Friday, October 17, 2008

I've Got You Under My Skin

At the annual meeting of the American Studies Association I was somewhat surprised to see a panel with Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, who is best known as a theorist of digital media, although she has worked on themes of race, gender, class, and sexuality that are also familiar to those working in the American Studies field. She was on the panel on "Race, Sex, and Science at the Crossroads: Synthetic Personhood in Visual Popular Culture" with two other interesting speakers who discussed the recent television remake of Battlestar Gallactica: Eva Cherniavsky who read it as a critique of neoliberalism and Tom Foster who considered how the show functioned as a defense of functionalism that takes the side of Alan Turing against John Searle in the questions raised by Turing's "Imitation Game" and Searle's "Chinese Room" response.

Chun's talk focused on the film Robot Stories by Greg Pak and how it encourages us to "embrace our inner robot." To introduce the subject matter, she discussed the influence of Beth Coleman's work on current discussions -- including in Camera Obscura -- of how race functions as a technology that is "a technique that one uses even as one is used by it," much like Heideggerian "enframing." She argued that that scholars must "move beyond ontologies," however, to look at what race does, which includes both a history of discrimination expressed by segregation and eugenics and a future of "possibility" if race and technology are embraced together, thus displacing old culture/biology binaries.

Like Lisa Nakamura, Chun pointed out how how the World Wide Web was "bought and sold" with images of "happy people of color" and emphasized that early advertising for Internet services emphasized being "free from racism" much like these subjects were depicted as being free from their own bodies. In the post September 11th logic of progress/regress, Chun noted that images that showed "people riding camels have access to the Internet" could be recast as "oh shit, people riding camels have access to the Internet." She also observed that Neuromancer, which is often credited as the origin of the notion of "cyberspace," in fact only represented "the desire for cyberspace" and was substantively different from the real Internet, although it similarly displayed cyberspace as a kind of frontier. This "high-tech Orientalism," she argued, also presented a "reduction of others to data."

Chun also acknowledged the importance of the work of Karen Shimakawa, who was also presenting at ASA, to her own critical method approaching Robot Stories and its narratives in which the African-American was presented as "too human" and the Asian-American as "not human enough." She explained this as a response to a lack of mastery in which to be Asian was formulated as to be affiliated with technology in a structure of "critical mimesis of mimesis itself."

Finally, Chun recommended this parodic Internet video by Pak and writer David Henry Hwang.

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