‘The human is constantly created through the jettisoning of the Asian/Asian American other as robotic, as machine-like and not quite human […]’. These words, lifted from the extract of Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s essay ‘Race and/as Technology or How to Do Things to Race’ below, point to the habitually unexamined racialised and colonial structures of meaning that shape humanist (and often also posthumanist) imaginaries. They begin to expose how technologies of dominion and empire are inscribed into the very body of humanist thought and into the knowledges and structures of feeling these intersect with. In this way, racialised power structures also shape the technological infrastructures emerging from humanist notions of progress. For many years, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s work has been at the forefront of articulating this key problematic and we are delighted to be able to include this short extract in the Genealogy of the Posthuman. The present selection first appeared in the volume Race after the Internet (Routledge 2011), edited by Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White.[1]                                                                       – The editors, April 2019

High-Tech Orientalism (Cyberpunk & Race)

In my first book, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, I examined the importance of high-tech Orientalism to cyberpunk fiction and film, and to the emergence of the Internet as cyberspace. High-tech Orientalism is the obverse of the “scenes of empowerment” that flooded the airwaves in the mid- to late-1990s – conflations of racial and technological empowerment that argued that technology would eradicate racial difference. Foundational cyberpunk pre-visions, from William Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer to Neal Stephenson’s 1993 Snow Crush, I contended, use “Asian”, “African” and “half-breed” characters to create seductively dystopian near futures. Gibson’s fiction in particular perpetuates and relies on this high-tech Orientalism, a “navigate-by-difference” tactic in which disembodied heroes/console data cowboys emerge through disembodied representations of “local” people of color, irrevocably fixed in the past, and cyberspace is made desirable and exotic through relentless comparisons between it and Ninsei.[2] Importantly, Gibson’s vision of cyberspace has little to nothing in common with the Internet – other than a common 1990s fanbase. Inspired by the early 1980s Vancouver arcade scene, Gibson sat at his typewriter and outlined a 3D chessboard/consensual visual hallucination called the Matrix or “cyberspace”, in which corporations exist as bright neon shapes, and console cowboys steal and manipulate data. In Neuromancer, cyberspace is a “graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system”.[3]

Even though Gibson’s cyberspace does not coincide with the Internet, its seductive vision of a consensually hallucinated network in which U.S. cowboys thrive in an unfriendly, Asian-dominated corporate world made it an origin myth in the 1990s. Cyberpunk literature, which originated the desire for cyberspace as a frontier rather than cyberspace itself, seductively blinds users to their circulating representations through dreams of disembodiment (freed from one’s body), sustained by representations of others as disembodied information. Cyberpunk offers unnerving, disorienting yet ultimately readable “savage” otherness in order to create the mythic user. Rather than brush aside fear of strange locations, strangers, and their dark secrets by insisting that we are all the same, these narratives, like the detective fiction on which they are often based, romanticise and make readable, trackable and solvable the lawlessness and cultural differences that supposedly breed in crowds and cities. Racial and ethnic differences, emptied of any link to discrimination or exclusion, make these spaces “navigable” yet foreign, readable yet cryptic. Difference as a simple database category grounds cyberspace as a “navigable space”; through racial difference we steer, and sometimes conquer.

High-tech Orientalism offers the pleasure of exploring, the pleasure of being somewhat overwhelmed, but ultimately “jacked-in”. Crucially, this pleasure usually compensates for lack of mastery – Neuromancer was written at a time when the U.S. seemed to be losing its status as the number one financial power. The future in Neuromancer seemingly belongs to Japanese and other non-U.S.- corporations – the status of the U.S. as a nation-state is unclear – although U.S. console cowboys still ride high in cyberspace. High-tech Orientalism is not colonialism, but rather a paranoid reaction to global economic and data flows. High-tech Orientalism promises intimate knowledge, sexual concourse with the “other”, which it reduces to data, to a standing resource. This will-to-knowledge structures the plot of many cyberpunk novels, as well as the reader’s relation to the text; the reader is always “learning”, always trying to understand these narratives that confuse the reader. The reader eventually emerges as a hero/ine for having figured out the landscape, for having navigated these fast-paced texts, since the many unrelated plots (almost) come together at the end and revelations abound. This readerly satisfaction generates desire for these vaguely dystopian futures. Thus, if online communications threaten to submerge users in representation – if they threaten to turn users into media spectacles – high-tech Orientalism allows people to turn a blind eye to their own vulnerability and to enjoy themselves while doing so, to enjoy one’s emasculation. Silicon Valley readers are not simply “bad readers” for viewing these texts as utopian, for they do not necessarily desire the future as described by these texts; rather, they long for the ultimately steerable and sexy cyberspace, which always seems within reach, even as it slips from the future to past. They also yearn for cyberspace as the space of “biz”.

To put it slightly differently and to draw from the work of Karen Shimakawa on abjection and Asian American performance, high-tech Orientalism is a process of abjection – a frontier – through which the console cowboy, the properly human subject, is created. Shimakawa, drawing from the work of Julia Kristeva, argues that abjection is

both a state and a process – the conditions/position of that which is deemed loathsome and the process by which that appraisal is made… It is… the process by which the subject/“I” is produced: by establishing perceptual and conceptual borders around the self and “jettison[ing]” that which is deemed objectionable.[4]

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.

The question this essay asks in rethinking of race as technology is: can the abject, the Orientalised, the robot-like data-like Asian/Asian American other be a place from which something like insubordination or creativity can arise? To put it slightly differently, can the formulation of Asian as technology, Asians as the future, be turned from something terrifying to something like what Judith Butler calls a future horizon – “a… horizon… in which the violence of exclusion is perpetually in the process of becoming overcome”?[5] Can the abject, as Shimakawa argues, be a place for a critical mimesis – can we critically assume the role of the abject in order to call into question the larger system of representation and its closure? That is, can Asian/Asian American as robots, as data, be a critical mimesis of mimesis itself – a way for all to embrace their inner robot?

– First published in 2011 as part of the essay ‘Race and/as Technology or How to Do Things to Race’; this extract was reviewed and approved by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Simon Fraser University, April 2019


[1] We would like to thank Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White for their permission to republish this extract here. Details of first publication: Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, ‘Race and/as Technology or How to Do Things to Race’, Race after the Internet, ed. by Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White (London, New York: Routledge, 2011), pp. 38-60 (pp. 50-52).

[2] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006); William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984); Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (New York: Bantam Books, 1992).

[3] Gibson, Neuromancer, p. 51.

[4] Karen Shimakawa, National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 3.

[5] Judith Buttler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 53.