Nakamura 2008

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Nakamura, Digitizing Race (2008)

This historical moment intersected with the inception of the Inter- net as a mass technology in the United States.

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… The language of tolerance, or of disavowing racism by simply omitting all language referring to race, functioned to perpetuate digital inequality by both concrete and symbolic means. A visual culture of digital racial formation must take both of these aspects of relatedness to the Internet into account…

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…when we look to the post-2000 graphical popular Internet, this utopian story of the Internet’s beginnings in popular culture can be told with a different spin, one that instead tracks its continuing discourse of color blindness in terms of access, user experience, and content that is reflected in the scholar-

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ship as well as in nineties neoliberalism’s emphasis on “moderate redistri- bution and cultural universalism.” 9As Anna Everett writes in an eloquent formulation, “The revolution will not be digitized.”

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My mode of critique in this book is to employ the paradigm of visual cul- ture studies to focus on the ways that users of the Internet collaboratively produce digital images of the body—very particular things for very particu- lar uses—in the context of racial and gender identity formation.

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wish to posit a corrective model to distressingly abstract critiques of virtual signifying practices by taking material culture into account in my analysis of online digital bodies.

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Seeing the image as virtual and disembodied rather than material and concrete posed a radical challenge to art history as it had been practiced until 1996. Netscape Navigator, an apparatus created to disseminate virtual and disembodied images on a mass scale, had been widely distributed only a year before, in 1995.

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New media studies in the United States consists of two branches: human- istic, consisting of literary and media theorists; and empirical or social sci- entific, consisting of communication, sociology, and information studies scholars. Visual culture studies has the potential to intervene powerfully in the study of new media if it is prepared to discuss the Internet and shared spaces of online communication and identity formation. In addition, com- munication studies has much to gain from visual culture approaches to the Internet, which would help to parse the complex visual fields that we inhabit and that condition our interactions when we use shared digital networks.

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In theo- rizing digital racial formation theory, I am proposing a somewhat insurgent response to new media studies, a move that may seem premature consider- ing its recent vintage. However, there are many advantages to correcting the omission in new media studies of gender, race, class, and communica- tion as quickly as possible. Digital racial formation can trace the ways that race is formed online using visual images as part of the currency of commu- nication and dialogue between users. Performing close readings of digital visual images on the Internet and their relation to identity, itself now an effect as well as a cause of digitality, produces a kind of critique that takes account of a visual practice that is quickly displacing television as a media- based activity in the United States.

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The purpose of this book is to turn the lens of visual culture studies as grounded in these contexts on a topic that has received little attention from scholars of new media: the popular Internet and its depictions of racialized and gendered bodies.

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We are in a moment of continual and delicate negotiation between the positions of the object and the subject of digital visual culture. To repurpose Omi and Winant’s influential theory of racial formation, in this book I wish to posit a theory of digital racial forma- tion, which would parse the ways that digital modes of cultural production and reception are complicit with this ongoing process.

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… capital.” 23The Inter- net has created and defined digital visual capital, a commodity that we mark as desirable by conferring on it the status of a language unto itself; we speak now of digital literacy as well as visual and the ordinary sort of literacy.

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Interactivity is envisioned as empowering—the act of clicking and moving one’s perspective in the con- text of the dynamic screen is figured as creating interacting subjects.

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If we are starting to understand what the subject of interactivity might look like or be formed, what or who is its object?

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Women and people of color are both subjects and objects of interactivity; they participate in digital racial formation via acts of technological appro- priation, yet are subjected to it as well.

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Interactivity is indeed a myth and will remain so until and unless its participation in the gendered and racialized construction and distribution of embodied perspectives, or partic- ular “mental trajectories” (a far from neutral term), is examined in light of cultural formation theory.

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Instead the interface itself becomes a star, and just like other sorts of stars, it works to compel racialized identifications; interfaces are prime loci for digital racial formation.

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The interface serves to organize raced and gendered bodies in categories, boxes, and links that mimic both the mental structure of a normative consciousness and set of associations (often white, often male) and the logic of digital capitalism: to click on a box or link is to acquire it, to choose it, to replace one set of images with another in a friction-free transaction that seems to cost nothing yet generates capital in the form of digitally racialized images and performances.

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Rather than a “digital divide” that definitively separates information haves from have-nots, the Internet has occasioned a wide range of access to digital visual capital, conditioned by factors such as skill and experience in using basic Internet functions such as “search” in addition to less-nuanced questions such as whether or not one possesses access at all. 29While earlier racial for- mation theory assumed that viewers were subject to media depictions or racial projects that contributed to racialization, and that these projects were ongoing and differential but nonetheless worked in a more or less one-way fashion, new media can look to an increasingly vital digital cultural margin or counterculture for resistance.

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The thesis of this video is the thesis that describes our media landscape since 1999: convergence has created a condition within which stardom itself has become “multimedia.” It is nothing new for stars to excel in multiple media: actors sing, dancers act,…

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Interfaces are an indispensable part of the media experience of both online and offline visual cultures. They are also inextricably tied to the con- temporary racial project of producing volitional racial mobility in the service of new forms of capitalism.

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Object and subject are not mutually exclusive roles: it is not possible to definitively decide who is being interacted and who is being interactive except in specific instances. Individuals can experience more or less inter- activity or representational power depending on what they are doing on the Internet; how, where, and how long they are doing it; and whether and how they are represented offline in relation to it.

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The graphical Internet demands a type of interpretive modality that goes beyond the textual, one that re- places the notion of “reading” or even “viewing” with a transcoded model of parsing. The mode and type of iteration, the order and positioning of symbols, and the codes by which it is read determine the way that a new media object interacts with its user.

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