ACADEMIC: Disembodiment = virtual equity?

[Originally published on the blog of the Scopic Regimes of Virtuality course taught by Edward Shanken]

bild“Virtual equity” (Gates in Chun, 2006: 129), “technologically produced social justice” (Chun, 2006: 129), “user-controlled utopia” (Chun, 2006: 130), “emancipatory” (Chun, 2006: 132), “race-free utopia” (Chun, 2006: 135), “televisual fantasy of the user as super agent” (Chun, 2006: 136).  What do all these terms have in common?

The answer is that they are used by Wendy Chun in Chapter 3 of her book Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, “Scenes of Empowerment”, to present an idealistic view of the World Wide Web as a democratic, just space, free of all racial discrimination, a space in which there are only disembodied intellects (“only minds”, as proselytized in MCI’s 1997 “Anthem” commercial).  Such a view is, according to the author, deeply flawed because individuals fail to acknowledge that the Internet, an invasive and unsafe medium, “circulates their representation without their consent or knowledge” (Chun, 2006: 130) through disembodiment, objectification, reduction of identity to numerical values (TCP/ IP), data mining, targeted ads by Google or spyware attached to P2P-shared files (Kazaa).

In this post I will however focus on three of Chun’s main concepts, namely prosthetic identity (in connection to MCI’s “Anthem” commercial), the digital proliferation of race (as a consummerist category), and electronic duplicity (as promoted by the Mongrel “digital collective”).  Thus, I will try to critically examine these notions in light of camera shot and angle conventions in the potrayal of identity, “taking on another body” (Gonzalez in Chun, 2006: 154), and the adoption of fictional identities for so-called worthy goals, respectively.

Prosthetic Identity

MCI’s 1997 “Anthem” commercial advocates a utopian virtual world, which frees people from the discrimination based on race, age (young or old), or physical disabilities; the advertisement’s logic can be summed up in “what they can’t see, can’t hurt you” (Chun, 2006: 132) as virtual communities offer users the opportunity to “transcend the physical limitations of […] [their] own body” (Chun, 2006: 132). Such a stance does not condemn racism, but rather presents the Internet as a safe haven, as an utopian alternative to a plagued society; MCI promotes a “formal equality (Chun, 2006: 133), a medium where users “are separate, but equal”  (Chun, 2006, 136) since the emphasis on intellect, disembodied from marked flesh, allows people to escape discrimination online.

Chun, nevertheless, does not consider the example social networking sites (although she later refers to the very visual instance of porn sites) where the constructed online identities are an extension of public identities. Thus, websites like Facebook, a virtual community in which users create profiles, upload photos, share links, comment on various types of content or put their stamp of approval on other users’ posts (by using the “like function”) help individuals write themselves into being” as “text, images, audio and video all provide valuable means for developing a virtual presence” (boyd, 2008: 12). Discrimination does not disappear with the advent of such platforms;  even in Second Life, a virtual world consisting of users’ avatars which would presumably safeguard people’s real-life identities, griefing, ‘participation in a virtual world with the intent of disrupting the experience of others” (Boellstorff, 2008: 185),  is a matter of concern; many users long for a feeling of power which emerges from the helplessness of others when faced with violent behaviour. Cyberbullying is most prevalent on platforms like social networking sites as “the majority of online bullying victims know their perpetrators” (Palfrey, Gassed and boyd, 2010: 9); in fact, half of the cyberbullied are victims of fellow students. For the sake of Chun’s argument, I will assume people’s ethnic background to be, like in the text-based MUDs or old Yahoo chat rooms, invisible to other users.

MCI engages in the “reduction of persons to flesh […] in the tradition of pornotroping” (Chun, 2006: 135); through display of flesh (in the form of cut images showing only a wrinkled white male’s face or successful African-America businessman’s torso), Chun argues, “the televisual fantasy of the user as super agent” (Chun, 2006: 136) comes to life. Again, like mentioned in the paragraph above, there is an inherent contradiction in the idea that a “televisual” scenario emerges from what is essentially text; if interaction is done through typing exclusively, visuality is not an issue. Coming back to pornotroping, the author is right to point out that the advertisement “cuts and brands its spokepersons [those likely to be victims of discrimination] in order to incorporate them” (Chun, 2006: 135). However, the argument that a low camera angle institutes the subject with power and authority while a high camera angle belittles and downgrades the portrayed individual is used in a convenient manner: the African-American man is humiliated because he is looking up at the camera, at the colonialist, privileged white male, but the same white male embracing his daughter is also shot from above; the fact that he is ignoring the audience and thus suggesting that he is the very person writing the message – and thus symbolizing the corporate Western father figure – of the commercial does constitute a interesting argument well supported by the implications of aesthetic categories like camera angle.

It is his identity, his body that a racially discriminated user could inhabit in the virtually safe and just realm of the Internet: “the Internet offers us the limited opportunity to pass as the fictional unmarked white male” (Chun, 2006: 143). The prosthetic identity replicates the so-called prosthetic body, “a body to take on in public, yet a body still immersed in commodity culture” (Chun, 2006: 143). The white male ignoring the camera (and, implicitly, the viewer) is not the prosthetic body, but a mere cut and framed fiction; Internet users could identify with his indifference and lack of preoccupation for he is presumably financially benefiting from the proliferation of Internet access and socially gaining from this privileged position as a respectable businessperson and family man.

Digital Proliferation of Race

When it comes to the electronic proliferation of race, Chun argues that thinking of race as a consumerist category “constructs race as a category to be consumed: it encourages one to celebrate, or to identify with, another race by indulging in the same ‘authentic pleasures’” (Chun, 2006: 154). In cyberspace, these so-called “pleasures” often take the shape of pornographic material that stereotypes ethnic categories; Chun provides the example of an Asian pornographic website that encourages users to “become samurai” in control of a host of beautiful, submissive women under the guise of “Clan of Asian Nudes”; such a setup is situated, according to the author, at the border between consumerism and fetishism as it attempts to create “‘authentic’ ethnic subjects through ‘fetish’ or ‘exotic’ desires” (Chun, 2006: 155). While this process indeed reduces a subject to flesh and avoids the complexity of ‘the other’, it could be argued that it is merely another fantasy based on a certain sexual preference (Asian-looking women, in this case). The possibility of this fantasy becoming the norm (i.e. seeing women of Asian descent as obedient individuals, always ready to satisfy male desires) is however a matter of great concern with potentially devastating consequences in real life if a minimal set of conditions is not fulfilled, such as raising awareness about racial stereotypes through campaigns, lobbying policymakers or providing a solid educational system that emphasizes the diversity and complexity of various ethnic groups.

Chun claims that the “Internet proliferates race” (Chun, 2006: 154), but a reworking of this statement along the lines of “race proliferates itself through the Internet” seems more appropriate. For example, Brazilian users took over social networking site Orkut not long after its launch thus creating a rather exclusive community which distances itself from more eclectic platforms like Facebook, while Ebony magazine maintains a strong online presence that seeks to “explore the impact of the world on African Americans and the impact of African Americans on the world” (Ebony, 2010), therefore virtually separating a substantial number of people from the rest of the globe’s population in an effort to single out distinct, race-based socio-cultural manifestations. Pornographic websites are profit-oriented entities that make use of a similar type of reduction taken to the very extreme and that offer their viewers erotic potentialities connected to “dreams of superagency” (Chun, 2006: 157), of being in a position of control. It is not the Internet which proliferates such fantasies, but the Internet’s users; what may seem as an obvious observation is actually a crucial one which shifts the emphasis from the World Wide Web as an innately discriminating, objectifying medium to the practices and habits of culturally determined users.

Electronic Duplicity

The Mongrel Collective’s work presumably plays with “the relationship between software and ideology in order to make us question the reduction of race to a database category” (Chun, 2006: 164). One such project, HeritageGold, functions on the premises of rewriting Photoshop’s basic functions – color filters turn into social status ones, saving the image is translated to “birthing” while closing it means “killing”. As pointed out by Chun herself, the main danger of such a controversial piece is the possibility that it will not be recognized as a parody by ignorant users, an issue which raise the question of why produce it in the first place. It is not the highly educated, discerning, open-minded Internet users that the Collective must convince of their wicked ways; they will understand the subtlety of the parody which is futile because their internalized norms and values specify that racial stereotyping and discrimination are ethically unacceptable.

Arguably the collective’s most intriguing piece, National Heritage, involves users spitting on virtual faces which speak after this act has taken place; Chun argues that speech “forecloses the possibility of silence and refusal”, thus encouraging a project that would reduce the faces to silence in order to “bring out more clearly the violence associated with making one speak” (Chun, 2006: 167). This begs other essential questions: What is then the difference between being virtually racist and racist in a non-digital environment? Is it ethical for users to engage with an artwork in an unethical manner for a higher ethical purpose? How is spitting on a raced image any different from masturbating in front of a computer screen at the sight of Asian women?

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