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Monthly Archives: May 2010

As Lisa Nakamura has demonstrated in Digitizing Race and elsewhere, the fact that the rise of the internet was contemporaneous with mid-90’s neoliberal colorblind discourse has resulted in a conception of the internet as a race-free environment. However, as she also shows, at the level of people’s real use of the internet, their racial identity is a key part of how they present themselves online, whether through AIM buddies or pregnancy website avatars.

This disjuncture becomes less perplexing when this racial formation is viewed through the idea of incitement to discourse that Michel Foucault elaborates in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. This is to say that the foreclosing of official discourses of race by neoliberalism not only didn’t make racial inequality go away (i.e. there’s still an un-level playing field), but is also “not a plain and simple imposition of silence. Rather, it was a new regime of discourses. Not any less was said about it; on the contrary. But things were said in a different way; it was different people who said them, from different points of view, and in order to obtain different results” (Foucault, 27).

Under neoliberalism, Nakamura notes in her 2009 piece Don’t Hate the Payer, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft, racism is “the result of the person who identifies it, for they are the ones who ‘see’ race, or ‘make the difference in their head’” (p.139). That is, it is a system in which it is assumed that if we don’t talk about race, it will go away, along with its attendant problem of racism.

The reverse side of this discourse, of course, is that “if it insisted on making itself too visible, it would be designated accordingly and would have to pay the penalty,” such that all discussion of race comes to be silenced (Foucault, 4). Nakamura terms this “the language of tolerance, or of disavowing racism by simply omitting all language referring to race,” and points out that it “functioned to perpetuate digital inequality by both concrete and symbolic means” (Nakamura 2008b, 3). (For a further discussion of neoliberal colorblindness, see Omi and Winant’s 1994 book Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s.)

However, I contend that it had a second effect—in that “the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression,” we want to speak of it more and more, to insist on these identity categories because they are denied (Foucault, 6).

The incitement to discourse does, of course, work a bit differently around race than Foucault describes it working with respect to sex; in the case of the former, it went from circulating relatively freely in unofficial contexts to being constrained there but proliferating in medical, educational, and legal official, institutional contexts.

With race, on the other hand, its official instantiation—begun, at least according to David Roediger, in 1676—fell out of favor and racial discourses proliferated instead in unofficial contexts (Roediger 2009). This is to say that, under the neoliberal colorblind model, it is imperative that we not notice race in institutional contexts, but in day-to-day practice we clearly do notice it—and in that identities get erased by the implicit whiteness of colorblind discourse, it is imperative that we do.

Thus, we are incited to racialized discourse, and, as with sex, this is not outside power but a part of the very same system that made certain phenotypic features into an essence in the first place.

In this context, then, rather than accepting the neoliberal model as producing silence, “we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required” (Foucault, 27).

Thus, though “race” is now supposedly invisible, we can talk about insufficiently assimilated immigrant “culture” as a proxy (Nakamura 2008b, 3). Similarly, the fact that race does not exist as a category on the AIM buddy icon sites Nakamura describes does not stop the expression of racial identities; they’re just shifted off onto “nationality” (Nakamura 2008b, 44). In these ways, there is “a very rigorous expurgation of the authorized vocabulary,” but discourse proliferates unchecked (Foucault, 17).

The content of these proliferating racialized discourses makes their status as incited and not external to power even clearer. Of the pregnancy website’s avatars, Nakamura notes that “each figure is composed to look phenotypically the same in terms of facial features, yet distinct from each other in terms of skin color, hair color, and body shape”; she likens this to “the popular BeDazzler, a device that enables users to attach crystals, beads, and other trimmings to jeans or pocketbooks,” arguing that “these avatars embody an aesthetic of decoration that has to do with adornment of an existing ‘base.’ And in a sense, race is one of those aspects of adornment” (Nakamura 2008b, 144).

In this way, then, race becomes something of a fashion statement, a different-colored coating on an identical inside—like an M&M or gumball. Thus, as Nakamura argues , “while Race 1.0 was understood as socially constructed, a process that at least acknowledges that race and gender are historical formations, Race 2.0 is user-generated” (Nakamura 2008a, 1680). This user-generation promises us freedom, the ability to invent and express ourselves without boundaries, and so we eagerly take it up.

Of course, Race 2.0 isn’t a space of freedom. First, the internet may allow freedom of creation, but this is always within constraint, such that we must “view the interface as an object that compels particular sorts of identifications, investments, ideological seductions, and conscious as well as unconscious exercises of power” (Nakamura 2008b, 17).

Thus, in creating an online racialized identity, we are constrained the affordances built into (and left out of) the interface we use, as demonstrated by the simplicity of the AIM buddies. Second, the terms of race in existence in culture do not disappear when moved onto the internet; though Nakamura rightly notes that the digital divide is not a strict, either/or division, differential access to all sorts of resources is a fact of this country’s racial system, and so are stereotypes, and both factor into racial representation online (Nakamura 2008b 15, 18).

Finally, the BeDazzler-ified race performances Nakamura describes underscore the ways in which identity has become inextricable from capitalist consumerist choice. The processes Miranda Joseph (2002) describes are only intensified when enacting identity online, as race becomes something you paint on—and, thus, implicitly can take off or repaint a different color, as Nakamura’s example of Jennifer Lopez’s racial flexibility demonstrates. In this way, digital racial formation frequently works to obscure the power relations in operation with respect to race, and this, I think, should trouble us.

Works Cited
Foucault, M 1990, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. (New York: Vintage).
Joseph, M 2002, Against the Romance of Community (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P).
Nakamura, L 2008a, Cyberrace. PMLA 123(5), 1673-1682.
—– 2008b, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P).
—– 2009, “Don’t Hate the Payer, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft”. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 26(2), 128-144.
Omi M and Winant H, 1994, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s 2/e (New York: Routledge).
Roediger D 2009, “Hope and History: Past and Present Burdens of Race.” Center for Advanced Study Special Presentation, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (available in its entirety on YouTube) in which Alicia Huberman wakes up after her drinking spree to find Devlin in her house dramatizes the film’s problematic gender politics in a particularly clear way. In this scene, we can see that Alicia’s role in the film—both in the awareness of the characters and that of its makers—is to be bought, sold, and traded around among men to achieve desired ends.

Indeed, though Wikipedia argues that the uranium is the film’s MacGuffin, I would contend that Alicia fills that position, existing to drive the plot forward but having little specific importance herself. Using the “political economy of sex” elaborated by Gayle Rubin in The Traffic in Women (the link goes to an HTML version hosted at UChicago; here the pagination is for the one in  Toward an Anthropology of Women)  it becomes clear why the men in Notorious relate to Alicia Huberman in the way that they do.

If, as Rubin argues, marriage has traditionally been a mode through which women are used to pay debts, the entire plot of this particular movie is set into motion by Alicia Huberman’s status as payment for her father’s debt to the United States. Though Rubin specifically mentions debts incurred by owing someone a woman to replace one given for a previous marriage, I don’t think extending this formulation to other kinds of debt is unreasonable; I’m also sure that there is anthropological evidence for this practice in some place and at some time. (p.182.)

The first intimation of such a system comes when Devlin informs her that, by becoming a spy on the Germans in Brazil, “you could make up a little for your daddy’s peculiarities.” In this respect it is particularly salient that not only do they expect Alicia to pay for the sins of her fathers, but she is to do so with her body, as such “debts are reckoned in female flesh” (p. 182)

Thus, she is to use her “feminine wiles” to get information from and about Alex Sebastian, and the fact that she literally marries him merely makes this configuration so obvious that it cannot be missed.

Relatedly, Rubin argues that, though “it is women who are being transacted,” the beneficiaries are “the men who give and take them”; this is to say that the woman serves as “a conduit of a relationship rather than a partner to it,” and “women are in no position to realize the benefits of their own circulation” (p. 174).

In Notorious, Alicia is “transacted” several times: from her father to the U.S. government, from the Englishman trying to take her to Havana to Devlin, from Uncle Sam to Alex Sebastian, and from Sebastian to Devlin. The first two of these happen in this scene, and indeed these otherwise quite peculiar interactions only make sense when read through Rubin’s lens.

The sale of Alicia from her father to America, for whom Devlin serves as proxy, explains his behavior

Alicia and Devlin, from

toward her in this scene. He ignores her insistence that she’s not a “stool pigeon,” ignores her when she tells him to go away twice, ignores her claim that she’s not interested, instead calmly explaining what it is they want her to do; this only makes sense if he is already sure she will do what he wants—if he already owns her.

Devlin’s attitude toward Alicia in this scene also demonstrates the bodily component of his ownership, as he repeatedly insists that she drink from the glass on the bedside table and even commands her to “Finish it.” Though this is presumably some sort of hangover remedy, and later in the scene he asks her “Feel better?” his primary attitude toward her is unsympathetic, which is reinforced by the fact that the camera is more often in his position than hers, allowing us to see Alicia while his commanding voice comes from nowhere.

Near the end of the scene we have a second instance of Alicia changing hands when Alicia and Devlin’s conversation is interrupted by the Englishman who has been trying to get her to go to Havana with him. In this scene, like our previous encounter with the Englishman at the party, he takes a proprietary stance toward Alicia, insisting that she go and ignoring not only her general lack of enthusiasm but the fact that she specifically says she’ll “think about it,” not that she intends to go.

This overriding of her wishes, combined with his offer to help her pack, as if she’s incapable of taking care of herself, indicates that he envisions himself to know what’s best for her. His parting words, “see you soon,” indicate complete confidence that she’ll do what he wants. The end result of the interaction with him in this scene is that his claim to Alicia is invalidated, overridden by her father’s debt to the United States. This is clear from the fact that, rather than turning him down herself, she says to Devlin “You’d better tell him.” After all, she’s not her own boss.

This early scene, then, provides a microcosm of the Alicia’s role in the film: America’s claim on her is stronger than her father’s, the Englishman’s, and, especially, her own. Consequently, she must go to Brazil and give up her body in payment of this debt—sexually, certainly, but she is also distinctly in danger of dying for the cause until Devlin swoops in to save her.

Though in 1946 the Alicia-as-patriotic-spy thread of the plot might have seemed a bit transgressive of gender norms, and Devlin’s secret love for, and eventual rescue of, Alicia surely seemed romantic, looking at this film with feminist eyes over sixty years later shows just how enmeshed in a deeply problematic set of gender roles it was. Along with its love story and get-those-Nazis plot, moviegoers got to see Alicia traded around to form certain relationships which were advantageous to the men surrounding her—as surely as in any marriage economy described by Lévi-Strauss.

Welcome to Politics, Popular Culture, Poststructuralism!

I am a PhD Candidate in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. My work examines the changing relationship between media companies and their fans in the Internet era. In this, I consider how fandom has become normalized–both in the sense that activities formerly the province of fans have become normal for all consumers, and in the sense that a normative idea of fandom has emerged that traces out proper and improper modes of being a fan. I study both cult media fans and sports fans and examine both representations of fans and the design of official websites for media properties (television shows, sports franchises, etc.). My key concerns include the relationship of fandom to heternormativity, whiteness, consumption, and labor.

This site is a place for brief ruminations on current events, theories, and other things, as well as a place to preview some of the things I’m working on.