Friday, October 19, 2007

Cut to the Quick

During a year in which the press has celebrated Web 2.0 and the computer-generated avatars that provide the face of this so-called participatory culture, Lisa Nakamura provides some thoughtful scholarly criticism about the role of racial ideology and labor politics in the supposedly utopian realms of distributed networks and user-generated content. Nakumura, author of the forthcoming Digitizing Race from the University of Minnesota Press, started her talk with a Southpark episode in which the show's characters inhabit a fictional massively multiplayer online role-playing game called Stonehaven. As Nakamura points out, the identity politics of the show include a refusal to take "crap from a girl" and ethnic slurs about Koreans as fellow players.

In her questions during the conference, Nakamura has expressed concerns about the ideologies of Web 2.0 as distinct from Web 1.0 and has developed her own taxonomy, which she calls "Avatars 1.0" and "Avatars 2.0." While the former provided therapeutic self-portraiture, leisure, and an opportunity for "passing" and composing new identities through practices of freely created textuality, Nakamura argues that the latter merely manifests a "culture of profiling," characterized by observing behavior and choices in the circuits of capital, labor, and profit.

I've talked about the difficult position of Chinese "gold farmers" playing in MMOs before in this posting on Virtualpolitik, but Nakamura incorporates the field research experiences of Julian Dibbell and Ge Jin into a larger theorical construct in which Asians are cast as both "hyperconsumers and unwanted labor," or as "both buyers and sellers." Rather than travel to the sweatshops of China, Nakamura bases her arguments on pro- and anti-Chinese machinima videos available online. To contextualize the genre of machinima, Nakamura breaks videos into three categories: 1) "ludic" (concerned with strategies of game play and exceptional performances), 2) "cinematic" (concerned with presenting new narratives that use the game mechanic to produce original stories), and 3) "polemic" (concerned with arguments about laws, politics, and culture, particularly gaming culture).

In looking at this "struggle over the meaning of race," Nakamura showed the racist video "Ni Hao," which I have embedded in this post above the text. Nakamura agrees with Nick Yee that this is old rhetoric, which can easily be traced back to nineteenth-century protests against Gold Rush immigrants.

In another session there was a talk that similarly explored how Web 2.0 manifests certain kinds of racist ideologies. Geographer Darren Purcell, who examines borders as social constructs looked at the anti-immigrant surveillance group American Patrol and considered how the extensibility of individuals who participate in digital networks around social media makes their nationalistic arguments fundamentally contradictory, just on the basis of their own behavior. Purcell has also suffered his own troubles with the IRB, as he has looked at Facebook groups that deal with border politics and immigration. He points out that one anti-immigration group, "Illegal is Illegal," uses agrammatical, short messages and frequent homophobic language, while the pro-immigration group "Secure Fence Act of 2006 -- a new low even for Bush" uses academic prose and more sophisticated arguments that demonstrate rebuttal techniques and acknowledgment of potential counterarguments.

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