Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet
Author: Lisa Nakamura
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007
Review Published: July 2009
Inspired by anime and manga, the work of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami simultaneously mimics and critiques their visual iconographies. The flat, sleek surfaces of his paintings use a cartoon palette; fiberglass sculptures look like collectible figurines on steroids. A commercial products division makes T-shirts, stuffed animals, and more (imagine Hello Kitty at the Guggenheim gift shop). Skeptics might read his work as so enmeshed in the visual codes it critiques that, except for its museum venue, it's hard to see the line between appropriation and complicity. This is a version of the problem that scholars of popular culture have long faced and which persists in analysis of the corporatized culture of the internet, especially when it comes to assessing how and where users exert agency over constructions of their digital identities. In Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet, Lisa Nakamura analyzes the terms on which racial identity is both a subject and object of digital culture, where users negotiate identities out of corporatized visual templates and where the very premise of the web underwrites critiques of racial essentialism even as appeals to visual truth seem to fix race as a category. Her work also takes up the larger question of what it means to craft a methodology for reading popular visual, digital culture and theorizing its role in the construction of racialized identities.
The challenge of the internet is that it is the "hybrid form to end all hybrid forms" (5). Nakamura's solution is to bring visual culture studies' concerns with the production of images and their "cultural reception" (203) to media studies as a means for reading the internet's multiple and shifting representations, ranging from textual and graphical images, photography, still and streaming images. Nakamura situates her analysis against recent technological and political history and by doing so the book begins to plot the late twentieth century cultural history of the internet. The visuality of the internet, she argues, converged with the "neoliberal" politics of race in the 1990s, when race as a category of difference becomes newly invisible in the Clinton-era rhetoric of universality (2). This is the causative force that makes the internet shift from a "utopian space for identity play, community building, and gift economies to a more privatized, profit-driven model" based on corporate structures and interests (3). This subsequent "de-racialization" of politics, she argues, was played out in terms of internet access so that its radical or redistributive potentials were shelved in favor of its corporate commodification.
If you happen to occupy a physical body that is the bearer of one of these increasingly erased marks of difference, then on what terms do you represent yourself in the abstracted world of the internet, where the markers of difference could be so easily elided or might be claimed as some measure of authenticity? Nakamura performs nuanced readings of the visual rhetorics of racialized identities, not as "insubstantial or ephemeral" nor as unlimited self-actualization, but as digital negotiations that have material consequences. Visual, digital bodies, she argues, have the possibility of transgressing the limits of "real" bodies and experiences and to contest and reframe the material experiences on which they are based.
Nakamura argues that even as the internet multiplies and disperses access to visual representations of racial and ethnic identity, increased visibility is not necessarily a sign of democratization. Race, she argues, "can be seen more than ever before" (207), but the terms on which representations of race are being claimed from dominant practices are still in formation. As she sees it, "digital visual capital is a commodity that is not freely given to all ... it must be negotiated and at times actively seized by those whom it would otherwise not be given" (207).
Fragmented, decentralized, corporate, viral, digital culture doesn't sustain a single discourse of racial difference. Indeed, this book makes clear how these constructions use the internet as a conduit for multiple modes of identity formation and visual representation. And as much as race may be the category of difference invoked by the book's title, it is analyzed here together with gender and class as the measure of material and digital inequalities. Adolescent girls, she argues, rework the standard, hyper-feminized templates of IM buddy icons to construct hybrid identities that cross racial, gender, ethnic and national identities. The avatars used by pregnant women on internet bulletin boards are another example of the ways in which women can "own their digital bodies" (134), adapting the cartoonish iconography of avatars to reflect their "real" pregnant bodies and to insert racialized identities into their on-line signatures. Such negotiations, Nakamura argues, contest the ways in which digital medical images, particularly fetal ultrasounds, surveil and essentialize the pregnant body and the fetus.
Nakumura is as concerned with the imagined economy of digital representations of a racialized body as she is with material ones. The depiction of race matters in movies such as the Matrix trilogy and Minority Report because they are critiques of the internet's turn-of-the-century utopianism and its failure to "liberate users from their bodies, from racism, and from inequalities of all kinds" (104). In these technology-driven worlds, reoccupation with the bodily basis for racial difference doesn't dissipate, only the terms of its power and knowledge shift; whiteness becomes the measure of digital privilege. And instead of doing away with the racialized body, technology makes the body entirely known through the digital essentialism of biometrics, seeming to fix race rather than free the digital body from it.
Race is also an object of knowledge on the internet, evident in her reading of alllooksame.com, a "weird, weird" (78) website created by Dyske Suematsu that asks users to match photographs of Asians with countries of origin (Japan, China, Korea). Of course, most users fail the test, which only underscores the limits of visual typology as a mark of race. Nakamura reads the site as a critique "of vision itself as a way of understanding race, class culture and the body both online and off" (78) but one that does so using humor and the designer's own position as Asian to contest the idea of authentic racial identity. The site, she argues, highlights the ways in which race is debated among racialized subjects, not only impressed upon them, and the role of the internet in fostering such debates over the meaning of race.
Nakamura's close readings accrue into a methodology for reading the material terms on which race is constructed in internet forms. She uses data collected to survey internet use by the Pew Foundation to argue that high rates of internet use for popular culture pursuits (music, games, chatting, IM) by racial minorities (Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans) are signs of active cultural production, not just passive consumption and as possible "sites of resistance to offline racial hegemonies," particularly for youth culture (184). Nakamura's reads on-line petitions by Asian-Americans objecting to racist representations in advertising and the press as "challenges [to] notions of race- and ethnicity-based community in the act of creating it" because posts to the petitions range both endorse and critique essentialist depictions of Asian-American identity (186). The fact that on-line means are used to challenge off-line racism could suggest that the internet is more porous to user agency than other media. Yet the use of petitions to launch these critiques reinforces the internet user's primary position as a consumer. This is provisional, intriguing evidence for internet agency; ultimately Nakamura calls for more scholarship that can rigorously analyze the meaning of active, on-line participation and production.
Nakamura concludes on a "cautiously optimistic" note (205). She sees enough self-determined representations of racial identity on the internet that it now resembles other forms of media, even as this "signifies a repetition of the issues that plague the study of minority discourse in all visual cultures" (205). So the problem for the study of internet cultures, not unlike the pre-digital study of media and popular culture, is that any attempts at appropriation are complicated by top-down control of the means of expression. The pixel is the measure of the dominant culture and the language of resistance at the same time; corporations, not users, set media protocols and control software programs.
Nonetheless, she sees moments of resistance where groups of users configure racialized identities for themselves in an age where the visibility of race is increasingly marked both by its disappearance from political discourse and the rise of biotechnology in establishing its truth. Resistance and visibility are more possible when the ability to upload an image and comment on it is in the hands of the creator, something that cannot be said of traditional film, literature, or art. But we don't know whether or not these users understand their material racial identities as essentialist or constructed, whether or not they conceive of the internet identities similarly or differently, or somewhere on a spectrum between the two. In terms of how we read images and what they mean, the open question is how much the construction of racial difference in the internet age will differ from those constituted largely through photographic forms since the mid-nineteenth century. It's too soon to tell, of course, but Nakamura sets the agenda of what to look for.
For feminist media and cultural critics, it's no surprise to discover that the internet has become a conduit for resisting dominant cultural representations that may be liberatory and disciplinary -- this is the founding problematic of cultural studies. At issue here is the question of corporatized culture in the global age, but this is familiar territory for Marxist cultural analysis. Flickers of Mikhail Baktin's idea of the momentarily-subversive grotesque body, Michel Foucault's notion of discourse, where even resistance enacts its own terms of power and knowledge, and Gramscian concepts of hegemony and resistance are all present here.
We are, by all accounts, in a moment when the meaning of difference and identity in culture and politics is contested and contradictory; nowhere is this more visible than in politics with a capital P: the question of the racialized body, as evidenced by recent opinions from the Roberts Court, by the rhetoric of the Obama campaign and presidency, and the essentialist anxieties over race, class, and gender raised by the figure of Sonia Sotomayor. By demonstrating that the contests over the essentialized and constructed meanings of difference are a central preoccupation of some of visual digital culture's most ephemeral forms, Nakamura's book plots out the terms to keep track of from here on out.
Andrea L. Volpe:
Andrea L. Volpe is Preceptor in Writing in the Harvard Writing Program. A cultural historian, she most recently wrote about digitization and nineteenth-century photography for Afterimage. <email@example.com>
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