Annotation: Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s “Scenes of Empowerment” (2006)

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Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “Scenes of Empowerment.” Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. 129-170. Print.

In this article Chun discusses how the Internet was initially marketed as a means for overcoming and even eradicating the “race problem.” She asserts that MCI’s (Media Control Interface) commercial “Anthem” deliberately displayed racially marked individuals to accentuate cyberspace’s capacity to liberate these people from the limitations of their flesh. Chun accentuates, however, that such logic problematically disowns accountability for acts of individual and institutional racism, displacing racism as a burden “othered” users must solve themselves. She claims that MCI’s commercial forwards the notion that “these others are happy with their inequality in real life because of their virtual equality elsewhere” (136). Chun further argues that this inequality cannot simply be addressed by spreading access to unwired areas in the world. Too much emphasis on the problem of access, she asserts, obscures other inequalities such as how English remains the dominant web language and that programming jobs are consequently often outsourced to English-speaking nations. Chun’s article focuses on how race is dangerously proliferated through the Internet as a commodity to be consumed. Users are extended the opportunity to become a transcendent postmodern subject that can “pass” as any race, gender, etc. But Chun notes that this “passing” problematically occurs outside of history and specific socio-political contexts where racialization is a vulnerablity.

Chun concludes her essay with an important reference to the Mongrel search engine, which works to combat racism online. Users who input racist search terms find themselves linked to antiracist sites. In this way the creators of Mongrel disrupt the supposed control and mastery of the “user” by exposing them to their own vulnerability on the web. The sites associated with Mongrel importantly do not offer authentic images of the “other” but rather work to debunk the notion of authentic information and an authentic “other” all together. Chun asserts that Mongrel and other web innovations challenge old frameworks of democracy and open up new possibilities of how democracy can be achieved. She offers Wikipedia as one interesting example where information is open and non-authoritative because “there are no authors” (170).

Annotation: Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s “Good Politics, Great Porn” (2003)

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Tu, Thuy Linh Nguyen. “Good Politics, Great Porn: Untangling Race, Sex, and Technology in Asian American Cultural Productions.” AsianAmerica.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace. Eds. Rachel C. Lee and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong. New York: Routledge, 2003. 267-280. Print.

In this essay Tu discusses how the online porn industry thrives from the presence and representation of Asian bodies. She emphasizes that contrary to claims about cyberspace as virtual and immaterial, web industries such as porn reaffirm that bodies really do matter online. Porn sites, in fact, make gender and race hyper-visible as users are encouraged to input these qualities in their search for a desired sexual object. Tu reveals that the online porn industry also problematically reinforces and perpetuates Orientalist notions about Asian women, “that they are exotic and hold limitless sexual knowledge, yet docile and eager to please” (268). With the Internet as the vehicle of information transmission, these stereotypes and fantasies regarding Asian women are even more troublingly circulated to a mass global audience.

Yet Tu does not view the Internet as merely a vehicle of oppression as she notes the work of people such as Mimi Nguyen. She deliberately names and describes her site, “Exoticize This,” in provocative terms to jam and disrupt digital pathways, redirecting users looking for porn to a web page that discusses Asian American feminist issues. Kristina Wong’s mock porn site, BigBadChineseMama.com, strives to further a similar project as Nguyen, by displaying Asian female bodies that do not correspond to Orientalist fantasies, ultimately shattering those myths. Tu in addition describes Bindigirl, a fascinating work of digital art by Prema Murthy. She notes that in the bio of this pornographic Asian female avatar, Bindi recognizes her hyper-sexualization and the failure of technology to liberate her. Bindi’s pointed awareness of herself as a sexual object leads her to demand money from her viewers, which can be interpreted as some kind of resistance. Murthy’s use of CU-SeeMe technology, which requires people who view her art to specifically interact with it and become a part of the performance is also displaces users from the usual position of passive voyeur to literally experience how it feels to be watched and recorded. While Tu ultimately celebrates the work of these individuals who are introducing much-need politicized art to the Web, she also recognizes the potential danger of these artists relying on irony and humor to convey their messages, which can be easily misinterpreted.

Annotation: David Porush’s “Hacking the Brainstem” (1994)

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This annotation was written in reference to my paper on Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, as yet, still untitled. See my prospectus here.

Porush, David. “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash.” Configurations 2.3 (1994): 537-71. Print.

In this article Porush discusses how cyberspace is often presented in literature as offering the possibility for transcendence of the physical body. Users traverse and operate in this new cyberspatial terrain through a “‘meta’ body in the brain” (538). Porush essentially asserts that postmodern cyberpunk novels deal explicitly with meta-physics and meta-physical modes of existence. He emphasizes that this link has been often overlooked by critics because postmodernists are uncomfortable with the spiritual connotations of metaphysics. Yet, Porush argues that postmodern fiction’s “critique of rationalism, and of the scientific/technological project of our culture in particular,” suggests an embracement of irrationality that is very much a part of metaphysical thought and even more importantly, the experience of cyberspace itself (539). Porush emphasizes that users have to delude themselves into believing that they can temporarily dissociate from their material bodies and exist in a meta-physical form of disembodied consciousness in order to fully inhabit cyberspace. In the latter part of his essay Porush examines how Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash presents transcendent views of cyberspace, which is interestingly called the “Metaverse” in the novel, but ultimately rejects those meta-physical visions because of an enduring attachment to rationalism. Porush discusses how the Snow Crash virus destabilizes the distinction between the real world and virtual reality by affecting both digitized avatars and the material human brain, suggesting a transcendence of space and human-machine dichotomies. He emphasizes the that virus also reveals a universal tongue embedded deeply within the internal structures of the human brain, which suggests another form linguistic transcendence. Porush notes, however, that by the end of the novel this universalism is denounced by rationalistic deductions that this transcendent commonality between humans can be dangerously exploited.

Porush’s analysis of the metaphysics of cyberspace will be helpful in formulating my own thesis as I extend his argument to consider how this meta-physicality affects race, which is often associated with phenotypical characteristics of the physical human body. As he asserts that cyberspace requires a delusion of sorts, I will interrogate what kinds of delusions users have about race. Particularly important to my own paper is Porush’s own “delusion” of Hiro’s racial, national identity as he asserts “Hiro is a Japanese American hacker living in L.A” (561). This statement suggests an egregious erasure of both his Korean and African American heritage, which can be a telling slippage of how cyberspace is racialized and those identities that are excluded.

Annotation: Stephen Hong Sohn’s “Alien/Asian” (2008)

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation was written in reference to my paper on Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, as yet, still untitled. See my prospectus here.

Sohn, Stephen Hong. “Alien/Asian: Imagining the Racialized Future.” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 33.4 (2008): 5-22. Print.

In this article Sohn discusses the historical conception of Asian Americans as “aliens” in the United States and the literary replication and perpetuation of these views where Asian Americans are presented as actual “aliens” (cyborgs, replicants, robots, etc) in many works of science fiction and other related genres. Sohn draws the phrase “Alien/Asian” from David Palumbo-Liu’s earlier formation of “Asian/American” which invokes the and/or construction that captures the troubling, unstable relationship between the two terms. Sohn similarly calls attention to disturbing cultural representations of the “Alien and Asian” as well as the “Alien or Asian,” which is just as problematic as the former because it singles out Asians and directly interrogates their extraterrestriality. The term “Alien” also usefully invokes notions of “Alienation” and “Alien-nation” (6). Sohn further provides a useful discussion of Saidian Orientalism and the techno-Orientalism David Morley and Kevin Robins later devised (7). Sohn notes that traditionally Japan was orientalized as a primitive and backward culture far interior to the West but as the country excelled technologically and economically it became necessary to re-orient Orientalism to maintain a sense of Euro-American supremacy. The Japanese and eventually other Asians began to be stereotyped and “cybertyped” (Lisa Nakamura) as the “yellow peril,” a threatening menace to the West and particularly the United State’s status as the preeminent world power. Reproduced in literature, Asians were presented as sneaky, devious and despite their technological prowess, devoid of humanity—a kind of robot, replicant or cyborg. “Orientals” were therefore recast as embodying a “retrograde humanism” that makes them far inferior to Westerners (8). Sohn essentially suggests that science fictional novels present cyberspace as a kind of “virtual frontier” where the West can re-create and re-colonize the “Orient.” His article offers important historical background about the development of techno-orientalism which will deeply inform my reading of the techno-orientalism presented in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. I, however, intend to examine not only problematically racist depictions of Asian Americans in the novel but also how stereotypical delineations of cyberspace as a predominantly and even exclusively “white” and “yellow” space perpetuates the troubling erasure of other races and complex hybrid racial identities.

Prospectus: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992)

Below is my prospectus on Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) and a working list of the references I have consulted so far. I recognize that one of the major challenges in my project so far is historicizing my discussion of the Internet. I also plan to look more deeply into discourses about “techno-orientalism” and the “posthuman” so any constructive criticism about my topic or suggested reading will be greatly appreciated. thanks ^^

Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash offers a means of understanding the complex relationship between human beings and cyberspace, which emerges as simultaneously a tool to further ends that will facilitate and improve one’s existence in the real world, as well as a distinct realm where another life can be lived and a new identity fashioned. Stephenson presents the Metaverse as a futuristic model of today’s Internet, combined with video game RPG (role-playing game) technology, where individuals can log on and interact with one another through personal, digitized avatars. In the novel the main character, Hiro Protagonist, spends a lot of time in this “computer-generated universe” working as a hacker who sells information to finance his living expenses in Reality (24). But the Metaverse does not simply provide Hiro with a job; it also offers him an entire “universe” through which he can lead an alternative life as a “warrior prince” (63).

The novel ultimately calls attention to some of the major tensions surrounding discourses about the Internet and its role in society today. For Hiro, cyberspace becomes a means of escaping the discomforts of the real world, such as his bland 20-by-30 U-Stor-It apartment to enjoy the comforts of his mansion in the Metaverse. Some critics assert the endless possibilities of this physical dissociation, positing the Internet as a fully democratic space, where all individuals can have equal access and will not be discriminated against on the basis of race, class, gender, or nationality because these elements do not have to be transmitted and therefore bear no import in virtual reality. Stephenson dramatizes this notion of cyberspace as a site where the free and multifarious experimentation of the self can happen: “Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful… You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse” (36). But while he accentuates how individuals can assume virtual identities entirely dissociated from their real physical appearance and human biology, in the same moment he deeply troubles the notion of free and equal access by asserting that the quality of one’s avatar is limited by one’s “equipment.” Unlike Hiro, who possesses the privileged means to design a high-tech, personal computerized representation of himself, other users are forced to rely on commercialized Brandy and Clint avatars that have a limited range of facial expressions and therefore appear less human, while those who can only manage to log into the Metaverse from “cheap public terminals” materialize in the form of “grainy black and white” avatars (41).

In this paper I am interested in examining how the Internet offers a false sense of liberation from real world oppression by problematically obscuring structural inequalities and the ways in which race, gender, class, and nationality continue to organize and assert their haunting presence in cyberspace. “The Black Sun,” for example, emerges as an exclusive virtual space, where “Everything is solid and opaque and realistic. And the clientele has a lot more class—no talking penises in here (55). Stephenson suggests that “The Black Sun” is realistic because of its high-definition graphics, but we realize that this realism also stems from familiar acts of exclusion. Despite the previous assertion that individuals can assume any desired computerized form, this space does not welcome “talking penises” or any avatar that lacks “class.” In her essay “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction,” E. L. McCallum asserts that while works in this science fictional genre have been traditionally analyzed for their innovative representations of virtual spaces, characters still deeply rely on the real material world and it is only through physically traversing this realm that important narrative ends can be accomplished. McCallum emphasizes that by shifting the critical focus to “real” space, we can see how “old” colonialist systems and oppressive power structures continue to organize the apparently “futuristic” virtual realities presented. But while she concludes that contemporary cyberpunk fiction “map the same old world” and are ultimately conservative in presenting a future that relies “on the division between first and third worlds, demarcated by race and ethnicity,” I argue that rather than a failure of artistic innovation, works such as Snow Crash endeavor to expose familiar oppressions and heighten the urgency with which they may be severely perpetuated into the future through more insidious means such as the Internet (352).

I will particularly rely on the theoretical framework Lisa Nakamura presents in Cybertypes where she examines the Internet as a highly racialized space. Her discussion of avatars as a problematic means through which people of color can “pass” as white or are assumed to be white without certain pronounced racial indicators is especially relevant to my research. I argue that Stephenson captures this notion of “passing” through the character of Hiro who possesses a hybrid racial identity. His mother is “Korean by way of Nippon” and his father is “African by way of Texas by way of the Army” (20-21). Yet in the novel Hiro’s blackness and Korean-ness are disturbingly repressed while his Japanese-ness is highly accentuated as he is presented as a “black kimono wearing,” katana equipped, ninja-like figure (36). I intend to explore the problematic moments where this racial complexity surfaces, such as the incident in The Black Sun where a Japanese businessman interrogates Hiro’s mixed appearance and essentially his right to carry a katana. This is an especially urgent topic for analysis because of the troubling manner in which many critics have perpetuated the repression of Hiro’s complex racial identity by entirely glossing over his Korean and African roots. In his essay “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash,” David Porush, for example, entirely misrepresents Hiro as “a Japanese-American hacker living in L.A.” (561). While my paper will rely on theories of techno-Orientalism, I will also problematize how these discourses may perpetuate stereotypical representations of the web as a “white” and “yellow” space at the expense of more nuanced racial complexity

Works Consulted

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “Orienting Orientalism, or How to Map Cyberspace.” AsianAmerica.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace. Eds. Rachel C. Lee and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong. New York: Routledge, 2003. 3-36. Print. (Annotation)

Hayles, N. Katherine. “The Posthuman Body: Inscription and Incorporation in Galatea 2.2 and Snow Crash.” Configurations 5.2 (1997): 241-66. Print. (Annotation)

Huang, Betsy. “Premodern Orientalist Science Fictions.” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 33.4 (2008): 23-43. Print.

McCallum, E.L. “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction.” Poetics Today 21.2 (2000): 349-77. Print. (Annotation)

Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

–. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Print.

Niu, Greta Aiyu. “Techno-Orientalism, Nanotechnology, Posthumans, and Post-Posthumans in Neal Stephenson’s and Linda Nagata’s Science Fiction.”Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 33.4 (2008): 73-96. Print.

Ow, Jeffrey A. “The Revenge of the Yellowfaced Cyborg Terminator: The Rape of Digital Geishas and the Colonization of Cyber-Coolies in 3D Realms’ Shadow Warrior.” Asian America.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace. Eds. Rachel C. Lee and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong. New York: Routledge, 2003. 249-266. Print. (Annotation)

Porush, David. “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash.”Configurations 2.3 (1994): 537-71. Print. (Annotation)

Sohn, Stephen Hong. “Alien/Asian: Imagining the Racialized Future.” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 33.4 (2008): 5-22. Print. (Annotation)

Wisecup, Kelly. “‘Let’s Get Semiotic’: Recoding the Self in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992).” The Journal of Popular Culture 41.5 (2008): 854-77. Print.