Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures on the Internet

Review Of

Digitizing Race
Nakamura, Lisa. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Lisa Nakamura's Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures on the Internet focuses on race and the Internet within a contemporary frame where Internet usage has moved from niche interest to mainstream, everyday use. Digitizing Race uses visual culture studies as a method, explaining visual culture studies and then moving to focused critiques in each of the chapters. Using visual culture studies, Nakamura offers Digitizing Race as a book on "digital race formation, which would parse the ways that digital modes of cultural production and reception are complicit with this ongoing process" (14). As a whole, Digitizing Race is an excellent introduction to media and culture students and a needed work for its focus on race in relation to a post-Internet world. Not only does Nakamura examine the forms and their uses, but also the methods by which visual artifacts and cultures of the Internet are created, used, understood, and communicated across media and culture.

Digitizing Race enhances visual culture studies and media studies through its focused analysis, or parsing, of visual culture on some of the earlier, but continuing forms on Internet, including forums, chat avatars, and film, music videos, advertisements, and other forms on and based on some of the norms from the earlier or at least less academically explored cultures of the Internet. Digitizing Race is divided into several chapters, many of which have overlapping and interrelated concerns as they all offer different means of parsing digital race formation on the Internet and through the culture surrounding the digital. The chapters are:
Introduction: Digital Racial Formations and Networked Images of the Body
1. "Ramadan is Almoast Here!" The Visual Culture of AIM Buddies, Race, Gender, and the Nation on the Internet
2. Alllooksame? Mediating Visual Cultures of Race on the Web
3. The Social Optics of Race and Networked Interfaces in The Matrix Trilogy and Minority Report
4. Avatars and the Visual Culture of Reproduction on the Web
5. Measuring Race on the Internet: Users, Identity, and Cultural Difference in the United States
Epilogue: The Racio-Visual Logic of the Internet

In the "Introduction," Nakamura covers the emergence of visual culture studies from the "initial disavowal of the digital by art history" (9) as a factor leading to and subsequently supporting visual culture studies for its ability "to help parse the complex visual fields that we inhabit and that condition our interactions when we use shared digital networks" (10). She continues to argue that "studies of digital visual culture have yet to discuss networking, social spaces, or power relations in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender, but have done a superb job at parsing the history of digitality's address to the eye. Studies from a communications perspective have discussed the dynamics of online interaction quite exhaustively but fail to integrate their findings into readings of what the sites do visually" (10). The rest of the book builds from this argument and expands into how digital visual culture studies can correct this absence while performing just this sort of analysis on a variety of media objects and their uses within different communities. The early sections begin with more concrete examples, including a Jennifer Lopez video and AIM chat buddy icons, offering a close study of the artifacts and their uses and then building to more complex examples and their interactions, while still including complementary concrete examples and thus avoiding so much potential confusion given the multitude of factors and their even more varied dependencies.

The first official chapter, "'Ramadan is Almoast Here!' The Visual Culture of AIM Buddies, Race, Gender, and the Nation on the Internet" offers a close study of AIM icons and their placement and function for identity politics given that their relationship to signatures and avatars, commercial products as non-mass produced objects, relationship to the community as shared cultural creations, their visual status as non-cartoon and non-photorealistic. The fourth chapter "Avatars and the Visual Culture of Reproduction on the Web" also deals with many of the same concerns related to signatures and icons, but it does so within the frame of pregnancy communities on the web. Nakamura moves fluidly from pregnancy guidebooks and websites to forum and community signatures or "siggies" of ASCII and simple images, and then to related DIY cultures and "reborn dolls" with modified doll parts to seem closest to real babies to DIY and hacking as part of computing and women's cultures (as many sites like Etsy and Ravelry can attest), and to other dolls and their relationship to androids and cyborgs as with the American Girl dolls which are created with memories and cultural memories at that, and then connects all of this to a critique of "taste" for higher culture and to questions of ownership with ideas of a website homepage as a virtual room of one's own as compared to those coming later to the internet because of restricted access/representation, so the signature becomes a mark indicating spaces of one's own. All of this is covered in a single chapter, along with the relationship of all of these elements and their connections as they become memorializations of the past and memorials for the future with digital scrapbooking as "memory consultation" and women's web work as an extension of the offline work in keeping family histories and memories.

Film serves as a backdrop and a source for the second and third chapters "Alllooksame? Mediating Visual Cultures of Race on the Web" and "The Social Optics of Race and Networked Interfaces in The Matrix Trilogy and Minority Report." The second chapter, "Alllooksame" begins with the Navajo codetalkers in Windtalkers (2002) and the ability of a language to be a code through its placement "'off the map' of known languages" (73). Working from this example, Nakamura explores how language functions as a code for normalcy and racial identity, relating language and race to the Turing Test, judicial and legal systems, and the site Alllooksame.com. Through a deep exploration of Alllooksame.com as a site of community investigation and creation, Nakamura offers an excellent analysis of how language and race function as codes in text, speech, and image. Like "Alllooksame?", the third chapter "The Social Optics of Race and Networked Interfaces in The Matrix Trilogy and Minority Report" uses popular film to concretize her analysis. Using The Matrix films and The Minority Report, Nakamura studies the creation of the interface as white in both fictional film worlds and nonfictional world examples; the culture of whiteness for viral marketing (using the example of Agent Smith and his injection of himself into others for reproduction as a parallel) and surveillance culture; film and advertising that both engender and market "coolness" using people of color; and the manner that all of this feeds into formulations of race as property (97).

The final chapter and the epilogue are, in some ways, the most important of the book because of their ability to quickly explain the purpose and method of the book. The final chapter, "Measuring Race on the Internet: Users, Identity, and Cultural Difference in the United States" uses not fictional media but surveys to argue against the normal assumptions on Internet culture. In it, Nakamura explains that the trope of Asian affinity to technology develops in part from skewed research like surveys of Internet access, which are not given in Asian languages because of cost and difficulty and thus lack feedback from those who are not fluent in English. This lack creates an inaccurate measurement of the pervasiveness of access because: "reports that cut out non-English speakers are looking at a very small slice of the Asian American population, one that is already selected for affluence and linguistic assimilation" (172). After unpacking the meaning of statistics on Asian American Internet access, Nakamura goes on to unpack its related significance, including critiquing arguments for removal of race in cyberspace versus the realities of variations in access in relation to race; critiquing the concept of "cool" in relation to technology and how that also plays into race, with "Asian" being "cool" as "technological" while also being feminized with an example of a Details magazine article that asked "Gay or Asian?" (189); and studying the emphasis placed on Internet usage, which is often valued higher than television watching and represents a bias toward a media source for information and as representing access (for more on media bias, Kathleen Fitzpatrick's The Anxiety of Obsolescence offers an excellent critique of the bias against television and toward certain types of fiction).

Digitizing Race's final chapter concludes with a call for a rigorous interrogation of what constitutes meaningful participation online. Nakamura writes, "It is imperative that we devise rigorous methodologies to help us understand what constitutes meaningful participation online, participation that opens and broadens the kinds of discourse that can be articulated there" (201); and this is exactly what she has offered readers--an explanation parsing digital visual culture studies as a method and then the application of that method through several very different examples. The Epilogue, "The Racio-Visual Logic of the Internet," solidifies the argument, explaining that the work of digital visual culture studies applies to the Internet as "a visual technology, a protocol for seeing that is interfaced and networked in ways that produce a particular set of racial formations" (202). The investigation is particularly important because the racial formations produced by the Internet obscure others that are un- and under-represented on the Internet.

Overall, Digitizing Race is a needed and timely work for digital media studies and for visual culture studies, especially as the rhetoric around the Internet continues to grow once again with "Web 2.0." As with the earlier rhetoric, so much of this is focused on how the Internet is empowering for users on an assumed-to-be-equal playing field despite the vast differences in access.



Does she address games at all in this book?


Just wonderful

A wonderful book which really shows the true nature of the internet today with regards to digital visual culture. It makes us see how the internet affects each individual with a different culture and different races.

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