Lisa Nakamura

On Dec 23, 2004, at 1:33 PM, Tom Leeser wrote:

Hi Lisa-
Here's the first interview question. I thought it would be a good kick-off. After this one we'll use the discussion as the source of the follow up questions. They'll be 10 questions in all. So here goes:
Lisa, I thought I'd start the interview with asking you to talk about

I recently checked out the new iPod commercials from Apple (http://www.apple.com/ipod/ads/) and was reminded of your discussion of identity and contemporary technology in your book "Cybertypes."

You state: "In the bright light of contemporary technology identity is revealed to be phantasmatic, a projection of culture and ideology. It is a product of a reflection or a deflection of prior images, as opposed to afterimages of identity."

The strategies behind these ads seem to validate your critique of identity, the afterimage and the projection of culture and ideology by technology.

They reduce identity to an empty form, the only "real" visible object being the white iPod itself. By extracting the color content of the digital image and leaving only the negative space of the alpha channel, the ads entice us to fill the black void, transporting our identities into the receptive empty container of the "hip" iPod dancers. The dancers are ultimately framed as representations of iPod culture and act as reflections of our desires. The fulfillment of those desires would be realized by the purchase of an iPod, opening the gates and allowing us to enter Apple's utopian "iWorld."

I think that your reading is dead on, Tom, and my response is mainly going to be to add to and amplify it. I really like the idea of the "negative space of the alpha channel" creating a black void into which a viewer's identity can be transported. The reason that I like it is that it references the digital production methods of the ads themselves, surely one of the reasons that they have become so popular, almost as iconic as the ipods themselves. The ipod aesthetic is all about neutrality, modernism, negative space, but when it comes to the device the color scheme is white rather than the black silhouette. In other writings about the films Minority Report and the Matrix trilogy I’ve discussed this look as a revival of modernism (you notice the new interest in Eames and Herman Miller in the houses of the fashionable? Stores like Design Within Reach cater to this new default design taste. I have read that even baby furniture is coming in this style, for upwardly mobile parents who just can’t deal with Fisher-Price plastic (see Weil, Elizabeth. ""the Modernist Nursery"." The New York Times Magazine, November 26 2004, 71-75.)

So I think of it very much as a “white” style: transparent, neutral, “clean,” and modern. So the incursion into everyday life and everyday acts of this visual style: the potty, the MP3 player, the chair, the computer. It started with the imac and the ipod is part of its current arc. It’s as you say, “iworld.”

There are lots of puns that you can pull out of that: “eye-world” is a world of specific digital visual cultures, on the level of both the interface and the hardware (nobody talks about the interface of the ipod, or rather, what you see when you’re using it. All the attention is paid to what the device itself looks like, this is very much the same way that Apple depicts it). We’re seeing the proliferation of niche digital cultures, and the ipod is an excellent example of one of them. And an “I-world” in that it’s all about customization and putting your own mark on things that are produced in a mass fashion, but meant to be altered, “burned,” or ripped. The ipod is the object of desire because though each of them looks exactly the same, they are meant to be written on, to be shared with others, to contain your subjectivity in a way that clothes or furniture can’t. Thus it embodies this kind of digital privilege that’s invisible or transparent, the alpha channel of the I-strategy. This is part of the strategy that the ipod ads use to get the potential user to insert themselves into iworld. Obviously the first thing that you have to do is get 300 bucks to buy one.

One thing I noticed when looking at the ads in more detail, though, is how they are far from neutral; they references specific styles and genres of music. The ipod is an audio technology; why such an exceedingly and particularly visual take on it? Well, obviously selling is a lot about visibility. Media richness has got to with bringing sound, movement, image, and interactivity together. I would contend as well however that the ads have a racial politics that are about selling race as a way to sell music and technology.

I’m sending you a URL to a website by Tang Art Garage: these reproduce images that we done as part of a print guerilla advertising project called “ipod ghraib.” And here’s a bit from it:

As you can see, the artist used the basic visual setup of the ipod ads: solid primary background colors, the ipod depicted in detail, and the negative space of the alpha channel is filled in by soldiers and torture victims from the famous Abu Ghraib photographs, as opposed to the iconic dancers in the original ads. In contrast to Apple’s efforts to efface the identities of the dancers, but not their races, in “ipod ghraib” you can see how the individual features of the soldiers are visible, so as to emphasize their identities, which is in keeping with the kind of political critique that this ad is trying to accomplish. The facelessness of the masked figure in the first image with the electrocution wires replaced by white ipod earbud wires underscores the evacuation of personal identity that is necessary to torturing someone. In order to torture someone you need to reducing them to a body without a face or identity, often by masking or hooding (and the technology used to make the ipod ads involve masking as well, but on the level of image processing software). These images were plastered up in New York city public spaces over the original Apple ipod ads, and I think that people found them genuinely shocking. I certainly do. It’s a critique of consumer culture that directly ties it to the military industrial complex; not just any body can occupy that desired space of musical free volition, expression, and consumption. Those bodies that are barred from occupying that enticing blank space of the dancer, shopper, consumer, the bourgeois subject of digital culture, are exactly those bodies whose oppression underwrites western privilege.

Susan Sontag wrote an excellent article in the New York Times Magazine comparing the Abu Ghraib photographs to lynching postcards, in terms of their formal elements, such as the way that they were composed, framed, and directed. I thought at the time that this comparison was well taken and overdue, and had been very surprised that nobody saw that before. It was the first thing that I thought of, mainly because it seemed to me that the Abu Ghraib photographs documented and enacted an overtly racialized sort of crime, like lynching, and one so much about effacing the personal identity of the victim while emphasizing, as much as possible, the victim’s race as their marker of difference, the reason why they are there, the reason that the image exists in the first place. Race is the answer to the question: why memorialize such a thing? I really like Coco Fusco’s introduction to the Skin Deep show in regards to these matters: see Fusco, Coco, and Brian Wallis. Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self. New York: International Center of Photography/Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

Can you talk about this issue of technology and the methods of the cultural and ideological identification? Oh and do you own an iPod?

I don't own an ipod, though I wouldn't mind getting one for Christmas. If I had any research money left I would buy one. It wasn't something that it occurred to me to buy back when I had research funds for such things, which is probably significant. I wanted a scanner/copier/printer machine much more. I had a discman several years ago and never used that, so didn’t see the point of getting an ipod.

The ipod depicts black people dancing because black people dancing visually signifies desire that the white body can’t feel and can’t express visually. Richard Dyer’s work on whiteness is very eloquent on the ways that white sexuality is displaced onto blackness. Though the silhouettes of the dancers are an empty “alpha” channel that has no color in it, they are paradoxically full of color: black expressive styles are referenced via such signifiers as dreadlocks, afros, and pheno/stereo/typically black profiles and bodies and serve to intensify the way that the ipod sells choice and random access in genres: musical genres of course, but also the way that identities can be chosen and stepped into and out of through the medium of music. Technology has always promised different sorts of transformations: Apple in particular is a machine, a company, and an ideology that has always been more preoccupied with the visible (and with “vision”) than other information hardware manufacturers have been. The ipod “look and feel” is no doubt an infectious one, one that is driving the rest of the company advertising of their product line. (see the way that the imac g5 is being marketed as a bigger version of the ipod: )

In fact, Apple has chosen to rewrite its institutional history around the ipod: when I last downloaded a copy of their 1984 commercial, directed by Ridley Scott, to screen for my intro students this fall, an ipod had been added to the figure of the hammer throwing lady who “liberates” the downtrodden hordes from the hegemony of Big Brother. Check it out at http://www.apple.com/hardware/ads/1984/. (you can download it as a quicktime movie). This was a little frustrating because I really wanted to show my students the “original” version of the commercial, the one that people saw when they were watching the SuperBowl in 1984 and had no idea that personal computers would become a big part of our popular culture, but then I realized that this is part of what the web has done. It has made media live forever, and be randomly accessible (what is google but a way to access media “randomly?”) but also subjected it to the whims of alteration, legitimate and illegitimate. All the more reason why we need to study media differently now; it doesn’t stay still the way that it used to, there are more layers to consider, a different provenance that challenges the idea of genealogy and originality and authenticity. People have tended to focus on the way that hackers do things like machinimas or spoofs or mashes that empower them as fan producers. Academics dig this because they like the idea of amateurs challenging corporate hegemonies. All I can say is that corporations are doing this to themselves; it isn’t just from the margin that it’s happening at all. The margin has become the center in this case. Being able to hack yourself is part of the new media business plan.

The idea of random access has always intrigued me. When I teach my Critical Internet studies course it is on their quiz as a term for them to know, and I do think that it is an important principle of the structure and logic of new media. It has to do with the re-spatialization of media experiences: rather than needing to wait until a tape rewinds to get to the beginning, random access allows us to get there immediately, if we know where we want to go. That seems to be a potentially interesting metaphor for the logic of the ipod in terms of what it offers the consumer: you can either choose to “shuffle” or let the machine decide, to use random accessing to program in arrangements of songs and such. In the ipod ads, access to music styles is not seen as random at all, on the contrary, something that has to be mediated by invisible but hypervisible black bodies. It’s not possible to see who they are, but it is centrally the point what they are.

Needless to say, I don’t think that these ads are targeted towards black audiences.