Digitizing Race by Lisa Nakamura PDF Print E-mail
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 In this video we have access to the star’s body through the viewer’s mind. We see her as he sees her, through interface use. This split represents a paradigmatic dichotomy in gender theory: the body is that of the Latina, the woman of color, and the mind is that of a white man.

Racial formation theory has not often been used in reference to new media, partly because the frame of reference is so different and because the early utopian bent to Internet criticism meant that discussions of difference, especially if viewed as “divisive,” were avoided. The difference between old and new media lies in the new media’s interactivity as well as  the blurred line between producers and consumers.

Though utopian claims regarding the Internet’s ability to abolish the position of the passive viewer, making everyone a potential publisher or creator of media, are less valid than previously thought (early predictions about everyone’s eventually having or even wanting a personal home page have fallen far short of reality, though the popularity of blogs, vlogs, and social networks such as Facebook and MySpace are coming closer to this ideal), it is possible now, since the massification of the Internet in the United States, which is my frame of reference, to view media on the Internet as the product of non–cultural elites.

Since the turn of the century, the continuum of Internet access in the United States has gotten wider and broader. 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.  While earlier racial formation 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.

AIM buddies, pregnant avatars, and other user-created avatars allow users to participate in racial formation in direct and personal ways and to transmit these to large, potentially global audiences of users. Intersectional critical methods are vital here; digital visual culture critique needs to read both race and gender as part of mutually constitutive formations. For example, in the case of sports gaming, most celebrity avatars are men because of the dominance of men in the commercial sports industry, and many of them are black for the same reason. Yet black men are underrepresented as game designers, and it would be wrongheaded to mistake the plurality of racialized digital bodies in blockbuster games such as Electronic Arts’ Madden Football to indicate any kind of digital equality in terms of race or gender.

What does an object of interactivity look like? In Jennifer Lopez’s music video “If You Had My Love” (1999) the singer portrays herself as the object, not the subject, of the volitional mobility afforded the Web user. Shots of Lopez tracked by surveillance cameras alternate with her image as represented in a Web site: she shares the stage and gaze with the new media design interfaces in which she is embedded in an extremely overt way. This puts a new spin on the traditional female position as object of the gaze. While the video and its implied Web interface allow the user multiple points of entry into her digital image — streaming, still, live, buffered—Lopez herself is never represented as the user or viewer of this communicative technology, only as the viewed. In this way, the video gestures toward the traditional formulation of the gaze as described by John Berger in relation to traditional portraiture and the tradition of painting and visual representation generally. In other words, Lopez presents herself in this video as an object of interactivity, despite her position as the star and the knowing object of the interactive gaze.

Examining this video enables a double viewing of interactivity and the star’s body, the way that the object of desire (the star) can work with the subject of interactivity—figured misleadingly in this video as the user. In fact, it is really the invisible interface designer whose work conditions the limits and possibilities of interactivity in this case; if we view the media complex that is J. Lo as herself -- a carefully constructed “racial project” -- we can see the ways that the range of clickable options and categories available to the presumptive user in this video conditions the sorts of understandings of her raciality that are presented to us. In this video we are asked to identify not just with the Web designer’s way of thinking but with the viewer’s way of clicking as well. The conditions of watching this video require us to see from the computer user’s perspective; we cannot but shoulder-surf, since the setup only allows us to view the star’s body by watching her movements on a Web site, a Web site that we do not control or click through. This is also a decidedly gendered gaze, since we are often put in a position in which we must watch a male watcher watching; we must witness his interactivity as our means to visualize the body of the woman.

In this video we have access to the star’s body through the viewer’s mind. We see her as he sees her, through interface use. This split represents a paradigmatic dichotomy in gender theory: the body is that of the Latina, the woman of color, and the mind is that of a white man.

There is much at stake, however, in observing the ways that members of the Fourth World—women of color, members of linguistic and ethnic minority cultures, the global underclass—negotiate their identities as digital objects and in incremental ways move them toward digital  subjecthood.

Jennifer Lopez’s deployment of shifting visions of ethnicity brokered through Web and television interfaces represents the sort of impressively flexible range of movement through identity positions, one that seeks its niche through the volitional mobility of the interacting viewer.

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Figure I.1. A fictional graphical interface from “If You Had My Love.”

This music video, Jennifer Lopez’s first, was number one for nine weeks in 1999. Lopez’s DVD biography on “Feelin’ So Good” informs us that “If You Had My Love” was her first number one single, as well as her first video, and that it was certified platinum. The hit topped the Hot 100 for five weeks in 1999, and the single sold 1.2 million copies outside the United States as of 2000. Importantly, the biography describes her as a “multimedia success.” In keeping with this notion, it was also digital from the ground up, not just in terms of its production, though much is made of its links with the Web in the “Banned from the Ranch” Web site. (Banned from the Ranch is the name of the production company that programmed the fictional Web interface deployed in the film.) Its subject matter, the way that it compartmentalizes physical space, virtual space, music genre niches, and  odes of interaction. In addition, Jennifer Lopez’s rise as star coincides with the Internet’s rise as a mainstream visual culture with its own interventions into traditional media cultures. In 1999 we can witness the shift occurring from one mode of influence, old media to new, to another, new media to old.

Like the Matrix films, the “If You Had My Love” video visually represents active navigation through data. Clicking on links enables the implied viewer to loop through time: by backtracking, the viewer can instantly restart at the beginning of the video or rewind to watch a favorite bit repeatedly. However, unlike these films and other science fiction films, the video presumes multichanneled viewing in the context of everyday life rather than in an overtly fictional and phantasmatic future. The video opens with a scene of a man sitting at his computer desk in a darkened room of his apartment and typing the words “Jennifer Lopez” into a search field in a Web browser. Her Web site pops up on his screen, and she starts singing and dancing as he watches, alternately typing on the keyboard, which he holds on his lap as he leans back and strokes his own neck and face in an overtly cybersexual gesture. (Early writing on virtual identity by Sandy Stone posited that phone sex was the best metaphor for Internet-enabled telepresence; Lopez’s video acknowledges Stone’s assertion with a nod to the Internet’s most technologically sophisticated, long-standing, and profitable usage: distributing visual images of pornography.) The rest of the video consists of scenes of Jennifer Lopez viewed through her as-yet-fictional Web site as we witness people in a wide selection of networked computing environments watching her: we see a young girl in her bedroom with her computer, a pair of mechanics watching a wall-mounted television with an Internet connection, a rank of call center workers with headphones and computers, and two young Latina women using a laptop in their kitchen. These scenes clearly reference television/internet convergence as they depict both public and private televisual screens and solitary and shared instances of screen usage.

But more importantly this is one of the most intimate scenes of computer interface usage I can remember seeing; intimate because it is about desire mediated through the computer, men masturbating as they surf the Web to look at sexy images of celebrity female bodies. It is also intimate because it is close; as we watch the man keyboarding and mousing, we see Lopez’s image respond interactively to it; as he manipulates his joystick, we see a large black ceiling-mounted surveillance camera follow her into one of her “rooms,” and computer windows pop up, close, promote, demote, and layer in response to his typing and clicking. The page on the site titled “Jennifer’s Rooms” lists buttons and icons for “Corridor, Living Room, Shower, Hair Dryer, Bathroom, and Dressing Room,” thus spatializing the Web site in terms that evoke the star’s private home and the space of intimacy. The surveillance cameras and arrangement of the interface as clickable “rooms” enforce webbed voyeurism, evoking the visual culture of liveness through Webcams, and a particular sort of eroticized, privileged view of the star. (Of course, videos have always purported to give a privileged look at a star. The fiction of volitional viewing enacted in this video is a fantasy of networking in the context of interactivity.) Indeed, the video visualizes the interface user’s volitional mobility via the cursor, which functions as his proxy in this scene, as it does when we use the World Wide Web generally. We are seeing as he sees: it is an act of witnessing voyeurism. But more importantly we are seeing the mechanics by which he manipulates the view of Lopez as the video’s audience watches; the apparatus of the keyboard, mouse, and joystick is foregrounded and in constant use.

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Figure I.2. Musical genres as menu choices in the Netbot graphical interface from “If You Had My Love.”

The Jennifer Lopez online page features navigation links at the bottom for “Gallery, Lopez Dance, and Jennifer’s Rooms.” The video as a whole operates as a record of a navigational session within multiple nested interface frames, one of which is called “Internet TV,” overtly referencing a greatly anticipated technological convergence that still has yet to arrive and was certainly far from a reality in 1999. The other menus we see at the bottom of the initial interface’s splash screen are “sights and sounds, chat, links, views, news & info, contests, gallery,” thus displaying the conventional organization and categorization of media types common to conventional Web sites rather than television or video.

This video’s mode of production differs quite a bit from those that came before it (but helped to determine those that came after), and this difference is the basis for a fascinating press release by Banned by the Ranch, the production company hired to create the computer interfaces featured in the video. Why did the video’s producers feel the need to commission a fictional interface and browser in their attempt to invoke the World Wide Web? The producers address this question quite explicitly on their Web site, explaining that Web-savvy audiences in the nineties require “realistic looking interfaces” to create televisual verisimilitude; in other words, in order for the virtual to look realistic, interfaces have to look like they could be “real” as well, and in this case the “real”—Internet Explorer, Netscape, or AOL’s proprietary browsers, which were familiar to Internet users at that time—just wouldn’t do.

This creation of a brand-new interface might also be motivated by some caution regarding copyright law—Apple’s “look and feel” lawsuit against Windows had recently brought the notion of the interface as private property into the public eye. In addition, there may also have been concerns regarding conflicts of interest. For example, the films You’ve Got Mail (1998) and Little Black Book (2004) feature America Online and Palm personal assistant interfaces prominently; in the first case, corporate partnerships or “synergy” between media companies made this possible, and in the second, conflicting industry interests almost scuttled the project. Problems arose when executives at Sony Pictures Entertainment, one of the companies that was to distribute the film Little Black Book, realized that Sony manufactured its own PDA device, the Clié, which competed for market share with Palm. Luckily, the film was greenlighted after the Clié went out of production, solving Sony’s conflict of interest problem regarding interface use. Giving screen time in a mass-market film to a particular interface has always been seen as an exceedingly valuable form of marketing or product placement, particularly because the logic of the films usually requires that viewers pay close attention to the devices to follow important plot points. The device itself is less the point than is the foregrounding of a particular type of screen within a screen, an interface.

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Figure I.3. Male spectatorial desire and Internet use in “If You Had My Love.”

As mentioned before, the interface is itself a star of Lopez’s video and is coming to take on starring roles in other types of non-desktop-based digital media, like films, videos, and console games. Creating a fictional interface solves potential problems with industry conflicts as well as contributing toward the sense of an alternative networked world accessible through the desktop computer, giving yet one more means of control to media producers. The deployment and visualization of “fictional software” created for Lopez’s video, which was dubbed “NetBot” by Banned from the Ranch and originally developed for the graphics on the hit youth film American Pie, envisions software interfaces as key aspects of a televisual image’s believability or realness. It is interesting to note that the production of the video receded that of the star’s “real” Web site: Banned by the Ranch’s “intention was to make sure the videos’ web site would match the real-life Jennifer Lopez web site . . . a site that was yet to be developed” in 1999, a time in which it was clear that the music video was a crucial medium for musicians finding a global market, while the Internet was not. The Lopez site was ultimately designed by Kioken, a high-flying and innovative Web site design business that went bankrupt in 2001.  The “Lopez Dance” screen offers several menu choices: “Jazz, Latin Soul, and House” (we don’t see “Jazz” enacted in the diegetic space of the embedded performance, perhaps because this is one of the few popular genres that Lopez is not associated with in any way; it represents a purely speculative and fictional future, one that has a racialized authenticity all its own).

Articulating these musical genres highlights the star’s diversity, ironic in the case of “If You Had My Love,” which, like most of Lopez’s other songs, borrows liberally from these genres but doesn’t itself recognizably belong to any genre at all except pop, and works as a way to sell and brand otherwise unidentifiable music, very important when half of all music that is listened to is not sold to a listener but rather “shared” among listeners, or stolen. The “Latin Soul” sequence, launched when the male viewer clicks on the link that activates it, depicts Lopez in a short, tight white dress as she performs flamenco-inspired arm gestures and salsa-type moves to techno-salsa music. This musical interlude functions like a cut scene in a video game such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas in that it fragments the narrative and in this case the musical flow. The logic of abrupt movement from one genre of music or media to another reflects the fragmented attention of the viewer, tempted as he is by the array of choices presented by the interface. We are switched from one to another at his pleasure. The pleasure of the interface lies partly in its power to control movement between genres and partly in the way that it introduces musical genres that audiences may not have known even existed. J. Lo’s readiness to fill different musical, national, and ethnic niches reflects the logic of the video and of the interface and its audiences; as she shifts from cornrowed hip-hop girl with baggy pants and tight shirts to high-heeled Latina diva to generic pop star with straightened hair and yoga pants, we see the movement as well between identities that characterizes her construction in this video as a digital media object of interactivity. She becomes an object of volitional ethnicity as she is constructed as an object of the user’s volitional mobility.

Most importantly, this video walks the viewer through a process of digital racial formation; in a cut scene that functions as the transition to the world “inside” the interface that we see when it is clicked, shards and bits of gray confetti take flight past the viewer’s perspective to represent the way data is supposed to look. As this “white noise” resolves itself into a signal, a coherent visual image coalesces from these pieces of data into images of Jennifer Lopez dancing in the nationalized and racialized genre that the user has chosen, and we can see the formation of the colored and gendered body from undifferentiated pixels, at the pleasure of the viewer, and also the formation of the bodies of color, race, language, and nation as playing particular roles, performing particular work, in the context of new media. Like J. Lo, Filipino and Russian Internet “brides” are also clickable, women who can be randomly accessed via the Web. Their performances online are certainly different in kind and quality from that of the site’s designer or user: their job is to perform a kind of racialized submission, to the viewer’s interactive gaze and to the geopolitics that compel their digitized visual identity performance. In the case of the video, the cursor functions as a visual proxy that in this case stands in for the viewer; it is itself a kind of avatar and in recent times a televisual stylistic convention familiar to us in all sorts of contexts, used in PowerPoint presentations as well as in children’s programming, such as Dora the Explorer’s use of the computer cursor superimposed on the screen as a point of identification for children. Though Dora’s viewers can’t control the cursor, they can witness the cursor’s movements and implied user control, thus enforcing visual if not functional media convergence between the computer and the television. Sarah Banet Weiser’s work on Dora emphasizes the ways in which race is marketed as a “cool” way to help children learn language skills, one that hails Latino and other viewers of color in ambivalent, largely apolitical, and “postracial” ways. Dora the Explorer depicts the Latina main character as an avatar who guides the child-viewer through the logic of the learning-game interface but does not stand in for the viewer herself: the Latina Dora is an object rather than a subject of interactivity, just as Nickelodeon posits the show’s audience as primarily white, middle-class, and able to afford cable, rather than as viewers who “look like” Dora herself.

The visual culture of the female object (rather than subject) of interactivity has yet to be written. The varied audiences depicted watching Jennifer Lopez via streaming video online represent varied subject and object positions and points of gender and ethnic identification: black men and white men from both the working class and the growing ranks of information workers at a call center and from the home office click on her as an object of desire; young girls in suburbia and young Latina women in domestic spaces click on her as an object of identification in a gesture of interactivity that may have something to do with staking out a position as a future subject of interactivity. Surveillance cameras, a technology whose function is to police the division between subject/object relations, are depicted here in the context of the Internet as a means to give instant and interactive access to the star to all groups. The early promise of the Internet to make every user a potential “star” has since contracted to offer seemingly deeper or more intimate user access to stars from “old” media instead. The history of the Webcammed image to Jennifer Ringley’s Jennicam, which went online in 1996 (and has since gone offline), reveals a progression from an original fascination with the apparatus of webbed vision itself—the “liveness” of the Webcammed image, even in relation to an object as intrinsically unexciting as a pot of coffee—to a particular investment in the naked female body as an object of vision via the Internet.

The thesis of this video is the thesis that describes our media landscape since 1999: convergence has created a condition within which stardom itself as become “multimedia.” It is nothing new for stars to excel in multiple media: actors sing, dancers act, singers dance, and many stars have marketed perfumes, clothing, and other commodities successfully. These provide multiple modes of identification with stars. However, the “If You Had My Love” video sells multiple points of entry to the star, multiple ways of seeing and surveilling that are framed as exactly that, exploiting the interface as a visual culture that purveys an ideal and mutable female body of color, perpetually and restlessly shifting “just in time” to meet fickle audience preferences. In the larger work that I discuss in the book Digitizing Race, I trace how the mediation of digital user and object identity as by  citizens, women, and commodities on the Internet is regulated and conditioned by the types of interfaces used to classify, frame, and link them. To argue for the necessary intervention of visual culture studies into Internet studies, one might ask: how does the Internet’s visual culture create, withhold, foreclose, distribute, deny, and modulate the creation of visual and digital capital? Visual media are as often as not viewed through the lens (and logic) of the computer-driven interface, making ways of negotiating, navigating, and situating oneself via its landscape of chapter titles, hyperlinks, and menus a necessary aspect of media use. DVDs, satellite and cable television and radio, and DVRs like TiVo and Replay all compel menu trees of choices, choices that, when made, foreclose other choices. The narrowing and piecing-up of the formerly continuous image stream of a film into named and discrete chapters, as in the case of many commercial cinematic DVDs, and the separation of songs into genres like “Electronica,” “Boombox,” and “R and B/Urban,” as in the case of Sirius satellite radio playlists, breaks up what had been a more flow-oriented media experience into digitized separate “streams” (or “channels,” as Sirius labels them). This packetizing of media into different categories follows ethnic, linguistic, national, and racialized lines. The “If You Had My Love” video mirrors this logic of the interface and its policing of categories by chopping up and streaming the star’s image-body into identifiable ethnic and racialized modes—black, white, and brown.

Jennifer Lopez has been dubbed a multimedia star partly because she appears in several electronic media, but she also has established herself in the world of offline, nonephemeral commodities such as fashion and toiletries. This convergence of separate spheres—“real” versus virtual, abstract versus concrete commodities—mirrors the convergence of media displayed in her video, and also her own converging of differing positions vis-à-vis her own ethnic identity. Her real-life transformation from an “ethnic star,” defined primarily by her appearances in “ethnic films” such as Selena and Mi Familia in which her racialized Latina body serves to authenticate the “realness” of the Latino mise-en-scène, to a “global” or unracialized star, as in Out of Sight and The Wedding Planner, is mirrored in the video’s modes of identity management via the interface. The interface lets you “have” Jennifer Lopez in a variety of ethnic and racialized modes by clicking on one of many links. It addresses the audience by figuring her kinetic body as plastic, part of a racial project of volitional racialization through interface usage.

The “If You Had My Love” video compels a different sort of media analysis than had been necessary before the massification of networked, interfaced visual communications like the Internet. Earlier modes of reading television and film do not suffice because of the prominence of the interface as more than just a framing device; interfaces function as a viewing apparatus, and in many cases they create the conditions for viewing. Rigorous readings of Internet interfaces in and outside their convergences with photography, film, television, and interfaces from other visual genres such as stand-alone digital games are crucial for understanding how modern race and gender are constructed as categories and (sometimes, sometimes not) choices. The increasingly visual nature of the graphical Internet after 1995 calls for a displacement in our modes of critique from an earlier scholarly focus on textuality to those that examine the Internet’s visual culture in a broader way. The extensive nineties literature that celebrated digital textuality’s postmodern open-endedness and constructedness by emphasizing the interactivity offered the user, who became an active user rather than a passive consumer, tended to neglect the specifically visual in favor of developing text-based arguments.

One of my intentions for this book is to broaden the field of Internet studies not only by looking at its visual as well as its textual culture but also by looking at things that are not “on” it—like the Jennifer Lopez video and other media forms that may not be created for distribution via the Internet but make reference to it and share its logic of interfaced interactivity. At any rate, this distinction is eroding at a rapid pace: the Internet’s ability to transcode all forms of media means that we would do well to avoid making claims about what is “on” it—while “If You Had My Love” was originally produced and screened on MTV and other music video television stations, it exists as well in digital interactive forms like Lopez’s 2000 DVD “Feelin’ So Good,” as a streaming video file on MTV.com and muchmusic.com, and as a QuickTime movie file that is easily downloaded using file-sharing software.

Interfaces inform all media—videos, television, literature—and as this happens we are witnessing the creation of new power differentials in visual capital. Internet scholars define themselves partially as people who are interested in the history and use of digital interfaces in the context of computers, but videos like “If You Had My Love” are hybrid in several ways: for one, they reference a tradition of racialized, gendered relations of looking and seeing that Internet scholars are not accustomed to thinking about outside the context of online communities of color and Web sites about gender. This type of hybrid media object requires a convergent mode of criticism and interpretation—a visual culture of the Internet.

Copyright Lisa Nakamura

Reproduced by permission of the University of Minnesota Press 

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