Blog Post

Ch. 2: Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, "Race And/as Technology, Or How To Do Things To Race."

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

Studies on digitality and race began in mid 1990’s with significant publications dating by the end of the 1990’s into the 2000’s—the “beginning of the Internet epoch” in 1994.  Marked prominently by New Media and Asian American Studies scholar Lisa Nakamura’s groundbreaking Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet and the co-edited Race in Cyberspaceboth were the first (monograph and anthology) to provide a framework of race online.  Race in Cyberspace dismantled the myth of the race-less Internet as the editors write “we believe that race matters no less in cyberspace than IRL (in real life)."   Published just one year after TechniThose interested in racial theory, ethnic studies, new media, digital humanities, and science and technology studies will be thrilled by this newest collection Race After the Internet co-edited by Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White.  The many provocative articles in Race After the Internet provide significant interventions in the field and pose a vital theoretical, historical, and technological turn toward a comparative + engaged approach for our future questions and embodied-topian dreams. 

Particularly, in Chapter Two “Race and/as Technology or How to Do Things to Race,” new media studies scholar Wendy Hui Kyong Chun provides a vital intervention within digital racial studies and racial theory by her formation: “race and/as technology.”  While race and technology has been widely theorized in across disciplines, Chun’s “race and/as technology” provokes crucial questions on race and/or “how to do things to race.” Chun argues the “and/as” shifts “…the focus from what is race to the how is race, from knowing race, to doing race by emphasizing the similarities between race and technology” (38) rather than simply conjoining race and technology.  In this crowd sourced review, I hope to highlight the theoretical, political, and peculiar interventions Chun makes through “and/as” in particular the inclusion of science and technology studies and a comparative (ethnic studies) approach of “doing race.” Chapter Two provokes questions around race and racism: “Could ‘race’ be not simply an object of representation and portrayal, of knowledge or truth, but also a technique that one uses, even as one is used by it—a carefully crafted, historically inflected system of tools, of mediation, or of ‘enframing’ that builds history and identity?” (38) 

From Jenny Reardon’s interventions in race and genomics, to Franz Fanon’s theorization of race and colonialism, to early racial science espoused by Linnaesus, Chun’s argument is buttressed with rigorous re-readings of racial theory and history.  Chun draws from a variety of disciplines science and technology studies, ethnic studies, and new media studies.  In doing so, Chun’s articulation of “race and/as technology” illuminates the “strange” “queer” and “disturbed” relationships, questions, and entanglements that “and/as” fosters and provokes.  Outlining racial theory and history is no easy feat given our country’s racist foundations however Chun’s progression into various disciplines and fields of knowledge remain admirable, enticing, and vital in our need to bridge divides.  In doing so, Chun illuminates how race has never been “purely biological” or “purely cultural” and always been “…a mix of science, art, and culture.” (39)  Chapter Two is an extension of Chun’s groundbreaking special issue of Cameras Obscura a feminist media studies journal entitled “Race and/as Technology.” The special issue contained a formative introduction by Chun and article by Beth Coleman entitled “race and/as technology.” As in Camera Obscura, here in Chapter Two, Chun intervenes through this “mix” and in doing so dismantles theoretical analysis of race outside the frame supplied by a computer monitor and into “and/as.”

Comparative Ethnic Studies: High Techno-Orientalism

Chun’s “Race and/as Technology” provides a vital comparative ethnic studies lens by a compelling re-reading of techno-Orientalism in Greg Pak’s Robot Stories.  To clarify the term, in the 1970’s, ethnic studies scholar Ronald Takaki foregrounded a groundbreaking comparative approach to racism: “While scholars have tended to isolate racism as a history of attitudes, I have attempted to relate it to the broad political, social, and economic developments that occurred during this formative and crucial century.”(Takaki Iron Cages, 1) Moreover Takaki writes, “Like many other scholars, I had parceled out white attitudes toward different racial groups almost as if there were not important similarities as well as differences in the ways whites imaged and treated them.  Yet I knew that the reality of white America’s experience was dynamically multiracial.  What whites did to one racial group had direct consequences for others.” (Takaki, 1)

As Takaki writes, crucial developments in the study of race, ethnicity, and racism includes a comparative approach between racial groups as well as relatability to “political, social, and economic developments.” The comparative approach as well as intersectionality by critical race theorists and feminists of color scholars like Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Kimberlee Crenshaw, and Patricia Hill Collins in the 1980’s can be considered crucial “technologies” within theorization of race and racism. While seemingly “commonplace” now, these theoretical and political interventions were crucial in a world with feminist thought largely constructed as white and racial theory as largely (and falsely) “male.”

Although early anthologies Race in Cyberspace and TechniFor example, in response to these developments, editors Rachel Lee and Sau-ling Wong argue in the anthology AsianAmerican.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace: “On a whole, scholars in the field of race and cyberspace remain critically hesitant to emphasize Asian Americans’ differences from to other racial groups in terms of their cyberpractices, in part due to legitimate worries over the way such claims to distinction can play into old divide-and-conquer tactics that set minorities against (model) minorities.”[ii]  Wong and Lee’s astute analysis provide the complexity of digital racial studies, one that may be tethered to the discourse of “lack of race.” 

Chun’s Chapter Two provides a crucial intervention through a comparative ethnic studies approach by her re-visitation of high tech Orientalism, which she explored in her first book Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber OpticsChun argues “The human is constantly created through the jettisoning of the Asian/Asian American other as robotic, as machine-like and not quite human, as not quite lived. And also I would add, the African American other as primitive, as too human.” (51)  Understanding the “technology of racism” (as Foucault wrote) is crucial here as Chun illuminates the comparative ways race is configured within the animal/human/machine analytic.  Chapter Two ends with a provocative reading of Greg Pak’s film Robot Stories where Chun asks “can the abject, the Orientalized, the robot-like data-like Asian/Asian American other be a place from which something like insubordination or creativity can arise?” (51) Indeed through her re-reading of Pak’s Robot Stories Chun illuminates how the film troubles dichotomies between robot/human, hetero/homosexual and Asian/American.  Chun demonstrates how “race can be a tool” and a “saving grace.”

Nature Versus Culture?: "The Limits of Culture"

"After WWII and the public reunciation by many scientists of overtly racist science within various UNESCO statements, race as a cultural, rather than biological, fact seemed universally accepted and the "two cultures" of the sciences and the humanities coalesced together around this common understanding." (41) 

"For many anti-racists then, the key to loosening the power of racism was (and still is) to denaturalize race, to loosen the connection between the bidily sign of race and what is signified." (41) 

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Chun’s theroetical and political intervention of “race and/as technology” is undoubtedly groundbreaking in our arguments about race and prompts revisiting racial formation theory through the lens of "and/as."  Certainly, Chun provides a wide range and succint overview of developments within racial theory by focusing on debates between the cultural and biological, from 18th century racial science to the present day. Chun offers "focusing on race as a technology, as mediation thus allows us to see the continuing function of race, regardless of its "essence." It also highlights race has never been biological or cultural but rather a means by which both are established and negociated." (44) While cited as "influential" the social, political, and theoretical conversations in which racial formation theory intervened was not given contextualization. Given our current bio-technical turns, in which conservatives utilize "social constructionism" to support racist policies as Omi recently wrote in “Slippin' Into Darkness”: The (Re)Biologization of Race"  it seems crucial to provide a mapping, as improper as we can make it, and outline these particular histories and theoretical movements. It is critical to blur as Chun does so vitally and tease out even further the context(s) in which respective debates around race + "nature/culture" emerged to better grasp (especially for the unconvinced [scholarly or otherwise] of whom I am not) of "and/as." 

As a young person coming of age during and post--"90's culture wars" my first readings within the field of racial theory was feminist Peggy McIntosh's influential article Unpacking the White Knapsack which describes the formidable costs of white privledge and structural racism along with a participatory test. Understanding race was not simply biological or natural, but also primarily socially constructed and structurally enforced was crucial knowledge in my community college Ethnic Studies course. Why was it that the black males in the course scored the lowest on the privledge test? This "common knowledge" of race included the "realness" and rigid qualities of race, as well as gender. For many, encountering post-structuralist works--such as Racial Formation Theory and performativity--dislodged the idea of "natural" and the knowledge was oftentimes transformative.  

Previous paradigms of race and racism had largely been articulated through ethnicity, class, and nation-based theories of race.  In 1994,  sociologists and anti-racist scholars Michael Omi and Howard Winant articulate a theory of race and racism that is focused on process. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960’s to the 1990’s was an important text as Omi  and Winant argued for the centrality of race.  As Omi and Winant write, “…racial formation as the socio-historical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.” (55) What I hope to better understand is how to tease out the "limits of culture" within theoretical developments ie structuralist, post-structuralist of the 90's breifly outlined within the chapter. Would racial formation theory be placed within the "and/as" and if so, how so? Certainly, racial formation theory has been crucial in racial studies of science which argued for the interdependence of society and science. Please see Janet Shim's work on race and epidemiology here.  

Chun provided a rigorous readings of racial theory drawing from various disciplines and works. However, it may be useful to return to racial formation theory in conversation with what I call "social constructionist" developments of the 1990's such as racial formation theory and performativity that was crucial for gender and queer studies on dislodging biological and essential notions of race, gender.  These theoretical moves engaged with + shaped Science and Technology Studies in vital ways. For example, Judith Butler argued “gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.” (Butler, 179) Although primarily utilizing discursive methods, Butler foregrounded the notion of “performativity,” through engagement with formative feminist science and technology scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling’s arguments on scientific findings of XX and XY females. Butler writes: “Clearly our binary, either/or categories of male or female do not work when we look at these genetic defects.  Not even the sex organs are categorical. (85)  Butler’s engagement with Anne Fausto-Sterling’s foundational feminist STS scholarship which provided the early writings on feminist interventions within the sciences provides interventions of “natural” scientific categories of gender, sex, and sexuality. Racial theory oftentimes elides gender analysis, making race emcompassing within the particular critque. Chun's queer and feminist reading within Chapter Two make a refreshing and compelling reading of Pak's Robot Stories. However, I hope to better understand the historical context in which Racial Formation Theory and performitivity made her appearance(s), this is what Chun's theorization of "and/as" prompts vital questions of revisitation and future mutated convergences in her enframing of technology. 

Dismantling Lock Step: And/As in Feminist STS

Moreover, Chun’s argument provides engagement with STS (STS scholars Reardon, Harraway) and shed light on how New Media Studies engagement with Science and Technology Studies and vice versa is critical.  In particular on the topic of “nature” versus “culture” placing in conversation feminist STS scholar Charis Thompson’s rich ethnography Making Parents demonstrate how within the ART clinic setting, “…the dividing line between what is natural and what not is constantly moving.” (140)    Thompson discusses not only the complicated ways gender is “performed,” “reinscribed,” and “created,” at the clinic setting, but vital analysis of how race and ethnicity is deployed within science.   In a case study of “Giovanna” an Italian woman, Thompson provides how the “nature” and “culture” do not march in binaristic “lock step.” Thompson argues genes themselves, have social categories embedded into them, as “a chain of transactions between the natural and the cultural grounds the cultural in the natural and give the natural its explanatory power by its links to culturally relevant categories.” (157) Thompson furthers and deters from an argument of a “lock step” of nature/culture through structuralist or deconstruction methods.  Thompson demonstrates—structuralist and post structuralist analysis can simultaneously inform each other—binaries of “nature versus culture” or otherwise, should not be utilized as feminist solutions.  Like Chun theorization of "and/as" Thompson illuminates the difficulty of maintaining the strident binary between “nature and culture.” The engagement of science and technology provides perspectives on race, gender, and ethnicity in ways that have oftentimes been elided. Science, medicine, and technology have largely been technologies of racism, as Chun provided in her Chapter, the difficulty to engage through the mechanism that renders one "less than" human or "machine" or "animal" remains difficult theoretically and politically.  Yet Chun's chapter and the collection Race After the Internet provides fruitful, compelling, and transformative theoretical work that remain crucial for the fields of Ethnic, New Media, and STS.

“Theory and/as Technology” :: “Race and/as Technology” as Technology

Chun's provocative articulation prompts further engagement with corresponding studies on race, ethnicity, and gender in and across various and seemingly disparate fields.  Moreover, while not explicitly termed, Chun’s chapter calls for a comparative ethnic studies approach within digital racial studies, and a closer kinship with science and technology studies in the study of "and/as race."  In particular, it seems urgent for critical historical and theoretical interventions of racial formation theory and gender/queer studies to conversate with “and/as technology.”

In addition to race and/as technology could we also reconfigure ‘race and/as technology’ as technology?” In other words, “theory as technology?”

To clarify, I am interested in attempting to mark the epistemological “advancements” of understanding “difference” as “technological” as well.   Chun’s blurry, leaky, and yet, gelled conception of race “as technology” provides a vital intervention, signifying “advancement” within the “body” of literature and theory of the fields.  For example, in Cybertypes, Nakamura discusses critical theory as “a technology or a machine that produces a particular kind of discourse.” (Nakamura, 3) In discussing STS, Thompson states fields like queer, race, ethnic studies come to STS much later than fields like Study of Scientific Knowledge (SSK 1970s) or Actor Network Theory (ANT 1980’s) “but they interact vigorously with them, while adding new areas of focus and new analytic resources.” (Thompson, 49)  How can we better understand developments such as "assemblages" in relationship to intersectionality? Racial formation theory and performativity? What new and old questions does "and/as" urge? 

I am interested in how theoretical frameworks like racial formation theory and performativity of gender and Chun’s “and/as” can further touch one another, intersect, and ignite in their shared political aims and crucial interventions.  These works I’ve outline in conversation is illuminative of “theory and/as technology” as they have built upon previous theorizations of gender, sexuality and race respectively.  Yet, they blast us into embodied and hopeful futures.  Understanding how race, and gender, and sexuality, and disability, and various axes meet, at the body, as Chun provides, is my concern for future directions.

In “Race and/as Technology” Chun argued that race is “technology,” and “mediation,” which “allows us to see the continuing function of race, regardless of its essence.” As scholar of necropolitics Achille Mbembe writes, for Foucault, racism was and is a “technology aimed at permitting the exercise of biopower.” Chun’s and Mbembe’s articulations of “race as technology” and racism as “technology” provide a vital conceptual framework of understanding advancements in Oppression and critial theory.

If race is a tool and technique then we should listen to Chun, we need to utilize these “cyborgian” techniques for liberation, for our "saving grace" in which  "insubordination or creativity can arise...” (51) 



 

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