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On Digital Racism

For Lisa Nakamura

I have been thinking about Lisa Nakamura lately, and for a lot of reasons. Here I just want to reflect on how valuable her work in visual culture studies has been for me, and for many others. She was a pioneer of the study of what used to be tagged as ‘race in cyberspace.’ Now that the internet is everywhere, and race and racisms proliferate on it like fungus on damp newspaper, her work deserves renewed critical attention. Her book Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (Minnesota, 2008) is nearly a decade old, but it turns out that looking perceptively at ephemeral media need not render the resulting study ephemeral at all.

Digitizing Race draws together three things. The first is the post-racial project of a certain (neo)liberal politics that Bill Clinton took mainstream in the early nineties. Its central conceit was that all the state need do is provide opportunities for everyone to become functional subjects of postindustrial labor and consumption. The particular challenges of racism were ignored.

The second is an historical transformation in the internet that began in the mid-nineties, which went from being military and scientific (with some creative subcultures on the side) to a vast commercial complex. This led to the waning of the early nineties internet subcultures, some of whom thought of it as a utopian or at least alternative media for identity play, virtual community and gift economies. In A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard, 2004), I was mostly interested in the last of these. Nakamura is more interested in what became of community and identity.

One theme that started to fade in internet culture (or cyberculture in the language of the time) had to do with passing online as something other than one’s meatspace self. This led to a certain gnostic belief in the separation of online from meatspace being, as if the differences and injustices of the latter could just be left behind. But the early cyberculture adepts tended to be a somewhat fortunate few, with proximity to research universities. As the internet’s user-base expanded, the newcomers (or n00bs) had other ideas.

The third tendency Nakamura layers onto the so-called neo-liberal turn and the commercialized and more-popular internet is the academic tendency known as visual studies or visual culture studies. This in part grew out of, and in reaction against, an art historical tradition that could absorb installation art but did not know how to think digital media objects or practices. Visual culture studies drew on anthropology and other disciplines to create the “hybrid form to end all hybrid forms.” (3) It also had something in common with cultural studies, in its attention to low, ephemeral and vulgar forms, treated not just as social phenomena but as aesthetic ones as well.

Not all the tendencies within visual culture studies sat well together. There could be tension between paying attention to digital media objects and paying attention to vulgar popular forms. Trying to do both at once was an exercise in self-created academic marginality. The study of new media thus tended to privilege things that look like art; the study of the low, the minor or the vulgar tended to privilege social over aesthetic methods and preoccupations. Not the least virtue of Nakamura’s work is that she went out on a limb and studied questions of race and gender and in new and ephemeral digital forms and as aesthetic practices.

One way to subsume these three questions into some sort of totality might be to think about what Lisa Parks called visual capitalism. How is visual capital, an ensemble of images that appear to have value, created and circulated? How does social differentiation cleave along lines of access to powerful modes of representation? Having framed those questions, one might then look at how the internet came to function as a site for the creation and distribution of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic images of racialized bodies.

Here one might draw on Paul Gilroy’s work on the historical formation and contestation of racial categories, or the way Donna Haraway and Chela Sandoval look to cyborg bodies as produced by bio-technical networks, but within which they might exercise an ironic power of slippery self-definition. Either way, one might pay special attention to forms of image-making by non-elite or even banal cultures as well as to more high-profile mass media forms, cool subcultures or avant-garde art forms.

There’s several strands to this story, however. One of which might be the evolution of technical media form. From Nick Mirzoeff, Nakamura takes the idea of visual technology as an enhancement of vison, from easel painting to digital avatars. In the context of that historical background, one might ask what is old and what is new about what one discovers in current media forms. This might be a blend of historical, ethnographic and formal-aesthetic methods.

A good place to start such a study is with interfaces, and a good way to tie together the study of cinema, television and the internet is to study how the interfaces of the internet appear in cinema and television. Take, for instance, the video for Jennifer Lopez’s pop song, ‘If You Had My Love’ (1999). The conceit of the video is that Lopez is an avatar controlled by users who can view her in different rooms, doing difference dances in different outfits. The first viewer is a young man – a bit like one of Azuma’s otaku – who appears to be looking for something to jerk-off to, but there are other imaginary viewers through-out, including teen-girls and a rather lugubrious inter-racial threesome, nodding off together on a sofa.

So different people can be on the human side of the interface. Here, we are voyeurs on their voyeurism. The interface itself is perhaps the star, and J-Lo herself becomes its object. With the interface, the imaginary user in frame and the imagining one – us – can make J-Lo perform as different kinds of dancer, slotting her into different racial and cultural niches. The interface offers “multiple points of entry to the star.” (27) She – it – can be chopped and streamed. It’s remarkable that this video made for MTV sits so nicely now on whose interactive modes it premediates.

There was – and still is – a lot of commentary on The Matrix (1999), but not much of it lingers over the slightly embarrassing second and third movies in the franchise. They are “bad films with their hearts in the right place.” (104) Like the J-Lo video, they deal among other things with what Eugene Thacker called immediacy, or the expectation of real time feedback and control via an interface. As Nakamura drolly notes, “This is an eloquent formulation of entitlement…” (94) Where the Matrix films get interestingly weird is in their treatment of racial difference among interface users under “information capitalism.” (96)

The Matrix pits blackness as embodiment against whiteness as the digital. What goes on in the background to the main story is a species of Afrofuturism, but it’s the opposite of Black Accelerationism, in which a close proximity of the black body to the machine is in advance of whiteness, and to be desired. In The Matrix version, the black body holds back from the technical, and retains attributes of soul, individuality, corporeality, and this is its value. Nakamura: “Afrofurturist mojo and black identity are generally depicted as singular, ‘natural’… ‘unassimilable’ and ‘authentic.’” (100) Whereas with the bad guy Agent Smith, “Whiteness thus spreads in a manner that exemplifies a much-favored paradigm of e-business in the nineties: viral marketing.” (101) The white Agents propagate through digitally penetrating other white male bodies.

At least race appears in the films, which offer some sort of counter-imaginary to cyber-utopianism. But as Coco Fusco notes, photography and cinema don’t just record race – they produce it. Lev Manovich notes that it’s in the interface that the photographic image is produced now, and so for Nakamura, it is the interface that bears scrutiny as the place where race is made. In The Matrix, race is made to appear for a notionally white viewer. “The presence of blackness in the visual field guards whites from the iresistable seduction of the perfectly transparent interface…. Transparent interfaces are represented as intuitive, universal, pre- or postverbal, white, translucent, and neutral – part of a visual design aesthetic embodied by the Apple iPod.” (109)

Apple’s iconic early ads for the iPod featured blacked-out silhouettes of dancing bodies, their white earbud cords flapping as they move, against bold single-color backgrounds. For Nakamura, they conjure universal consumers who can make product choices, individuated neoliberal subjects in a color-blind world. Like the ‘users’ of J-Lo in her video, they can shuffle between places, styles, cultures, ethnicities – even if some of the bodies dancing in the ads are mean to be read as not just black-out but also black. Blackness, at the time at least, was still the marker for the authentic in white desire around music. In this world, “Whiteness is replication, blackness is singularity, but never for the black subject, always for the white subject.” (116)

Nakamura: “This visual culture, which contrasts black and white interface styles so strongly, insists that it is race that is real. In this way the process of new media as a cultural formation that produces race is obscured; instead race functions here as a way to visualize new media image production… In this representational economy, images of blacks serve as talismans to ward off the consuming power of the interface, whose transparent depths, like Narcissus’ pool, threaten to fatally immerse its users.” (116, 117)

If blackness stands for authentic embodiment in this visual culture, then Asian-ness stands for too much proximity to the tech. The Asian shows up only marginally in The Matrix. Its star, the biracial Keanu Reeves, was like J-Lo quite racially malleable for audiences. In his case he could be read as white by whites and Asian by Asians if they so desired. A more ironic and telling example is the film Minority Report (2002). Tom Cruise – was there a whiter star in his era? – has to get his eyes replaced, as retinal scanning is everywhere in this film’s paranoid future. Only the eyes he gets belonged to a Japanese person, and the Cruise character finds himself addressed as a particularly avid consumer everywhere he goes. Hiroki Azuma and Asada Akira had once advanced a kind of ironic Asian Accelerationism, which positively valued a supposed closeness of the Asian with the commodity and technology, but in Minority Report it’s an extreme for the white subject to avoid.

Race at the interface might be a moment in a process of production and reproduction (and its queer twists) that Donna Haraway called the integrated circuit. It partakes now in what Paul Gilroy notes is a crisis of raciology, brought on by the popularization of genetic testing. The old visual regimes of race struggle to adapt to the spreading awareness of the difference between genotype and phenotype. The film GATTACA (1997) is here a prescient one in imagining how a new kind of racism of the genotype might arise. It imagines a world rife with interfaces designed to detect the genotypical truth of appearances.

Nakamura ties these studies of the interface in cinema and television to studies of actual interfaces, particularly lowly, unglamorous, everyday ones. For instance, she looks at the avatars made for AIM Instant Messenger, which started in 1997 as an application running in Microsoft Windows. Of interest to her are the self-made cartoon-like avatars users chose to represent themselves to their ‘buddies.’ “The formation of digital taste cultures that are low resolution, often full of bathroom humor, and influenced by youth-oriented and transnational visual styles like anime ought to be traced as it develops in its native mode: the internet.” (30-31)

At the time there was little research on such low forms, particularly those popular with women. Low-res forms populated with cut and paste images from the Care Bears, Disney and Hello Kitty are not the ideal subjects of interactivity imagined in cyberculture theories. But there are questions here of who has access to what visual capital, of “who sells and is bought, who surfs and is surfed.” (33) AIM avatars are often based on simple cut and paste graphics, but users modified the standard body images with signs that marked out their version of cultural or racial difference. This was a moment of explosion of ethnic identity content on the web – to which, incidentally, we may in 2017 be witnessing the backlash.

AIM users could download avatars from websites that offered them under various categories – of which race was never one, as this is a supposedly postracial world. The avatars were little gifs, made of body parts cut from a standard template with variations of different hair, clothing, slogans, etc. These could be assembled into mini-movies, remediating stuff from anime, comics, games; as a mix of photos and cartoons, flags, avatars.

One could read Nakamura’s interest in the visual self-presencing of women and girls as a subset of Henry Jenkins’ interest in fan based media, but she lacks Jenkins’ occasionally over-enthusiastic embrace of such activity as democratic and benign. Her subaltern taste-cultures are a little more embattled and compromised.

The kind of femininity performed here is far from resistant and sometimes not even negotiated. These versions of what Hito Steyerl would later call the poor image would be hard to redeem aesthetically. Cultural studies had tried to ask meta-questions about what the objects of study are, but even so, we ended up with limited lists of proper new media objects, of which AIM avatars were was not one.

The same could be said of the website The site starts with a series of photographs of faces, and asks the user to identify which is Japanese, Chinese or Korean. (Like most users, I could not tell, which is the point.) The category of the Asian-American is something of a post-Civil Rights construct. It promised resistance to racism in pan-ethnic identity, but which paradoxically treated race as real. While is an odd site, for Nakamura it does at least unite Asian viewers in questioning visual rhetoric about race. Here it provides a counter-example to Ien Ang’s study of, which to her essentializes diasporic Chinese-ness.

Asian-American online practice complicates the digital divide, being on both sides. The Asian-American appears in popular racial consciousness as a ‘model minority’, supposedly uninterested in politics, avid about getting ahead in information capitalism, or whatever this is. Yet she or he also appears as the refugee, the undocumented, the subsistence wage service worker. For Nakamura, this means that the study of the digital divide has to look beyond the race of users to other questions of difference, and also to questions of agency online rather than mere user numbers.

While in some racialized codings, the ‘Asian’ is high-tech and assmiliates to (supposedly) western consumerist modes, the encounter between postcolonial literary theory and new media forms produces quite other conjunctures. To collapse a rich and complex debate along just one of its fault-lines: imperial languages such as English can be treated either as something detachable from its supposed national origin, or as something to refuse altogether.

The former path values hybridity and the claiming of agency within the language of the colonizer. The latter wants resist this, and sticks up for the unity and coherence of a language and a people. And, just to complicate matters further, this second path has to be acknowledged is also a European idea – the unity and coherence of a people and its language being itself an idea that emerged out of European romanticism.

Much the same fault-line can be found in debates about what to do in the postcolonial situation with the internet, which can also be perceived as western and colonizing – although it might make more sense now to think of it as colonizing not on behalf of the old nation-states as on behalf of what Benjamin Bratton calls the stack.

Nakamura draws attention to some of the interesting examples of work on non-western media, including Eric Michaels’ brilliant work on video production among western desert Aboriginal people in Australia, and the work of the RAQS Media Collective and Sarai in India, which reached out to non-English speaking and even on-literate populations through interface design and community access.

Since her book was published, work really flourished in the study of non-western uptakes of media, not to mention work on encouraging local adaptions and hybrids of available forms. If one shifts one’s attention from the internet to cellular telephone, one even has to question the assumption that the west somehow leads and other places follow. It may well be the case that most of the world leap-frogged over the cyberspace of the internet to the cellspace of telephony. A recent book by Yuk Hui even asks if there are non-western cosmotechnics, but that’s a topic for another time.

The perfect counterpoint to the old cyberculture idea of online disembodiment is Nakamura’s study of online pregnancy forums – the whole point of which is to create a virtual community for women in some stage of the reproductive process. Here Nakamura pays close attention to ways of representing pregnant bodies. The site she examines allowed users to create their own signatures, which were often collages of idealized images of themselves, their partners, their babies, and – in a most affecting moment, their miscarriages. Sometimes sonograms were included in the collages of the signatures, but the separate the fetus from the mother, and so other elements were generally added to bring her back into the picture.

It’s hard to imagine anything more kitsch. But then we might wonder why masculine forms of geek or otaku culture can be presented as cool when something like this is generally not. By the early 2000s the internet was about 50/50 men and women, and users were more likely to be working class or suburban. After it’s here comes everybody moment, the internet started to look more like regular everyday culture. These pregnant avatars, or ‘dollies’ were more cybertwee than cyberfeminist (not that these need be exclusive categories, of course). But by the early 2000s, “the commercialization of the internet has led many internet utopians to despair of its potential as a site to challenge institutional authority…” (160)

But perhaps it’s a question of reading outside one’s academic habitus. Nakamura: “’Vernacular’ assemblages created by subaltern users, in this case pregnant women, create impossible bodies that critique normative ones without an overt artistic or political intent.” (161) The subaltern in this case can speak, but choses to speak through images that don’t quite perform as visual cultural studies would want them to. Nakamura wants to resist reading online pregnancy forums in strictly social-science terms, and to look at the aesthetic dimensions. It’s not unlike what Dick Hebdige did in retrieving London youth subcultures from criminological studies of ‘deviance.’

The blind spot of visual cultural studies, at least at time, was vernacular self-presentation. But it’s hard to deny the pathos of images these women craft of their stillborn or miscarried children. The one thing that perhaps received the most belated attention in studies of emerging media is how they interact with the tragic side of life – with illness, death and disease. Those of us who have been both on the internet and studying it for thirty years or so now will have had many encounters with loss and grief. We will have had friends we hardly ever saw IRL who have passed or who grieve for those who have passed. IRL there are conventions for what signs and gestures one should make. In online communication they are emerging also.

Nakamura was right to draw attention to this in Digitizing Race, and she did so with a tact and a grace one could only hope to emulate. Nakamura: “The achievement of authenticity in these cases of bodies in pain and mourning transcends the ordinary logic of the analog versus the digital photograph because these bodily images invoke the ‘semi-magical act’ of remembering types of suffering that are inarticulate, private, hidden within domestic or militarized spaces that exclude the public gaze.” (168)

Not only is the body with all its marks and scars present in Nakamura’s treatment, it is present as something in addition to its whole being. “We live more, not less, in relation to our body parts, the dispossession or employment of ourselves constrained by a complicated pattern of self-alienation…. Rather than freeing ourselves from the body, as cyberpunk narratives of idealized disembodiment foresaw, informational technologies have turned the body into property…” (96) Here her work connects up with that of Maurizio Lazzarato and Gerald Raunig on machinic enslavement and the dividual respectively, in its awareness of the subsumption of components of the human into the inhuman.

But for all that, perhaps the enduring gift of this work is, to modify Adorno’s words, to not let the power of another or our own powerlessness – stupefy us. There might still be forms of agency, tactics of presentation, gestures of solidarity – and in unexpected places. Give how internet culture was tending in the decade after Digitizing Race, perhaps it is an obligation now to return the gift of serious and considered attention to our friends and comrades — and not least in the scholarly world. For the tragic side of life is never far away. The least we can do is listen to the pain of others. And speak in measured tones of each other’s small achievements of wit, grace and insight.

McKenzie Wark

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