Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet
Author: Lisa Nakamura
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007
Review Published: July 2009
In early mainstream writings on digital media, cyberspace was seen to offer users the possibility to craft and adopt markers such as race, ethnicity, personality, gender, class, status, and physical attributes that were radically different from their personal, physical, and everyday social livelihoods. New public sphere-like communities could be forged with complete disregard of one's physical location in the world, transcending geographical, political, economic, social, class, gender, and ethnic boundaries. In this sense, cyberspace was considered as a "parallel" universe, where disembodied, gender-free, and race-less entities connected through networking their computers. Over time, the confidence in the transformative capacities of online interactions has gradually seeped away, as many have critiqued these early celebratory understandings of cyberspace or virtual reality (VR). As David Bell (2001) pointed out, "What we find in cyberculture are techno-bodies, rather than tech-nobodies" (141). Alongside scholars like Anna Everett (2007), Adam Banks (2005), and Chris McGahan (2007), Lisa Nakamura is the most prominent scholar currently focusing on the racial and discriminatory practices in cyberspace and the experience hereof by Internet users.
With her 2002 book Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet, Nakamura established herself as one of the pioneering scholars who forcefully contextualized cyber-experiences by offering much-needed theoretical nuance and in-depth case studies. In that work, she showed how the Internet is commonly projected as a race free space, as an imagination that colonizes difference by neutralizing it. She unraveled the "cyber-typical" power-relations manifest in social and material Internet practices, applications, and interfaces. She coined the term cybertype "to describe the distinctive ways that the Internet propagates, disseminates, and commodifies images of race and racism" (3).
In Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet, Nakamura shows how techno-bodies are by default still often problematically neutralized as white and masculine. However, in this book, she picks up her cybertype argument and takes it to the next step, going beyond deconstructing racialized and discriminated bodies to unravel how the Internet encompasses spaces where otherwise marginalized people can become subjects, rather than objects, of interactivity.
The author combines the analytic vocabulary and methodologies of feminist technoscience, postcolonial studies, new media studies, culture studies, and literary studies but the field of visual studies is her main entry point to come to a better understanding of the complexities of race in cyberspace. One key assumption in the book is that new digital technologies for many are increasingly becoming a taken-for-granted and normalized part of everyday life. As a result, the Internet increasingly forms the terrain on which issues of power and subordination such as gendered and racialized subject construction are considered.
As stated in the introduction, the author aims to show that the Internet does not however prove to be "the magic democracy-enhancing bullet that earlier Internet utopians thought it might be" (29) by highlighting both the construction of difference by interfaces that set up categories that follow ethnic, linguistic, national, and racialized lines and the power differentials created and perpetuated in visual capital. In other words, she focuses both on "content" as well as user experiences of being able to revise, modify, distribute, and interact with pre-given structures.
Chapter 1, "'Ramadan is Almoast Here!' The Visual Culture of AIM Buddies, Race, Gender and Nation on the Internet," consists of a case study of the communicative tool AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). More specifically, Nakamura examines the visual objects circulated by users that allow for the performance of gender, racial, ethnic, national, and religious identities. She draws parallels with textual signifiers such as MUDS (multi user domains), ICQ, and the signatures (sigs) prevalent to board posters in the early 1990s, and aims to fulfill the gap of theorizing digital avatars. She states that the visual culture of IM is an especially important element in contemporary youth culture. Analyzing the animated gif AIM buddies of three girls -- "Muslim," "usachick," and "nails n cross" -- she states that AIM buddies icons are "sites of robust identity creation in which we can already see girls actively scripting and circulating images of the body, of nation and of race and language use" (48). But she also cautions against the fetishist scopophilia of the focus of certain body parts for sexual enjoyment. AIM buddies are "supplementary imaging practices" (49) -- they do not replace offline markers, but rather allow for a re-connection with a network of prior offline relations.
Chapter 2, "Alllooksame? Mediating Visual Cultures of Race on the Web," consists of a reading of the website allooksame.com. Nakamura interprets this website "as a Turing test to see if users can tell different 'types' of Asians apart" (75). Visitors to the site are presented with a sequence of eighteen pictures of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean people, and are asked to select which country they guess the person is from. As such, the site is aimed to guide white users in deconstructing essentialist visual cultures of race. This is done by exposing the users to their own participation in creating and reinforcing visual racial categories. By doing so, Nakamura forcefully foregrounds the default whiteness of cyberspace. In the closing section of the chapter she takes a quick detour through postcolonial theory to address the Internet experience of marginalized minority groups. She sketches an image of the field of postcolonial literary theory as polarized between utopian and dystopian interpretations of cultural interaction to analyze language mixing and cultural imperialism. On the one hand, she states, there is a worry that minority cultures become contaminated by interaction with Internet cultures, while the other extreme celebrates hybrid cultural forms. With this description, the author runs the risk of reinstalling a binary opposition between so-called "indigenous non-Western authentic cultures" and the Western cultural imperialist world. In the chapter, not enough room was taken for a more careful elaboration of postcolonial theory. Her argument would be stronger if she would have chosen to interpret the contradictions and complexities of digital minorities by building on nuanced in-between positions that have been elaborated by, for instance, Stuart Hall, Gayatri Spivak, Avtar Brah, and Arif Dirlik. With these insights she would perhaps have been even more convincing in showing that western cultural imperialist forces are at play online, while simultaneously colored/minority subjects can become empowered by engaging with the Internet.
In Chapter 3, "The Social Optics of Race and Networked Interfaces in The Matrix Trilogy and Minority Report," racialization and discrimination observable in The Matrix movie trilogy and Minority Report is laid bare. Additionally, Nakamura critiques the ongoing biotechnological revolution by presenting a detailed analysis of data mining and surveillance practices that process and categorize human bodies as marketable information pieces. As such, she counters work done by feminists such as Sidney Eve Matrix (2006) who analyzed the Matrix trilogy in terms of gender relations, patriarchy, and hetero-normativity. Apart from this analysis, throughout the book the author refers to the movie Windtalkers (2002), a Jennifer Lopez music video, and the HBO television series Six Feet Under to make her claims. By doing so, the impression is given that the non-mainstream case study of online interactions and practices are not strong enough to stand on their own. However, I would say her argument would be more persuasive when singling out the particularities and specificities of cyber practices, without jumping back and forth between the Internet and mainstream popular culture. Not that she does not eloquently connect examples from these different media ecologies -- because she does weave them together convincingly -- but I would say that those examples from popular culture are often (indirectly) a reflection of cyber cultures, therefore it would be interesting to focus on the direct sources of the issues she tries to tackle.
Chapter 4, "Avatars and the Visual Culture of Reproduction on the Web," returns to the topic of avatar construction. Similar to how race is absent in most scholarly work done in the field of (cyber)feminism (see for instance the recent anthology Cyberfeminism in Northern Lights), in critical race studies gendered constructions and abuses often disappear from the foreground. In this chapter, Nakamura attempts to address both race and gender issues by presenting the reader with a revealing analysis of avatar construction by pregnant women online. Nakamura argues that images of pregnant bodies are underrepresented in most mainstream media outlets. Subsequently she enters vibrant DIY-oriented communities that have arisen around issues concerning pregnant and "trying to conceive" women. She shows how pregnant women make a case for a discursive/semiotic shift by staking out a new aesthetic mode of self-presentation. Previously invisible and marginalized visual body narratives are now increasingly published online. These women become empowered as they show mediations of themselves and help other pregnant women to present themselves in ways that they chose. Apart from this chapter her analysis remains primarily oriented towards issues of race and ethnicity online.
Chapter 5, "Measuring Race on the Internet: Users, Identity and Cultural Difference in the United States," is a sound critique of most internet statistics studies that focus on "access" and "consumption" instead of actual "activities" online. By getting more empirical data on the extent of what people of color produce on the Internet, scholars can try to answer questions such as "how much and in what ways they are adding to the discourse" (200). In this way, a richer understanding of who is able to meaningfully participate online and who is not can be accomplished. She combines the paths explored in earlier chapters in the concluding section, "Epilogue: The Racio-Visual Logic of the Internet," by addressing content and infrastructural concerns. Nakamura concludes that contemporary Internet users can counter neoliberal attempts that seek to neutralize race and ethnicity. By paying much-needed attention to often overlooked spaces of self-representation such as buddy icons, avatars, and digital signature files she showed that "despite its numerous shortcomings [the Internet] allows 'common' users to represent their bodies and deploy these bodies in social, visual, and aesthetic transactions" (208).
As pointed out earlier, by more persistently including more axis of power distribution, the case studies would become even stronger. However considering the very successful work to get online racialized bodies on the research agenda, this book is crucial and indispensable, and its reach goes far beyond the field of visual studies. Nakamura illustrates that despite the still pressing white masculine hegemony over Internet technologies and interfaces, being and becoming online objects and subjects are not necessarily mutually exclusive roles. This is a well written and highly recommendable read for students, scholars, and professionals who seek a more nuanced view that goes beyond the strong utopian web 2.0 rhetoric.
Banks, A. (2005) Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Bell, D. (2001) An Introduction to Cybercultures. London: Routledge.
Everett, A, editor. (2007) Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Matrix, S.E. (2006) Cyberpop: Digital Lifestyles and Commodity Cultures. New York: Routledge.
McGahan, C. L. (2007) Racing Cybercultures: Minoritarian Art and Cultural Politics on the Internet. New York: Routledge.
Nakamura, L. (2002) Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge.
Sveningsson Elm, M. and Sunden, J. (2007) Cyberfeminism in Northern Lights. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Koen Leurs is a PhD candidate at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. He is a team member of Wired Up, a research project focusing on digital media as innovative socialization practices for migrant youth. Koen examines the gendered and ethnic interfacing of digital technologies, migration, and (global) youth cultures. He is interested to show how young migrant digital media users create an alternative interactive space between culture(s) of origin and those of immigration, and how issues of identity, gender, and ethnicity are negotiated and articulated between online and offline worlds. <K.H.A.Leurs@uu.nl>
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