Nakamura and Gane & Haraway

In her ethnographic study of the online world LambdaMOO, Nakamura finds that individuals “perform bodies as text”, often taking on racial identities that (possibly) do not match their real life (RL) racial identities. When individuals are in “[control of] the conditions of their own self-representations“ does this make a space more or less democratic? Is it problematic that race can be overlooked or “not even an option”, or are people increasingly free to take on new identities and shed RL ties (if only while in the cyber world)? This leads to what Nakamura called identity tourism in which players choose to perform a type of racial play. While people may insist that everyone is “the same” in these virtual worlds, access to technology is not; “one of the dangers of identity tourism is that is takes this restriction across the axes of race/class in the ‘real world’ to an even more subtle and complex degree by reducing non-white identity positions to part of a costume”. Identity tourism suppresses racial discourse and degrades the concept of race into something to be performed, not lived, and hence offers an escape only for those who: 1. have access to these spaces and 2. desire to perform race virtually with no repercussions in RL.

This calls to mind Haraway’s insistence that the virtual is never immaterial and one must always consider the “materialities of information”. In considering the materialities of our virtual lives and self-descriptions, to what truths and RL experiences should we be held accountable? And how do we accurately textualize and contextualize our existence in the virtual world? How do we best “wield the signs of subordinated identity in a public domain” (Judith Butler in Nakamura)?

Haraway may have been asking a similar question when talking about our inherent connected, situated, relational existence when she asked: “Taking this relationship seriously and unwinding who we are here lands us in many concatenated worlds, in a very situated ‘becoming’. Then the fundamental, ethical, political question is: to what are you accountable if you try to take what you have inherited seriously?” How do we recognize and acknowledge the many worlds we inhabit and the connections they imply?

Race and gender bring to mind another seemingly related concept – our existence as a human species. According to Nakamura, “new and futuristic technologies call into question the integrity of categories of the human”. Haraway complicates our understanding of our existence as “human” when she claims that we (humans) have been “worlded” and “produced” as species through “the powerful world changing discourses of biology”. Our existence has been anthropomorphized by language and discourse. What, then, does it mean to be “human”? Haraway contends that though living as a species is non-optional because we have been produced this way, we also live as cyborgs and living as a cyborg allows and prompts us to question the (re)constitution of our world. How do we find and use ghosts/bugs in the system and tropes/trippings to look at the world we inhabit to identify cracks, fissures, and opportunities for change?

Furthermore, just as race and gender are understood as a social constructs, should “human” fall into the same category? Haraway calls for a new focus on ‘category work’. When Haraway speaks of category work, she asks for a new and deeper understanding the relationality and connected nature of our lives. How do we engage in category work in an intersectional world? How do we address and understand our own “becoming “ and the “torque” we experience from simultaneously inhabiting various worlds?

Gane, N. (2006). When we have never been human, what is to be done?: Interview with Donna Haraway. Theory Culture Society, 23:135.

Nakamura, L. “Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet.”

One thought on “Nakamura and Gane & Haraway

  1. Sara Vogel, PhD. (she/her)

    I see Nakamura’s work as an answer to N. Katherine Hayles’ question about how we can return understandings about the human body and flesh to conversations about what it means to be posthuman. Calling out the fact that, as you write, “Identity tourism suppresses racial discourse and degrades the concept of race into something to be performed, not lived” is actually doing the work of “engag[ing] in category work in an intersectional world,” as you put it. The problem is that voices like Nakamura’s and others are not loud enough — they are caught on the far end of that long tail that Prof. M drew on the board the other day.

    Imagine if Tapu’s petition about hate crimes in LambdaMOO was accepted by the community of participants back then? There is something almost laughable about that idea. Racism is manifested in so many ways in our society — of course the stereotypical media representations Nakamura lists are part of that. So are police profiling, microaggressions, disparities in health and access to education, criminal justice… the list goes on and on. So what would make us think the internet could be immune to this? That discourse is rooted in the way the posthuman was defined from its beginnings with Turing up to those “flesh-eating 90s,” where technology came to be associated with the ability to “splice” mind and body and promote mind over body. While one’s skin color might not be as apparent on the internet, and folks can represent themselves as they wish (MTV’s Catfish, anyone?) the internet’s anonymity cannot help us escape the awful legacy of violence perpetrated on bodies. In fact, continuing in traditions of the identity tourism of early LambdaMOO days, the internet is home to hundreds of Subreddits and Twitter feeds and more bubbling with microaggressions and bigotry.

    Nakamura, though, isn’t the only one bringing bodies back into the conversation about what it means to be posthuman. The internet is also a tool for social movements, uniting folks across and within identity groups, a place where less stereotypical representations of bodies can be uploaded and shared, and a place where people from marginalized groups can find each other in safe spaces. But yes — alot of these conversations are happening way down the tail, or in echo chambers.

Comments are closed.