Decentering medical authority (and other topics) in Lisa Nakamura’s “Digitizing Race”

I was so excited to find Lisa Nakamura’s chapter entitled “Avatars and the Visual Culture of Reproduction on the Web.” Nakamura examines how pregnant women portray themselves (or ask others to portray them) on sites where cartoonish “dollies,” or avatars, are used to represent community members. She notes that the “increasingly visual culture of user-posted photographs and other self-produced digital images is part of a rhetorical mode of cultural production online that also works to decenter medical authority” (133). While I have emphasized in my own work that there is a place for medical authority, I have also written that women must be able to make their own informed decisions in terms of reproduction. The fora Nakamura is discussing are places that help to allow that to happen. “The Internet provides a space in which women use pregnancy Web sites’ modes of visuality and digital graphic production to become subjects, rather than objects, of interactivity” (133). They are the producers of their own visibility.

Or are they? Nakamura shows how women retain “racial” markers in building their avatars, but at the same time idealize the pregnant body and create “a uniformly and conventionally ‘pretty’ avatar” (145). While at first I was disappointed that these women were still in some sense controlled by hegemonic forces, I think this phenomenon is not necessarily a bad thing. What would it mean for a woman to conceptualize herself as ugly and to portray that in her dollie? What these women are really doing is finding a common ground and using it as a stable foundation on which to establish difference. (An ugly dollie might work as a deliberate critique of the system, but it might hamper the owner’s engagement with others on the board.) In the same sort of move, avatar owners also mix colloquial rhetorics with medical rhetorics (153). By mixing these worlds–taking medical rhetoric as a base on which to build other rhetorics and discourses–and creating their own spaces, they are, in fact, using a form of bricolage to re-appropriate their own bodies from the medical establishment. These women are “producing a counterdiscourse that challenges the binarism of hypervisible/invisible pregnant bodies” (158). They are producing bodies that we can, perhaps, conceptualize as “mixed.” (An interesting concept given Nakamura’s chapter on Alllooksame.com, which I’ll get to a little later.)

Cyberfeminism, Nakamura says, has been called a “‘restart button’ for gendered ideologies” because it tries to reclaim machines and “machine-enabled vision for women” (160). An example of where this could work, I think, is on page 159, where Nakamura tells readers how “the umbilical cord is painstakingly deleted from most photographic image of fetuses, thereby emphasizing its existence separately from the woman’s body” (159). Women empowered through the visual dollies they create can challenge such conventions. Women “use the board as often as not to challenge received medical opinions be describing their experiences as conflicting with medical wisdom” (169). By using the power of community and narrative, women overrule medical opinions that don’t fit their worldviews.

I thought these arguments were brilliant. However, parts of this book made me raise my eyebrows. Nakamura has a tendency to make bold statements and sweeping generalizations without providing immediate support. For example: “Women are relatively late adopters of the Internet” (136). While Nakamura does offer statistics on sex and Internet usage at a point much later in the book, she provides no support for this statement at the time that she makes it. She also posits on page 139 that design is “gendered as masculine” by “mainstream consumer culture.” This book was published just last year, and I would argue that design–as evidenced by many television shows, the populations of design schools, and marketing tactics used by stores that sell “design”–is typically gendered feminine by the “public.” In fact, “mainstream consumer culture” often questions the sexuality of men who engage in design with enthusiasm. Nakamura’s point in this discussion is to set up taste and design as opposites (although she later conflates style with design on page 154) and thus to claim the “tacky” avatars as feminine backlash against the popular push for “clean” design (139-43). Based on the fact that I do not see style and design in a relationship as opposites, I do not buy the backlash argument. I do fully believe her argument that women use these spaces to re-appropriate their bodies, I’m just not convinced that adhering to “tackiness” has anything to do with it. (And who gets to judge what’s tacky, kitschy, or clean anyway? What are the characteristics of these states?)

Another example of a statement that stood out as an unsupported generalization occurred in the chapter on Alllooksame?: “Alllooksame.com is a weird, weird, site” (78). Although I take Nakamura’s point and appreciate her candor, I also felt a little judged as someone who liked the site. I realize the site is supposed to engender some discomfort, but–perhaps because of our very open exploration of race, rhetoric, and technology in class–I didn’t feel put off or uncomfortable looking at it or taking the quiz. “Alllooksame is not a statement. It’s a question” (79). And questions have to be allowed if we’re going to deal with the race issue. There is no other way.

In terms of the quiz itself, I recieved a score of six on the facial recognition test, which is lower than the average of seven. Further, I hereby admit that the six I got correct were guesses. What does this mean? It either says something about my own ignorance, or it supports Nakamura’s contention that “race” is not visible. I have to admit, I’d be very interested to see if one of the “not mixed” subjects of the site could identify the races of the faces. And that rhetoric of purity is highly interesting; I especially liked the deconstruction of this rhetoric undertaken on page 82. “What does Korean mean? Is it people from south western [sic] Korea who descended from Chinese in those same areas whose names are not Kim and Lee but Chang and Moon???”

Having run out of space to discuss the other chapters of this book, I will instead pose questions based on passages I especially engaged with.

  • What do we make of the shift from the Internet as a utopian space to a profit-driven place? (p. 3)
  • What is (or should be) the relationship of visual culture studies to Internet studies? (p. 28)
  • Is communication consumerism? (p. 46)
  • What of Barthes’ “revolutionary idea” to apply formal analysis to popular culture? Is this really the idea of a single scholar? (p. 68)
  • What are the pros and cons of racial profiling? (p. 78, and all of the Alllooksame chapter)
  • How should race be represented in movies? Is it responsible to create the two-dimensional “old white prick” character, as described in Nakamura’s discussion of The Matrix Reloaded? What about the token black guy, like Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) In Return of the Jedi (incorrectly cited by Nakamura with the definite article)? Can a person really get out of being white by claiming to be multiracial and disavowing whiteness? (p. 102 and all of “The Social Optics of Race”)
  • How can authorities design surveys that are more representative and accurate? (p. 172)
  • The ethics of porn. I’m not even going to make this a question. (p. 184)
  • How “wrong” was Whitney NcNally in producing the piece “Asian or Gay”? Couldn’t this be seen as a social critique of movies like the recent hit The Hangover? (p. 185-94
  • What does it mean to “refuse to cover”? (p. 208)

Work Cited
Nakamura, Lisa. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 2008. Print.


Interesting further reading:
Sakai, Karen. “‘Gay or Asian’ spread causes minority uproar.” Asia Pacific Arts Online Magazine. 9 Apr. 2004. Web. 10 Nov. 2009. .

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