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.