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Digitizing Race and the Matrix

In Digitizing Race, Lisa Nakamura begins by discussing the ways in which visual culture studies have evolved to include a variety of disciplines, yet fail to include important emerging fields such as social networking online, the rhetoric of these online social spaces, and race and gender within digital culture. Nakamura uses examples of instant messaging, surveys, Web sites, and modern film as examples for critique of visual culture.

As I was with the other reading, I was pleased with Nakamura’s discussion of race using the Matrix trilogy and Minority Report as artifacts on which to base the discussion. Her use of the films showed that representation of race in the films can serve as a mirror reflection or allegory to the problems faced in our own society. Nakamura did a good job of showing how whiteness is interpreted within the futuristic society that the Matrix is set in. I had a few thoughts of my own when thinking about Nakamura’s critique. Nakamura points out that whiteness is embedded in the construct of power in the matrix, referring to the matrix itself, as well as the machine city, while Zion, the last free city of humans is largely represented by minority groups.

In thinking about this, it seems that the movie trilogy shows whiteness as being a construct of technology. With a few key exceptions, all white persons in the movie have a strong dependence on technology. Most of the white persons seen in the movie are still connected to the matrix and thus highly dependent on the system to maintain their current reality, as well as the health of their dormant bodies. But as Nakamura shows, all of those who oppress in the movie are white, including the agents and the architect. Whiteness can therefore be characterized by a strong dependency on technology to separate itself from other groups, as well as a strong need or desire to control. All who are white within the matrix have amassed a vast amount of power, whether intentional and maliciously, or through happenstance and for good reason. Programs not controlled by the matrix such as the Merovingian, ghosts, and werewolves have large amounts of political, social, and political power within the realm of the matrix. Despite the diversity of their classification, they are all white and exhibit the characteristics of whiteness. Each of the programs, being programs, is dependent of the technology to maintain themselves, but also seek to control others around them by coercion or force. Even Neo, while he can be classified as multiracial, draws all of his prestige and power from his ability to control the machines and programs around him. He relies on the “white method” of securing power. He is able to do this well, but does not have ultimate control over the matrix. If there is a link between technology and whiteness? Is Neo denied full control because of his multiracialism?

I will correct Nakamura on one point she made. She draws a sharp contrast to Link, an operator on the Neo’s ship and the woman in white at the computer console in Zion. “While it has been a familiar trope for cyberpunk narratives to deploy pastiches of historical and sartorial styles to depict an unevenly developed and dystopic technological future, this scene superimposes the two contrastingly racialized visual styles of the interface to invoke the crucial difference in this film: that between white culture and black culture” (Nakamura 99).  I don’t think that this serves as a critique of race in the movie since a few things are being overlooked. For example, there is a black person in the exact screen shot shown, thus that privileged place of technology is not exclusively reserved for those who are white. However, this space also exists within the construct, a small human controlled area within the matrix. The person in white is unlikely actually clothed in such fine garments, but rather is showing a residual image of her self. But Nakamura’s comment does call into question the rhetoric of the space. The construct, much like the room where Neo meets the Architect, is completely white. The construct, as a part of the Matrix, is a piece of the subjugating technology that is under the control of the white people in power. However, the residents of Zion are able to control this technology as well. But why do we not see a change to the physical appearance of the construct? Is the construct, representing so-called higher technology unable to be assimilated by the people of Zion?  Or, is it fair to say that much like when Agent Smith tries to forcefully clone himself onto minority figures such as Neo and Morpheus, the people in the construct are able to exist alongside of the technology without changing it to match their own culture?

Nakamura quotes Herman Gray as noting that “Marginalized and subordinated communities have creatively transformed and used popular cultural artifacts such as music, costumes, parades, traditions, and festivals to transgress their particular locations, to express their visions, and invent themselves” (185). If the construct is representative of the Internet, then perhaps it has already been designated as a place devoid of any identity, like the construct. In this way, even though minorities are able to engage the Internet, they are still unable to make the technology their own. It is still too closely associated with whiteness.

The rejection of forceful assimilation by the non-white characters is a good demonstration of Nakamura’s suggestion that the non-white characters in the film, specifically black characters, contain a “mojo” that is intended to be appealing to audiences as a trait that makes the humans human, and thus cannot be overwritten. It is this mojo that sets human characters apart from the computer characters. The construct and the space where the Architect resides are devoid of any such mojo, perhaps a critique on white culture. In a sense, it is only the non-white characters who are truly human, while all others devoid of culture and content with their assimilation under white culture, which is actually depicted as being devoid of any culture at all.

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November 12, 2009 Posted by | Eng 467 | Leave a comment