis, we can see this in sets of images across chapters of her book. If we consider the sequences of female IM icons on pages 59-61 with the tableau of pregnant women avatars on page 145 we see remarkable visual similarities: not only with the graphical techniques used in the similar faces and gazes (with the most remarkable differences being in "skin" color), but also the size of the images (all identical), their directionality (either facing left or right at the same angle, suggesting mirror reversal manipulations), and their body proportions. The avatars created for the pregnancy websites might come from buddyicon.info, a different source, or a commercial program; we do not know. Nevertheless, Nakamura does not make the connections between the chapters based on this visual analysis, a connection that would allow us to critique the structural conditions of "access" on the Internet and better understand how bottom-up reappropriation of technologies functions within top-down control of the means of (image) production.
What troubles me more about the entire argument, however, is the ways in which it assumes a deictic relationship between the (racialized, gendered) image and the racial or gender identity of the creator. Unless I have missed something, it appears that Nakamura has not done any interviews with the creators of the images, posts, or petitions under discussion. Thus, I find it difficult to make the logical link between the construction of these images and the racial or gender identities of the image producers. We only have to make reference to theorists like Baudrillard and his notions of the hyperreal, or sociologists like Sherry Turkle and her book Life on the Screen, to realize the problem with assuming that people are who they say they are in the virtual world. Indeed, many of these images of females could have been made by men (especially as we consider their "buxom" look and animated "gaze" up and down the body, as described on page 55), could have been people creating narratives and masquerading as pregnant, or could have been people acting "Asian" in their petition comments. It is impossible to make arguments about "nonnormative" (physical) people when all we have to go upon are images or texts by "nonnormative" (virtual) counterparts. There is a missed opportunity here; while Turkle's work has been very influential for online ethnographies with regards to youth and gender, Nakamura's work could have been a key extension with regards to race, had she followed-up the visual analysis of the webpages with some sort of interviews or external contact with the image producers themselves.
Additionally, while I applaud the decision by Nakamura to focus on vernacular usage of digital technology, I feel that her numerous diatribes against Internet art, noted above as well as elsewhere in the text, are disingenuous. This reinforces an unnecessary binary between "high" and "low" culture, something that has been deconstructed regularly within not only artistic practice, but art historical discourse as well. We could return to the work of Dada photomontage artists such as Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann, Kurt Schwitters, and Johannes Baader to see how reappropriation of mass media images has functioned to not only critique dominant cultural and political institutions, but also the divide between different forms of artistic production predicated on the split between "high" and "low." While indeed we should listen to Nakamura in heeding her call to consider the amateur production of digital imagery, we should not do that at the expense of other forms of new media art. These "amateur" forms might require different methodologies, but there can be cross-pollination between these and the means of analysis that have been developed for contemporary digital art. As well, we should be attuned to the ways in which artists are already repurposing these forms within their works in order to understand how the cultural position of the producer (artist, amateur, professional, or any combination thereof) influences and shapes the direction of the work.
Finally I want to comment on the text of the book itself, namely issues with regards to copyediting. There were numerous problems with references or details (one of Barthes' main texts being cited incorrectly, Mieke Bal referenced using the wrong gendered pronoun, codetalkers appearing in the European theater of World War II instead of the Pacific) as well as repetitions of phrases within the text. This is not a critique of Nakamura, but rather the copyeditors at the press itself. The author is under enough pressure already to develop the arguments in the text, and one of the main purposes of the copyeditor is to point out these issues to the author. This is something that I have, anecdotally at least, noticed in other recent texts by this and other publishers. If one of the reasons we are not moving to "open-access" models for books is because of the editing services that the presses provide, then perhaps we either need to call for better copyediting or consider this reason as presently moot.
Digitizing Race could have been an important addition towards a type of critical Internet studies that would foreground the productive activities of racial, ethnic, gender, and class minorities and thereby question the patronizing discourse of the so-called "digital divide." This would have necessitated more care towards the ethnography of online spaces. We should nevertheless see see Nakamura's work as part of a continual need to understand the way all users of technology -- not simply the most privileged -- construct their identities online. I would want to extend this work with not only interviews of image producers, but also by connecting it with critiques of capitalism to better understand the relationships between individual social production, its recuperation by capital, and potentials for radical alternatives.
Nicholas Knouf is a graduate student in information science at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. His research explores the interstitial spaces between information science, critical theory, digital art, and science and technology studies. Ongoing work includes MAICgregator, a Firefox extension that aggregates information about the military-academic-industrial complex; Fluid Nexus, a mobile phone messaging application designed for activists and relief workers that operates independent of a centralized network; and sound works that encourage the expression of the unspeakable. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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