There's a story behind this essay. David Silver, who runs the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies, requested that I review Nakamura's book for RCCS. I'd reviewed a couple of books for Silver before, and we were on friendly terms. I agreed, but the review was more negative than he expected. He at first agreed to publish it with a couple of revisions. I made them and resubmitted. Then Silver reversed himself at the last minute. I finally withdrew the essay when he requested yet another revision, with very fuzzy parameters,and no assurance that it would be accepted even then. He doubtless has his own explanation for the rejection, but I think it was a failure of nerve—this is sure to be a controversial piece and not everybody likes to take heat. The result, however, is that RCCS doesn't feature a single review of Cybertypes by a scholar with credentials in African American studies. It's business as usual, though, since RCCS, and its parent field, "cyberculture" criticism barely acknowledges the existence of African Americans, or the centrality of African American critical theory to any examination of race in the United States. "Eruptions of funk," like this essay, are seen as disruptions of white business as usual. The level of critique that antiracism requires is labelled "too personal," "unkind," and "unprofessional"—all code words for raced exclusion.
What began as a book review has now turned into an essay in its own right, in large measure because a critique of Cybertypes is necessarily a critique of elision, of absence. The lacunae in Nakamura's work are evident in the field of cyberculture studies as a whole This review combines criticism with an attempt to fill in the blanks. Nakamura's work is only the most current example of such elision; because I am using it to illustrate a far more general problem, the critique is more thorough and rigorous than a book review of a single, unique, work would require.
The first section of the review focuses on the strengths of Nakamura's work, the second on its weaknesses, and the third upon problems in the wider fields of cyberculture studies and postmodernism. Though I critique Cybertypes severely, I consider my role to be ultimately more helpful than antagonistic. A bad first book can lead to an excellent second effort, and it is my hope that Nakamura will rise to my challenge in her future work and familiarize herself with the body of scholarly work that best informs her inquiries. I hope also that this critique will lead other cyberculture scholars to be less careless of their ignorance of African diaspora theory, literature and history, in order that they may avoid the pitfalls that plague Cybertypes.
Nakamura accurately —and properly— opposes the notion that "equal access" to the Internet is the solution to racial and gender inequities in cyberspace, pointing out that equal access to a system based in e-commerce consumerism simply reproduces the inequities of current global capitalist systems. She also provides us with a good overview of Asian-identity tourism in MOO and MUD environments. Nakamura is at her best when she is playing the keen observer, and her own virtual identity tour in a graphical chat interface is related with a sharp eye for detail, as well as a great deal of charm and wit. Among a number of fascinating insights that she shares with the reader is her finding that, in graphical chat rooms: "race is constructed as a matter of aesthetics, or finding the color that you like, rather than as a matter of ethnic identity or shared cultural referents. This fantasy of skin color divorced from politics, oppression, or racism seems to also celebrate it as infinitely changeable and customizable:as entirely elective as well as apolitical." (53)
Nakamura gives us excellent coverage of the phenomenon she calls "techno-Orientalism" in her chapter "Race in the Construct and the Construction of Race: The 'Consensual Hallucination' of Multiculturalism in the Fictions of Cyberspace." In this chapter she takes a variety of popular 'cyberpunk' novels and films —including Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, William Gibson's Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and The Diamond Age— to task for reinscriptions of racism within their texts. Her reading of Andy and Larry Wachowski's The Matrix is most interesting for its incorporation of George Lipsitz's notion of "the possessive investment in whiteness"(78), upon which her analysis of the character Cypher is founded: "the only white man on the crew betrays the humans precisely because he wants to jump the ship of multiculturalism and reclaim his possessive investment of whiteness." (78) Nakamura persuasively argues that "[Cypher's] claims to being oppressed while he is receiving no less and no more than any other crew member "invokes the ways that a lack of white privilege can be experienced as oppression." (78)The comparison of Cypher to Allan Bakke (famous for his "reverse racism" suit in the late 1970s), filtered through Lipsitz's lens of possessive investment is downright brilliant, and all by itself is worth the price of admission.
We also can thank Nakamura for introducing the term "identity tourism" to describe the process by which members of one group try on for size the descriptors generally applied to persons of another race or gender. Nakamura delineates the boundaries of identity tourism exceptionally well, noting that "[in] cyberspace players do not ever need to look for jobs or housing, compete for classroom attention, or ask for raises. This ensures that identity tourists need never encounter situations in which exotic otherness could be a liability, an aspect of racial passing on the Internet that contributes to its superficiality." (56) Nakamura provides a welcome relief from earlier theorists like Sherry Turkle, who sang the praises of what Nakamura calls "distributed identity," without recognizing the way it reinscribed racial and gender stereotypes. Her excellent readings of the television shows Fantasy Island and Quantum Leap demonstrate that the distributed identities she describes have their roots in existing social and cultural fantasies of domesticated difference, and white racial superiority. (58-59)
Her subsequent discussion of the internet user as tourist, in the chapter "Where Do You Want To Go Today?" gives us an interesting read on representations of race in the advertising campaigns of global capital, including a series of images that powerfully illustrate the reproduction of National Geographic-style colonialism in propaganda for high tech in the Third World: "The message is that cybertechnology will magically strip users down to 'just minds,' all singing the same corporate anthem." (98-99)It's especially interesting, I think to consider this observation in light of Nakamura's earlier use of the metaphor of race as a "bug . . . in the machine." She observes that: "A bug interrupts a program's regular commands and routines,causing it to behave unpredictably." (48) Her description of the programmers' inclination to "routinely debug their work because they desire complete control over the way their program functions"(48) has a strong ring of truth to it. "The unexpected occurrence of race,"Nakamura writes, "has the potential, by its very unexpectedness, to sabotage the ideology-machine's routines." (48-49) Mary Helen Washington might call this (racial) bug "an eruption of funk," and I hope that Nakamura will explore this possibility further in her future work
Regrettably, however,the strengths of Nakamura's observations in Cybertypes are more than offset by serious scholarly oversights and missteps. These problems are apparent from the first paragraph of the Preface forward. "Race happens," Nakamura tells us. (xi) Well, "shit happens," we know for sure. But race doesn't ever just "happen." This is the case, even though race, as Nakamura repeatedly claims, is constructed—a product of human artifice and not a force of nature. Throughout Cybertypes, Nakamura uses the words "race" and "racism" —often conflating the two concepts— without ever giving the reader a definition of either, or a sense of the theory of racial construction that she has adopted as an underpinning for her text. It is not enough to define oneself against essentialism; as a constructivist, she must put forward some model of the way that "race" is constructed and maintained, subverted and reinforced. Without such a model, her most important arguments are left in mid-air, fancy with no foundation.
Part of Nakamura's problem may be that she is still relying on outdated Marxist models that place race at the service of other ideologies, rather than considering white supremacy as an ideology itself. Many African American Marxists have found this traditional Marxist position fatally flawed, since racism (like sexism) is pervasive in human cultures and appears to be the wellspring of much ideology, rather than a result of it. A scholar currently engaged in discussing "Race and 'X'" simply must critically engage with the body of literature on race theory (including the new critical race theory) and situate herself within the debate. Anything less is irresponsible, and likely to do more harm than good. To use "race" and "racism" repeatedly throughout the work as if the terms themselves were not contested ("traumatic floating signifiers" in the postmodern terminology Nakamura embraces) is, at best, naïve, and at worst, disingenuous.
Despite a disclaimer about unnecessary jargon, Nakamura employs it herself. She opens Cybertypes with an explanation of "transcoding," drawn from the work of Lev Manovich. Transcoding is, simply, "to translate [something]into another format." Ironically, in doing so, she engages in the very same sort of Internet hype that she decries in her introduction. Manovich places the computer at the center of the "new media" wave, and claims that new media is the "forerunner" of a "general process of cultural re-conceptualization". (2-3)According to Nakamura our whole culture is being"transcoded," and she sees herself as part of the process as she transcodes "the language of race and racialization that [she] observed online." (3) Her own transcoded terminology is the term "cybertype," which she uses "to describe the distinctive ways that the Internet propagates, disseminates, and commodifies images of race and racism."
Ironically, Nakamura's lack of grounding in critical race theory means that she argues from a position of ignorance that undermines her own central thesis: that cybertypes "are more than just racial stereotypes 'ported' to a new medium":
Because the Internet is interactive and collectively authored, cybertypes are created in a peculiarly collaborative way; they reflect the ways that machine-enabled interactivity gives rise to images of race that both stem from a common cultural logic and seek to redress anxieties about the ways that computer-enabled communication can challenge these old logics. They perform a crucial role in the signifying practice of cyberspace; they stabilize a sense of a white self and identity that is threatened by the radical fluidity and disconnect between mind and body that is celebrated in so much cyberpunk fiction. Bodies get tricky in cyberspace; that sense of disembodiment that is both freeing and disorienting creates a profound malaise in the user that stable images of race work to fix in place. (5-6)
That Nakamura can dismiss racial stereotypes as somehow "less" than"cybertypes," simpler and "more primitive,"is an indication not of the complexity of the cybertypes she describes, but of her lack of familiarity with the body of literature on racial stereotyping—a literature that richly describes the way "old media" stereotypes were created by and reflected in blackface, minstrelsy, and their descendants. As critics from W. E. B. DuBois to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. , to Toni Morrison and Paul Gilroy have shown, racial stereotypes are also created "in a peculiarly collaborative way." In all instances—not justin cyberspace—they "stem from a common [white] cultural logic and seek to redress anxieties" about the instability of racial designations. Bodies are tricky in real-space, not just in cyberspace, and the"disconnect between mind and body" to which Nakamura refers has been in play in western civilization at least since Plato began to talk about "ideal" (virtual/mind) and "real" (physical/body) objects.
It is apparent, even if Nakamura does not see it, that "cybertyping" is indeed stereotyping in a new medium. What is stereotyping but "a kind of virtual social interaction that constructs people of color as 'good' workers or 'bad,' on the 'right' or 'wrong' side"(29) of a categorical divide? Cultural and social historians of slavery, from Stanley Elkins to John Blassingame, have noted the division between Sambo (the 'good' slave) and the 'bad negro' (i. e. , the black insurrectionary or rapist), and even 19th century feminists noted the way in which stereotypes of the "good" woman and the "bad" (fallen) woman were used to keep women "in their place."
At the outset of Nakamura's final chapter, "Menu driven identities," we see yet another attempt to demonstrate the cybertype's difference that merely ends up pointing out the similarities between stereotypes in cyberspace and "real life." Despite her assertion that "clickable boxes" for assigning races on the Web are "a new kind of cybertyping,"(101) they are no more than an electronic upgrade of the standard checkboxes that have identified race on forms since at least the turn of the century in the United States:
When users are given no choice other than to select the "race" or "ethnicity" to which they belong, and are given no means to define or modify the terms or categories available to them, then identities that do not appear on the menu are essentially foreclosed on and erased. (102)
Nakamura admits this "new" format evokes the "dreaded U. S. Census forms" on which individuals can select only one pre-determined racial category or "other," so it is hard to see what is, in fact, the signal difference between "menu driven identities" and other check-box driven identities.
Nakamura also displays an unwarranted optimism when she claims that
racial stereotypes can now be perceived by our ever more discerning eyes as crude and obvious, and have thus been appropriated as camp . . . or parody . . . or incorporated into a history of oppression, cybertypes have as yet managed to streak under the radar of critical and popular scrutiny. (19)
Rather than growing too sophisticated to embrace traditional racial stereotyping, we are growing simple again—a brief look at racial stereotypes in film, on television, and in video games offers ample proof of that. The emperor's clothes are not new at all. They're just @recycled.
Nakamura is most observant and persuasive when she is discussing Orientalism, and exploring the ways that representations of Asians in cyberpunk texts, and online conform to the pattern that was originally identified by Edward Said. This is no surprise if one takes into account her training and interest in Asian American Studies—far more extensive than her interest or training in African American or Chicano Studies, at least as evidenced by the body of work she has produced, and the organizations with which she is publicly identified.
The difficulty arises when Nakamura ventures outside of her areas of expertise and begins to discuss the representation of "other other" bodies on the internet, approaching them without the same level of training and expertise. The cultural location of Asian American bodies and of African American bodies is quite different, both on the internet and in "real life." African American Studies, Asian American Studies, and Chicano Studies all have their own intellectual lineage, range of methods, and contemporary projects. To write as if a grounding in a single one of those areas can "naturally" extend to the others is to replicate the white power structure that offers a body only two categories: white or not-white. The project of identity-based studies is to name, and to describe the particularities that have been erased by white supremacy, to notice race and ensure that it does not, in Barthes' terms, go without saying. Learning to notice Orientalism is not the same as learning to notice minstrelsy. "Passing" in African American culture is not the same as white "passing" in cyberspace. The online geisha has a different cultural valence than the online soul brotha. Study and discussion of one is no substitute for study and discussion of another; rather, it is merely a reinforcement of the liberal idea of the multicultural smorgasbord, from which anyone can assemble a meal, placing on their plates the things that taste good, and ignoring or throwing away anything that doesn't suit.
Nakamura's readings of whiteness and Asian-American identity are often spot on, but her readings of blackness are far less coherent. Her discussion of the white/Japanese Neo in The Matrix is complex and delineates the ways in which that film both reinforces and breaks with existing techno-Orientalist themes in cyberpunk literature and film. But when she considers the mixed race identity of Neil Stephenson's Hiro Protagonist (Japanese/African American), she is able to read only the Orientalism in Stephenson's portrayal of the Japanese side of Hiro's ancestry. The African American side is reduced merely to an indication that Protagonist is an outsider, a "solitary crossbreed." (72) That Nakamura can see Protagonist's blackness only as a symbol of his alienation is disturbing, particularly since black characters in cyberpunk literature and film are (re)presented so consistently. No African Americanist could miss the repetition of the figure of the black techno-primitive in science fiction in general and cyberpunk in particular. From the "Rastas in space" exoticism of Buckaroo Bonzai and the reggae-flavored data havens of Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net , to the gritty street cred of the characters played by gangsta rapper Ice-T in Johnny Mnemonic and Tank Girl , the magical touch of the Brother From Another Planet , and the wise guides of The Matrix , the sci-fi/cyberpunk trope of blackness as simultaneously a site of wisdom, danger and unimpeachable hipness is baldly apparent to anyone with an eye to see it.
Also questionable is Nakamura's use of the classic Audre Lorde quote paraphrased in the conclusion of the first chapter of Cybertypes : "the master's tools can never dismantle the master's house." (30) Nakamura quotes no African American theorists besides Lorde in her chapter's conclusion, yet poses a dichotomy in which Lorde and her unnamed supporters stand against yet another group of nameless thinkers who reckon the master's tools might be used successfully after all. It is no wonder that Nakamura finds it "impossible to say" whether the master's tools can be successfully used or not to dismantle racism in new media. It's hard to come to conclusions when you haven't done all the research.
Although I am no expert in Chicana theory, I was also troubled by Nakamura's discussion of "mestiza consciousness," a concept drawn from the work of Gloria Anzaldúa:
"Anzaldúa's critical vocabulary—her take on multiculturalism and the cultural means by which fragmentary mestizas or racially and culturally mixed selves are articulated, marginalized, and created—proves extremely useful in describing the ways that recursive, resistant readings of "portaled" hypertexts can be imagined. (111)
Nakamura imagines Anzaldúa sitting and clicking through the race, sexuality and gender possibilities provided by the Excite search engine. But the revolutionary potential that Nakamura sees in Anzaldúa's approach is isolated from Anzaldúa's own project (the recovery/creation of a mestiza culture and voice),and reduces the mestiza to "an infinitely'clickable' interface to culture" available to any scholar who wishes to pick up Anzaldúa's book, read it out of context, and apply her words to their research. Nakamura's critique of the work of Roseanne Alluquere Stone, another cyberculture critic (whose virtual and real identity-tourism is the stuff of legend in cyberculture studies) makes the appropriation of Anzaldúa's work even more clear. Stone and Nakamura both dislocate Anzaldúa, giving us an excellent example of the way that minority voices are decontextualized, handed off from critic to critic as they become mere tools in the service of those who —consciously or unconsciously— are enforcing hegemony. A further clue that Nakamura is appropriating, rather than integrating, the work of African American and Chicana theorists is that many of her quotes and references are drawn from the prefaces to the books she cites —the Roman numerals give this away. These are window dressing references, and not evidence of careful study of the materials she conscripts in the service of her arguments.
The problems with Nakamura's sudden introduction of Chicana critical theory mirror those in her uses of African American critical theory—concepts and language are ripped out of their original context and applied in abridged form to support Nakamura's own racial project. This literary critical tokenism reinforces the racist structures that Nakamura claims to be attempting to reveal and counter in cyberspace. Anthony Appiah, Gloria Anzaldúa, W. E. B. DuBois, Audre Lorde, and Barbara Christian are used as "set-ups" to confer legitimacy on Nakamura's arguments, and create an air of diversity in an environment from which real diversity is excluded. Just as black characters are used in cyberpunk to confer hipness, masculinity and street cred on white middle-class or upper-class protagonists, so black and Chicana theorists are "transcoded"by Nakamura to confer authority on her discussions about race.
The highjacking of DuBois in this volume is particularly troublesome, and I feel compelled to address it at some length as it was I who first suggested the relevance of his writings to the field of cyberculture studies. The single DuBois quote referenced by Nakamura ("the problem of the color line") is from the first paragraph of the "Forethought" prefacingThe Souls of Black Folk. There is no indication whatsoever that Nakamura has read any further into DuBois, and no reference to any of the questions of black identity that DuBois raised in that, or other less popular works. In my own article "The Unbearable Whiteness of Being" —much edited at time of its initial publication, but available since 1995 in its uncut form on the web— I argued that contemporary cyberculture critics would do well to draw on the existing body of African American theoretical writing in their analyses. I believed —and still believe— that the insights of African American scholars can help us to see through the hype of "new media," and to provide us with a sophisticated tool set for examining phenomena ("virtual reality," "identity tourism," "passing," etc. ) that seem new to many critics, but are business as usual for a great number of others.
The result of my plea for careful attention to African American scholarship, however, has been the incorporation of a few choice lines by DuBois into the work of quite a few cyberculture critics, and no real attempt to wrestle with the full body of theory and history from which these quotations are drawn. When DuBois next appears in Cybertypes it is again to serve as a stepping stone for Nakamura's invocation of East Asian Indian scholar Vijay Prashad's appropriation of yet another DuBois line: "How does it feel to be a problem?"It is difficult to see DuBois as anything other than window-dressing for Nakamura, a writer whose phrases are available for her to"repurpose" and use in her own project of raising racial representation in cyberspace to a problem of special status—a position that it is unlikely DuBois would have supported.
"Passing" is mentioned briefly(31), with no sense of the lengthy discussions on the subject that have been taking place in African American theory since before the turn of the 20th Century. Appiah is the only black race theorist whose theoretical model Nakamura references, and she does not situate him at all in the discourse on race. She notes neither his nationality (Ghanaian), nor his education (British). Perhaps these do not seem to her to be pertinent, but Appiah, like other products of British colonial and post-colonial cultures (for example, Orlando Patterson or Paul Gilroy) voices opinions about the nature of blackness that are at odds with those expressed by many African American critical race theorists. There is a good argument that race is constructed quite differently in the United States than it is in Great Britain, its former colonies, or, for that matter, most other countries in the world. The binary classification system of race in the U. S. (the fabled "one drop" rule) categorizes people as only "black" or "white." Far more useful than Appiah in understanding the peculiar constructions of race in the U. S. are Michael Omi and Howard Winant, whose Racial Formations (1994) is a classic in the field. Absent is any sense at all that Nakamura situates herself within a discourse between African Americanists and Afro-British scholars about race and representation.
The most interesting thing about Nakamura's failure to "get" African American or Chicana theory is that she understands perfectly the need to be well-versed in the culture(s) one studies. She includes the full text of a list of "101 Ways to Tell if You're Japanese American" that has circulated as an in-joke on the internet. The white husband of a Japanese woman "'gets' this list because of his lived relation to and affinities with a Japanese-American family: he has elected to immerse himself in the culture." (130)The list itself, she claims, "creates a sense of racial identity that is hybrid, and de-essentialized ,"—so de-essentialized that she believes that if you get it, "you are functionally—at least in the moment that you are reading it and 'appreciating' it—defined by the list as 'knowing you are Japanese American. '"
The list gives you 101 chances to be "in" this identity, and since nobody but nobody gets every single one, it evaluates racial and ethnic competence as always the result of a partial, incomplete knowledge rather than the possession of a body that is definitely raced as Asian. The title of the list implies that possession of this knowledge, in some way makes the reader a Japanese American, if it wasn't "evident" before. This is a crucial formulation, especially for hapa readers, or white partners of JAs, who will eventually be the parents of hapa children. For these users, being Japanese American may be a problematic of liminal subject position. When they receive this list they are being interpellated [sic] into a racial identity search engine of sorts that accommodates—indeed welcomes—their hybridity. (130-131)
There are two things going on in Nakamura's argument: The first is an assertion that a certain depth of knowledge is essential for understanding a culture. The second is an assertion that race is so divorced from the body that it can be reduced merely to a list of "symptoms," of which possession of or identification with some critical mass (perhaps fifty-two out of one-hundred-and-one?) makes a person Japanese American, at least "functionally." Nakamura might see some of the flaws in this second assertion if she took the time to make a study of the production of blackness in 1920's and 1930's Harlem, when affluent whites went "slumming" in black neighborhoods that were redefined as sites of virtual blackness, where the blackness that whites expected to see was produced for their consumption by white club owners, using black singers, dancers, and musicians as their props.
Nakamura's disconnection from this history is made obvious by her laudatory, yet perfunctory discussion of Spike Lee's film Bamboozled, from which she draws the shallow lesson that the presence of black writers or content producers does not guarantee nonracist representations of African Americans in a medium. A writer with more historical and literary background could easily spin the critique of Bamboozled in a direction that would point out continuities between traditional media representations of African Americans and new media representations, but it is alleged differences rather than continuities that Nakamura is after.
As even strong African American constructivist critics like Michael Omi and Howard Winant—or even Anthony Appiah, upon whose theory Nakamura allegedly draws— make clear, the line between whiteness and blackness in the West is specifically the color line. However well one "speaks jive," one is not "functionally" black if one is perceived as being white because one has a white skin. Race may indeed be a completely constructed category for which color is the arbitrary sign, but this makes racial divisions no less "real" in social or cultural terms. Almost all African American, and most Afro-British constructivist scholars believe that before we can create a truly "color blind" society, we must first, necessarily, see color in order to deconstruct and change (or erase) its meaning. Nakamura's flawed reading of Bamboozled fails to catch the "embodiment" of this problem, so clearly illustrated in the final moments of the film when the black-skinned members of the African nationalist gang are all gunned down by the police, while the white-skinned member is carted off to jail screaming that he should be killed too because he is black.
My critique of Nakamura by no means implies that people should not write about identity-groups other than their own. Rather,scholars should be sure that when they write about any identity-group, they are doing so with knowledge and respect for that group's own history, scholarship, theories, methods, and internal conflicts. Nakamura writes well about Orientalism not because she is a Japanese American, but because she is an Asian American studies scholar. She would write better about race in the United States if she studied, read, and applied the work of race scholars who specialized in examining race in the U. S. Likewise, she would have more useful things to say about the African, African diaspora and African American body in cyberspace if she were well-versed in the bodies of work that inform scholars who research those areas.
In addition to a lack of familiarity with critical race theory, Nakamura apparently lacks grounding in the history of technology as well. This has led her to make false assumptions and insupportable claims. On the one hand Nakamura claims to be anti-utopian in her consideration of new media and communication. On the other hand, she works to preserve new media culture as a unique phenomenon, isolated from other technological developments along a historical and cultural continuum. This position is simply factually wrong, and Cybertypes might have benefited immensely, had Nakamura looked more closely at the continuity of new media and communications technology with the technologies that preceded them. As it is, Cybertypes often seems merely to assert a postmodernist equivalent to the famous Dwight D. Eisenhower statement: "Things are more like they are now than they ever were before."
Notably absent from Nakamura's critique are references to more historically grounded works in technology studies, such as Carolyn Marvin's excellent When Old Technologies were New . Marvin's 1988monograph examines the impact electrification and the advances in American communication devices on Anglo-American society and culture. Its omission is startling, particularly because Marvin's concerns mirror many of Nakamura's own. Marvin mentions the social and cultural changes wrought by the introduction of the telephone—a machine that made possible immediate communication in a disembodied state. Her work discusses the fears of users that new machines would overturn accepted (white) normative standards of propriety and threaten the safety of individuals and communities. Similarly there are primary and secondary texts on the effect of the introduction of photographic and film technology, and the effects those media have had on our perceptions of "the other." Arnold Genthe's photographs of San Francisco's photographs of Chinatown (1895-1906) certainly come to mind here, anthologized and contextualized in the work of John Kuo Wei Tchen. Also pertinent are the intrusive documentary work of Jacob Riis in the slums of New York, and, in comparison, the documentary work of James Agee and Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. These precursors of animatronic "others" and avatars make clear that the construction of virtual representations of minority and disadvantaged groups has precedent and a cultural history that Nakamura entirely ignores.
Nakamura also has some odd ideas about the evolution of the human view of technology: "In the mechanical age, technology was viewed as instrumental, as a means to an end; users were figured as already-formed subjects who approach it, rather than contingent subjects who are approached and altered by it." (11) Anyone who can say this just hasn't seen Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times . Familiarity with the University of Chicago School of sociology would also have given Nakamura evidence that such assertions cannot stand, as that school was preoccupied with Fordism and Taylorism, both of which were based on the idea that humans would have to change to conform to the requirements of the mechanized workplace. Even earlier, in 1900, Henry Adams marveled at the dynamo, and speculated at the changes it would force in human nature. Secondary sources like John Kasson's Amusing the Millions: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century (1978) have dealt with the social effects of new technology on both work and entertainment, delineating the ways that technology was employed to change those who came into contact with it.
Nakamura's apparent ignorance of the myriad ways in which technology has altered the human beings who have encountered it leads her to make some grave mistakes in her analysis. One of these is the focus on the "afterimage, " a phenomenon that she mistakenly believes is unique to encounters with new media technology. Any moderately well trained American Studies scholar, for example,would connect Nakamura's afterimage with the penny papers produced by the truckload in the nineteenth century, for consumption by an East Coast audience that hungered to hear tales of the Wild West, complete with "frozen in time" savage Indians and larger than life heroes like Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody. One could say as easily about those penny dreadfuls (and here I quote Nakamura) that they showed their audiences "a phantasm that says more about [their] fantasies and structures of desire than it [did] about . . . reality. " (12) It is also hard to see how Nakamura could have missed the seminal work of Richard Slotkin, whose Gunfighter Nation makes many of the same claims for American cinema that Nakamura does for "new media."
The hallmark of graduate students trained by many, if not most,postmodernist "cultural studies" professors is a near-complete lack of grounding in history and literary culture that predated and birthed postmodernism. I have run across many advanced cultural studies graduate students and PhDs who have read far more theory than they have literature or history in their subject area. What is forgotten, in the rush to theory, is that the creators of the postmodernist theories that are currently so fashionable were extremely well-grounded in classical and canonic literatures and history. Though the founding postmodernist theorists sought to break free of the confines of disciplinarity and meta-narratives, pointing again and again to the limitations and failures of the theoretical structures in which they had been trained, they necessarily drew upon that training in order to create the structures they hoped would transcend it. It is one thing to have liberated oneself from the confining theoretical structures of the past; it is another thing entirely to have no past at all.
Nakamura is like many of the second and third-generation postmodernists in that she ignores virtually all theoretical writing produced before 1990. Of the eleven references that predate 1990, there are two that predate 1980: W. E. B DuBois, and Lewis Carroll. Though cyberculture criticism is a fairly new field of endeavor, and certainly most works on the subject have been written in the last fifteen years, it is dangerous and wrong-headed to suppose that prior work has no bearing on the contemporary consideration of race and cyberspace. DuBois made his famous statement about double-consciousness in 1903,and African American literature is rife with discussion of the phenomenon of "passing", as well as the problems and joys of maintaining different personae within the boundaries of a single subjectivity. African American critical theorists have been discussing the social construction of race for at least a hundred years, but Nakamura leapfrogs from 1903 to 1981, entirely ignoring the body of scholarship produced by DuBois and his intellectual heirs—scholarship that would have strengthened and deepened her own analysis. I have discussed this scholarly elision before —in an article that Nakamura herself references. Yet Nakamura continues, rather than interrupts, the trend of disappearing African American knowledge, and replacing it with the (in comparison)relatively shallow treatments of currently popular cultural studies and cyberculture studies scholars.
Elision begets elision begets elision. Thus, Nakamura's discussion of the virtual "native" as a remedy for the disorienting and destabilizing conditions of an increasingly technological world is theoretically rooted in Walter Benjamin and not in the work of more appropriate —but far less commonly read— theorists writing in a postcolonial African diaspora tradition: Albert Memmi, Franz Fanon, CLR James, Aimée Cesaire, W. E. B. DuBois. All the above theorists discuss the creation and the uses of "virtual negroes" in times of national, social and/or cultural crisis. But if she drew on such theorists, Nakamura would haveto abandon her theory of new media as the agent of great change and her position as ground-breaking theorist, and instead situate her critique along a trajectory of new technology adaptations of existing racial codes. Instead, it is easier to turn to Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," an essay that has been read by just about every graduate student with pretensions to postmodernity, and a clear candidate from the new postmodernist canon, from which nonwhite authors—particularly black authors—are still largelyexcluded.
The best postmodern explorations are well grounded in theory and in history, even as they attempt to demonstrate the inevitable failure of the metanarrative and to replace it with a succession of reflective surfaces and simulacrae. But Nakamura's Cybertypes regards theory and method as a set of interchangeable parts that can be put to her purpose without regard to the original context in which they evolved—a strategy that can fairly be regarded as the theoretical equivalent to the "identity tourism" that Nakamura critiques. Because she does not clearly contextualize her theoretical and methodological position, Nakamura leaves the reader with the impression that her critique is built using that favorite technique of postmodernists: pastiche. While pastiche and bricollage techniques can be used to brilliantly expose the bankruptcy of disciplinary metanarratives, in the hands of those without strong grounding in a discipline or disciplines, without wide reading beyond contemporary theory, they can and often do turn into strategies that replicate and reinforce the very social and cultural institutions they seek to question. Pastiche is an especially dangerous method to use when one is considering race and racisms because racism is already institutionalized in our systems of thought and knowledge. Working one's way out of the trap of unconscious racism in a racist society specifically requires seeking and gaining knowledge that has been structurally obscured by racist institutions. Those institutions include the academy itself.
The first monograph to focus solely on questions of race and ethnicity on the Internet, Cybertypes aims to bridge a gaping hole in the literature of cyberculture studies. It is far too big a gap, however, for this single, slim volume to span and one wonders, at this early juncture in the development of the field, if the attempt to open the discussion in such general terms is wise. There are good reasons to buy Nakamura's book, and to read it carefully if one has an interest in race and cyberspace. However, I most emphatically do not recommend that anyone who teaches undergraduates select Cybertypes for use in their courses. As a text, it replicates the racism institutionalized in the larger culture. This is a hard thing to say about a book dedicated to subverting racist paradigms, but all the more necessary because, if not corrected, the damage it can do is tremendous.
Postmodernist scholars often seem almost giddy with the sense of discovery, of newness as they venture into unfamiliar territory and claim it for their own. Nakamura is not by any means an "expert" on race in cyberspace, yet her book is likely to be read as if she were, while the work of scholars and critics to whom manifestations of race in cyberspace are simply part of a continuum of "virtual" race construction will continue to be marginalized, ignored and forgotten. Familiarity with the body of African American critical race theory could have provided Nakamura with useful tools and prevented her from re-inventing a second-rate wheel. Nakamura is on to something here, but it would be a lot more exciting had African American race scholars not been up and down that road so many times that there is now quite a good library at the end of it. One hopes that in her future work, she will avail herself of these resources, and recoup some of the very real promise that Cybertypes presents. The bulk of new media criticism is stranded in the future, and disconnected with the past. The result is glib and readable, but ultimately poor scholarship. As the text currently stands, Cybertypes should serve as a cautionary example of this phenomenon.