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Digitizing Race by Lisa Nakamura

by Sanjay Sharma
31 Mar 2010 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review

Review: Lisa Nakamura (2008) Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet, London: Minnesota.

For those of you with a soft spot for the anthropomorphized cartoon dog surfing the Internet, Lisa Nakamura abolishes such nostalgia, and misunderstanding. Half way through Digitizing Race, she coolly declares  ‘…nobody believes anymore that on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog…’ (p.155).[1] Interrogating the myth of online disembodiment, and the concomitant deceit of neoliberal colour-blindness is what essentially coheres this book. Contrary to the utopian readings of techno-culture, analyzing Internet space as a site of racial re-embodiment is at the heart of Nakamura’s project.

Invoking Omi and Winant’s influential account of racial formation that grasps ‘…race as an unstable and “decentered” complex of social meanings constantly being transformed…’,[2] Nakamura posits ‘…a theory of digital racial formation, which would parse the way that digital modes of cultural production and reception are complicit with this ongoing process’ (p.14). She purposefully deploys the computer syntactical protocol of parsing, to stress that textual reading methods are inadequate for examining the ordering of new media objects in a visually orientated interactive Internet, as a mass medium.

Developing from her earlier work of Cybertypes, she turns unequivocally to a methodology of visual culture with which to explore the rise of an intensively graphical Internet. ‘The Internet is a visual technology, a protocol for seeing that is interfaced and networked in ways that produce a particular set of racial formations‘ (p.202). While a new media analysis of Internet technologies figures in her account (via theorists such as Lev Manovich and David Rodowick), it’s the scopic regime of race that interests Nakamura the most:

…visual representations of race and racism work paradoxically: they are both irresistible spectacles and social problems…And since the nature of digital media is to be transcodable, instantly transmittable, and infinitely reproducible, racial imagery flows in torrents up and down the networks that many people use everyday (p.194).

What’s unique (and demanding) about Digitizing Race is the range of case studies and examples presented: the lo-fi buddy icons of Instant Messaging, pregnant avatars on web forums, ambivalent ethno-racial identifications of the website, issues of access and techno-orientalism, and the racial representation and encodings of computer interfaces found in music videos and the popular films of The Matrix Trilogy and Minority Report. As evident from her seemingly disparate examples, Nakamura doesn’t present a systematic exposition of digital race formation. Her ambition comes across as rather more eclectic in terms of parsing race as a multiplicity in the realm of a transformative techno-culture. Drawing upon intersectional understandings of race and gender, a detailed analysis of the case studies engenders a nuanced account. Moreover, it is the focus on digital production and user-generated content, the creation of visual cultures and online interactive agency of racialized groups and women that makes this book’s intervention significant, (not with standing some of her examples, such as instant messaging buddy icons, may appear obscure to readers).

Nakamura’s discussion of the website – users invariably failing to distinguish whether a portrait image is of Chinese, Japanese or Korean origin – is exemplary for not only deconstructing how contemporary visual culture remains fixated on revealing the truth about race, but also for exploring how the site enables Asian-American online cultures ‘…a new representational landscape for issues of identity because it offers a degree of participation and interactivity lacking in more static media’ (p.86).

Nakamura doesn’t find it difficult to problematize existing studies of group access and demographics in the USA when she points to differential ‘degrees of access to digital media’ (p.15), and maintains that ’surveys of race and the “digital divide” that fail to measure digital production in favor of measuring access or consumption cannot tell the whole story…’ (p.172). While her empirical research preceded the recent explosion of Web 2.0, global peer-to-peer interactivity and social networking, she reiterates that ‘…English is no longer the majority language of the Internet, and the vast numbers of new Asian users have made it inaccurate to speak of the Internet as a primarily Western media’ (p.180).[3] In an age of networked informational capitalism that is redefining centres of global economic, technological and cultural hegemony, the implications of such a (lingustic) shift are yet to unravel, and Nakamura in the final analysis remains circumspect:

…this is not in itself reason to be optimistic about the medium’s ability to enfranchise minorities in a realm of friction-free digital production and self-expression. In the true spirit of neoliberalism, being permitted to exist is not the same as equal representation (p.206).

In addition to examining web spaces, Nakamura is aware of how a ‘racio-visual logic’ is re-figuring the body, particularly in relation to the advancing biotechnologies, ubiquitous surveillance and pre-emptive profiling. These are struggles over the ‘control of racialized databodies’ (p.97) which ‘…creates apprehension because it seems first of all to be profoundly antihumanist but offers benefits in terms of our desire to visualize race’ (p.195). She consistently argues that processes and practices of racialization in techno-culture are governed profoundly by a visualizing will to knowledge.

The ground covered by Nakamura is impressive, and the breadth of examples illuminating. The stress on the need to deploy a methodology of visual culture for contemporary techno-culture appears persuasive, and a core organising feature of the book. Nakamura remains one of a handful of theorists pioneering a critical race studies account of a proliferating techno-culture. And Digitizing Race adds to establishing this canon of work.

It wouldn’t be a criticism to suggest that Digitizing Race raises more issues than it is able to answer in relation to rethinking technologies of race. Nakamura’s visual methodology perhaps too readily over-determines how digital racial formation is to be grasped. The object of analysis tends to shift in this book – arguably the manifestation and materialities of race differ across Internet sites and spaces, biometrics and surveillance, print media, music video and Hollywood cinema. In this respect, the analysis of race vacillates, either as a modality of media representation or as a discursive techno-cultural object. The former lends itself to extant deconstructive visual (photographic, filmic) types of analysis, and the latter, following Paul Gilroy, acknowledges a ‘crisis of raciology’ in which biotechnics and digital image processing re-figure and re-imagine racialized databodies.

There seems an intentional slippage between conceiving race as a socio-political construct spilling over (i.e. digitizing) into the realm of the virtual, and/or considering race as uniquely materializing in a digital environment.  Could the book’s contention of a digital racial formation be realized differently? Rather than treat the Internet principally as a visual technology, it could be fruitful to assay race as a ‘natively digital’ object materially existing within networked spaces – as information, code, data – by interrogating the specificity of the medium of the Internet.[4]


1.  The cartoon by Peter Steiner has been reproduced from The New Yorker, 1993, Vol.69, no. 20, 1993, July 5, p.61 [↑]

2.  Omni, M. & Winant, H. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s, Routledge (1986), p.69 [↑]

3.  A recent study indicates that English is no longer the majority language of Twitter. [↑]

4.  For example, see Rogers, R. The End of the Virtual: Digital Methods (2009) [↑]

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Sanjay Sharma is a Co-Editor of darkmatter and responsible for the site admin. Currently teaches in the School of Social Sciences, Brunel University, UK. Twitter: @sanjay_digital
All posts by: Sanjay Sharma | Email | Website

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