Blog Post

Ch. 5: Alexander Galloway, "Does the Whatever Speak?"

Part of the Distributed Book Review of Race After the Internet, ed. by Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White

 
Review of Chapter 5, "Does the Whatever Speak?" by Alexander Galloway
 
Alexander Galloway attempts to map the role of affect in the digital world, sussing out how our emotional relationship with race in the physical world becomes applied and reconstituted in the digital.  He argues that two aspects of sociohistorical context influence our current approach to race: “an increased cultivation of racial typing and a triumph of the decades-long quest to liberate affect,” which occurs in conjunction with, “the recession of ‘theory’, particularly identity politics and cultural studies,”  (117).  He argues that minorities are “normalized” within modes of production, and questions if that eliminates the utility of the subaltern.  “…[J]ust at the moment when identity and affect become incorporated into the digital markets of postfordism, the utility of identity and affect as critical categories comes into question,” he writes (114).  He argues that although we might claim race is no longer the most important factor by which our society is organized, “we have reached a state in which race matters absolutely, but only because it does not matter at all anymore,” (113).  It is this inevitability of the unnecessary necessity of race that he argues is the new movement in “racial typing.”  He uses U.S. President Obama as the watershed moment by which race in the physical realm, supposedly ceases to matter.  A new online speech has emerged, he argues, where it is not so much body language as speech of the body and the “codified value it produces when it is captured, massified, and scanned by systems of monetization,” (121).  The body always speaks as something, he maintains.
 
Galloway organizes the essay around four framing questions which map the cultural, economic, social, and theoretical aspects of identity in the digital world:
  • Where in the world are?
  • Why do games have race and classes?
  • Who is the Chinese gold farmer?
  • Does the Whatever speak?
 
Although Galloway deftly answers the first two questions, it is the last two which are most productive, but also left me wanting more analysis.
 
He frames the Chinese gold farmer in relation to post-fordist capitalism, which he defines as a mode of production that “turns seemingly normal human behavior into monetizable labor,” (120).  Every waking moment of our lives, we are offloading, uploading, performing not the mundane tasks of communication with friends and colleagues, but acting as master of mini-domains (Given that since I began pushing finish my dissertation this year, study breaks are merely chances to do laundry, look for job leads, clean, sleep, or email colleagues, I understand his point.).
 
Galloway juxtaposes this description against the ideology behind the Chinese gold farmer, a person who spends most of his/her hours online earning virtual gold that can be sold for real cash.  He argues that it is not the Chinese who are gold farmers, rather that, as always producing and always networked digital citizens, we— POCs and non-POCs, men and women— are also gold farmers and that it’s not the gold that’s the problem in the gold farmer ideology, it’s the Chinese.
 
But Galloway doesn’t push the claim far enough for me.  I think the Chinese Gold Farmer question is the most pressing of his essay, especially given that we are conditioned to be anti-racist (and, hopefully, anti-homophobic, and anti-sexist), in our everyday private and public lives, but the idea of an evil Chinese man lurking in the shadows gobbling up all the internet gold and selling it back to us like a malevolent leprechaun is somehow considered OK.
 
I wanted more about why the Chinese gold farmer tableau, as he calls it, is so alarming and to whom?  There seems to be an assumption that we would know who created this ideology and who finds it most threatening; one’s inclination would be to assume a non-Person of Color, but that is a big assumption to make, especially if it is a national predilection rather than a racial one.  I found myself wanting to know if the gold farmer tableau is alarming because Orientalizing a geographically distant foreign population still is considered fair game (see Borat (2006))? Is it that contemporary Chinese workers, gamers, and subjects are treated as a modern-day Yellow Peril (see “banned” Ron Paul for President commercial here)? Or it is that, in focusing on the willingness of the supposed Model Minority to work tirelessly to subvert the “egalitarian” internet marketplace with their unchecked greed, that we are meant to pull our e-purse strings tighter in relation to those other Others who aren’t so model?
 
I found the same problems with his treatment of his final question, “Does the Whatever speak?”  Galloway writes that the “trick of the Whatever is to avoid assigning traits…This does not mean that all bodies are now blank. But their fullness is a generic fullness, a fullness of whatsoever they are,” (123).  Galloway’s point is not to eliminate “universality but [show] how collectivity is the natural outcome of the generic, how the common is only achieved by those who have nothing in common,” (125).
 
Galloway cites Deleuze and Agamben as informing his conception of the Whatever, but I wanted more explication of his theory within larger, and more varied frameworks.  Only four pages were devoted to what can only be understood as a complex theoretical undertaking and because I, like others, I might imagine, have not dealt with Deleuze or Agamben on as deep a level as Galloway has, I needed a few more steps to be added into the mix.
 
There are so m any moving parts to this essay, the role of the neo-liberal subject, the post-fordist consumer, affect, race, identity, and culture, to name just a few, that it is hard to grasp the major throughline connecting everything.  There are so many pieces to the puzzle, in some ways, that it is hard to see the big picture. That said, however, Galloway makes some key arguments, among them being that every economic transaction also is an affective one from which race cannot be easily extracted.  Also, the body is always communicating something,even when we might be loathe to admit it.  The “body is always cybertyped,” he argues.  “[I]t is always tagged with a certain set of affective identity markers,” (121).  This is an important point to remember, especially in light of arguments that would have us believe that the Internet is a post-racial utopia.
101

5 comments

Galloway's essay seems curious in this book, like an outlying counter argument to the importance of studying race, in a book with race in the title. But despite his negative discussion of the imortance of race and the idea of identity politics, perhaps his intervention is a useful way of calibrating what we mean when we talk about race. His description of race as an affective marker is interesting to me as that is how I understand other identity markers like femme.

The figure of the whatever is also interesting in this context as Galloway seems to be fleshing it out more beyond agamben's original description of the concept. The concept has been taken up by radical groups such as tikkun and the invisible committe in France, who are heavily influenced by agamben and who also are radically anti-capitalist.

The title seems to refer to gyatri spivak's essay "can the subaltern speak". Did he not mention her? As her essay dealt with poststructuralist critiques of unified identity it seems a very important reference to this article.

99

This review really made me want to look over this article, especially as I am currently working on a paper on Subjectivity and the Subaltern using Spivak's essay (In relation to Micha's question there is a section on Spivak). I think that Galloway has a very interesting argument, especially in how he is re-imagining the idea of the subaltern and identity politics. Galloway states that "the question now is not so much can the subaltern speak, for the new global networks of technicity have solved this problem with ruthless precision, but where and how the subaltern speaks, or indeed is forced to speak" (116). Due to this belief, Galloway chooses to look at the "whatever" which In my conception simply is in the world, not a predicated is what. He strongly asserts that the whatever is not the human condition or some universal transcendental siginifier, but is "whatever it is" (117). I agree with Kimberly that it would have been great if he had gone deeper into the idea of the "whatever" but from what I can understand of it he wants to a assert a decentered subject or a nonposition. At the same time, I do think that when conceptualizing identity politics and identifying others without predication it is also important to think about visible difference and the fact that even if we want to take people as a collection of unburdened characteristics, it would be incredibly difficult if not impossible to do so.

97

Thanks, ladies, for your comments. I agree with both of you. On one end, it seems as if Galloway's contribution was an outlier. Race plays a part, but not in the way I was expecting - this may may have to do with my own expectations as to how conversations about race are "supposed" to go.  But I really wanted so much more on how he was using Agamben and the Chinese Gold Farmer - including the resurgence of the Yellow Peril stereotype within the realm of the "race-free" internet.

@Micha: He did mention Spivak. But it was more of a background than what I would have considered a deep engagement with her work - this also may due to space constraints, so I'm not throwing stones there.

As for the possibility that he might be actively not asserting a position, that could definitely be the case, but I think in this kind of essay in this kind of collection, taking a position could have only helped him connect to a wide range of readers with varying backgrounds who may have found his argument intriguing (as it surely is) but could not get quite there with him.

In some ways, Faithe, after getting to the end of your response, I started to think of Naomi Zack and her views on the racism inherent in classifications of race, because race is not based on a scientific designation.  The idea that "race"is a bankrupt concept is one I subscribe to, but because it is so thoroughly ingrained in our society, to avoid it or rename it or tell others that I am race-less (in spite of my visibile brown-ness) serves only to cast suspicion and doubt upon my mental acuity, not the system in place that would have us all subscribe to a a system of classification that, in the end, does no one any good. So even though Galloway may want to assert a decentered subject/nonposition in your words, more work has to be done on the part of he who is asserting to make that desgination make sense to those of us who have been operating so long under (unconsciously) false conditions.

110

I'd just like to throw out that Galloway really gives game developers an easy pass on the race/class question by suggesting that the procedural logics underlying gamic racial characteristics are only "in some senses determined by offline race" (117).

Let's not forget the lineage of games like WoW, which borrows heavily from Dungeons and Dragons, which in turn is based on the barely-veiled White supremacist fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien's _Lord of the Rings_ universe.

I'm not a WoW player, but to switch over to another DnD-inspired fantasy RPG that relies heavily on race and class distinctions, the Elder Scrolls series does unite the window dressing with the "functional" aspects of class via "racial bonuses" (common in DnD as well) that make some races better at certain activities than others. This isn't limited to fantasy race, either - there are several human races (as in Tolkien) that are naturally better at certain things than others.

I understand the impulse to separate so-called window dressing representation from functionality in games, but with race and gender in particular these distinctions are not always so easy to maintain. Dismissing racism as uninteresting in the context of WoW because we have to couch racist tropes in fantasy representations first falls apart when you pull up game series like Grand Theft Auto, for example.

119

Amanda -

Thanks for your comment.  I am really glad you weighed in b/c I felt exactly the same way in re: giving a pass, but as I don't play video games any longer and certainly not on the level of scholars who could critique it in any cogent, concise manner, I didn't feel qualified to critique his points as if I did. I think he explains what he means well, but I also wondered about GTA & games in which dark shading of the bad guys alwaysconnotes their "badness." I agree that separating representation from f(x)ality is difficult. I wonder if working so hard to maintain those distinctions does a disservice? 

As part of my work in the Rhetoric and Public Culture program, I work under the assumption that persusaive speech is everywhere. As part of my work using critical race theory, I work uder the asssumption that race influences everything.  I wonder if instead of making distinctions, and having to prove that games may negatively influence people in re: racial tropes and attitudes, that we should put the impetus on the gaming industry to prove how racial tropes and attitudes aren't already inherently added into games?

If this were the case, would the presumption of guilt (rather than the seeming presumptiuon of innocence) make designers work harder to avoid reinforcing, however unconscious, racism in video games? It seems that the impetus is always on the aggreived party to prove there is a problem, yet for a society that has been reluctant (to use a nice word) or even downright hostile (to use a truer word) to acknowledge how underrrepresented groups (ethnic/racial, gender, sexual orientation) are consistently discriminated against, it is a huge hurdle to prove even the most egregious of acts is based on racism or bigotry (see: Trayvon Martin coverage and the hand-wringing certain news outlets have had wondering if his death were "really" racially motivated).

If we started from a position of "prove how it isn't" I wonder how that would have made Galloway's argument stronger - or changed it completely.

112