Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet

Review by Cassandra Jones

Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 248 pgs.

[1] Lisa Nakamura's newest book, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet, employs the framework of visual culture studies to understand how internet users produce digital bodily representations in relation to their own gendered and racial identity formation. She seeks to critique theoretical approaches that she feels have lost their grounding in offline bodies, becoming increasingly abstract. Stressing the importance of retaining a connection to the embodied subject position of content producers and users and the modes by which they produce, Nakamura notes that we might avoid dispossessing untrained and less traditionally skilled users from their roles as producers as happens when DIY and amateur productions are ignored by critical projects. Nakamura believes that looking to more intimate uses of technology by groups that are not at the height of technological savvy is an effective way of finding examples of "subversive and resistant forms of new media capital" (30).

[2] Visual culture of the internet, as Nakamura sees it, is a framework for understanding not just "the history and use of digital interfaces in the context of computers" but also how hybrid media objects that cross over and among various forms of media carry with them references to "racialized, gendered relations of looking and seeing" that typically fall outside the scope of internet scholars (29). She seeks to provide a corrective model of scholarship that would discontinue the practice of overlooking the flow of images of the body from offline media sources as they are appropriated by users and put to work in online spaces. Tracing this flow from offline to online spheres, Nakamura notes, should provide a history that is vital for future scholars of internet practices. Such histories are ephemeral in the online world and if not captured as part and parcel of digital culture studies they will be lost to future scholars. In what is one of the book's many strengths, Nakamura takes a two-pronged approach, providing frameworks for internet scholarship as well as seeking to "give a sense of how [creators of minority popular visual cultures on the internet] see, rather than merely how they are seen or represented, what they are making as well as what they are using, what they are doing as well as what they are being" (208).

[3] Indeed, Chapter 1 of Nakamura's project centers on some of the more overlooked corners and users of the internet both in order to create a history of images and uses of the internet for future scholars and to determine how and what these neglected producers produce. Chapter 1 looks to a very popular but often ignored site for the production of identity, the icons users of America Online Instant Messenger (AIM) use to represent themselves: AIM buddies. This chapter considers how the emphasis on the evolution of the internet towards visual representation of the self and visually-based interactions with others causes scholars to disregard users of this program. AIM's decidedly text-based interaction seemed to many at the outset to be a technological throwback who were afterwards quite surprised at the popularity of the program. This fissure is, however, a rich site of information where Nakamura claims AIM buddies act as a sophisticated means by which users refuse the solely textual interface that erases particular identities. In making this argument, she returns to her earlier work which studied how the textual interface of MUDs (multi-user dungeons) and MOOs (object-oriented MUDs) elided race, creating a white-by-default user and a culture wherein any member attempting to racialize him or herself appeared as divisive to the utopian project of a raceless internet. This same idea reappears at the textual interface of AIM. The buddies act, however, as a means by which users can overcome this erasure and reinsert their identities into the interface. Looking at, Nakamura examines how the users' creation and sharing of buddies provide insight into youth culture, taste cultures, contemporary expansion of the term nationality, and concerns about cyberspace citizenship and the right to control one's own data image.

[4] This concern with the right to control one's own data image surfaces in Chapter 2 as a related issue: the ways in which one's image might be put to work. Her investigation brings us to, a deeply troubling website which asks users to participate in racial profiling by labeling Asian faces as Korean, Chinese, or Japanese. Nakamura notes the ways in which this act of racial profiling, in which the majority of participants fail to accurately 'race' the images according to the statistics maintained by the webpage, offers the user a glimpse into the social construction of race and racial difference as an easily determinable visual language. In addition, the chapter reviews American historical periods of either the recognition or collapse of Asian racial and ethnic difference in popular culture.

[5] In Chapter 3, Nakamura asks how the visual culture of the internet is envisioned by offline sources, such as science fiction films. She makes the case that films mimicking a digital interface in order to make meaning should be read with a critical base in digital interface theory and structure as well as film theory. In this chapter she takes us toward her stated goal of moving internet studies toward examining the visual and the textual as well as interrogating cultural expressions that utilize the tropes of the internet and its "logic of interface interactivity" (29). Examining representations of interfaces as they intersect with representations of race, Nakamura looks to the Matrix trilogy and Minority Report to understand how labor is racialized in relationship to the usage of technology. Using the immediacy of technology, or the transparency of the interface, literalized in clear, floating computer interfaces in Minority Report, Nakamura traces how technological competency is racialized and gendered by depictions of white male users who seamlessly interact with technology as their black and brown counterparts watch from the sidelines.

[6] Chapter 4 returns us to an often overlooked site for identity production, pregnant avatars and their signification on the web. According to Nakamura, pregnant women and the avatars they choose to represent themselves enact a powerful resistance to digital imaging practices and anti-abortion movements that use these images to enhance the subjectivity and individuality of the fetus while simultaneously eroding that of the pregnant woman. Nakamura sees digital signatures, in addition to the pregnant avatars, as "genuine resistance to institutional forms of identity management that only continue to proliferate in daily life" (170). These creations allow for a re-embodiment of these women as pregnant subjects and speak back to, while simultaneously acknowledging women's involvement in, a regulating system of images that present "proper" pregnancies.

[7] Chapter 5 investigates Asian American "power" users and how this racial group has used the internet as a site for pan Asian anti-racist organization. Nakamura refers to how this organization has been mobilized in resistance to racist cultural products such as the "Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White" Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirts and the Details magazine feature "Asian or Gay?" In doing so, Nakamura questions the way in which the "digital divide" is constructed at the level of study and the ways in which these studies fail to take digital production on the internet into account, focusing solely on access or consumption. She calls for those studying race and the internet to re-evaluate current methodologies, to create new ways of understanding "what constitutes meaningful participation online, participation that opens and broadens the kinds of discourse that can be articulated there. It is not enough merely to be 'there': the image of the online 'lurker' invokes the passivity and ghostliness of those who watch from the sidelines of online life" (201).

[8] Among the work's strong suits is Nakamura's attention to broadening the scope of internet studies to discuss not only the textual properties and practices on the internet, but to include the visual properties and practices, as well as how the logic of the networked interface is (re)presented in popular culture. Her work takes a thoroughly intersectional look at how race, gender, and sometimes class as articulated identities function online in various areas. Nakamura's special care to look to sites overlooked by internet scholars due to their engagement of feminine-gendered online cultures highlights some of the ways in which internet scholarship continues to gender the internet as a masculine space despite the increase of female users. Nakamura performs a particularly elegant and seamless reading at the intersection of the very important areas of race and depictions of technological interfaces. Her work, however, stumbles in other areas, markedly when she turns to her examination of the AIM buddies and Nakamura's desire to find sites of "genuine resistance" to cultural forces of oppression on the internet at times overrides some of the problematic replications of gendered behaviors and expectations that the users engage in. Girls such as "usachick," whose AIM buddy tracks down the avatar's body from head to toe and back again, reproduces the male gaze in ways that Nakamura's analysis neglects. Furthermore, rather than focusing her scrutiny on these sites, these chapters become a snapshot of the constellation of issues emerging from and orbiting the particular site of investigation. This can have a very disorienting effect, and while this opens various areas of study for further investigation, it leaves the reader wanting a bit more of Nakamura's keen eye in depicting the articulations she sees between these areas.

[9] For scholars of race and gender in technologically mediated sites across disciplines, Digitizing Race is a very valuable source. Her framework for the shifting of the priorities of both visual culture studies and visual digital culture to include digital racial formation as well as the remediation of offline source material into online cultural products makes this book a very important entry in critical race theory and new media studies alike. Nakamura's tracing of offline images and cultural products into online spaces is an especially useful jumping off point for those interested in digital filmmaking in general or the newly emergent study of machinima. This is, in fact, Nakamura's next step, as she has begun to study the ways in which machinimists racialize labor and reproduce racist thoughts and imagery in their films on the Chinese gold farmers of World of Warcraft.