by Minh-Ha T. Pham. Duke University Press.
2015. $89.95 hardcover; $24.95 paper; $14.49 e-book. 272 pages.
You need not be familiar with Susie Bubble or BryanBoy to appreciate Minh-Ha T. Pham's detailed analysis of their style blogs and cultural influence in her book Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet. In fact, you do not even need to be invested in fashion media; Pham's book is about much more than the title suggests, including the politics of contemporary racial representations, gendered identity performances online, practices of digital and racialized labor, and the ways in which value is produced and circulated within digital economies.
In Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet, Pham maps a fascinating cultural history of the Asian personal-style superblogger, a figure that has been prominent in the digital fashion media landscape for close to a decade. Pham focuses her analysis on several popular bloggers, including London-born Hong Konger Susanna Lau (known online as Susie Bubble), Korean American Aimee Song, and queer Filipino Bryan Grey Yambao (known online as BryanBoy), examining the ways in which they use style stories, outfit photos, blogger poses, and outfit posts in their blogs. Throughout the book she draws on a diverse range of cultural theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu, Walter Benjamin, Homi [End Page 155] Bhabha, and Lisa Nakamura, anchoring her analysis in the intersecting traditions of cultural studies, critical race theory, and digital media studies.
Pham begins Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet by carefully historicizing her subject, with an attention toward historical context that informs the entire book. In doing so, she avoids the popular discursive characterization of Asian superbloggers as an entirely new phenomenon that emerged out of the limitless opportunities supposedly provided via digital technologies. Instead, she uses the introduction to map the relationship between Asian superbloggers and the history of Asian fashion labor, convincingly demonstrating how personal-style blogging is constitutive of and constituted by the continuation of Asian sweated garment work, or the labor that occurs within low-wage sweatshops. While Pham acknowledges the hierarchical differences between the labor practices of superbloggers and factory workers, she characterizes both as racially gendered underwaged or unwaged labor that is emblematic of global neoliberal capitalism. It is this positioning of Asian personal-style superbloggers as under- or unwaged digital laborers that underpins Pham's analysis throughout the book and provides the foundation for taking seriously the value-producing work in which they engage.
In this sense, there are clear political stakes to Pham's research. By recognizing Asian superbloggers—most of whom are young women or queer young men—as laborers, Pham pushes back against hegemonic discourses that often devalue the racialized and gendered work of these groups. Indeed, Pham directly addresses these discourses in her first chapter, where she argues that the journalistic dismissal of these bloggers as inauthentic, attention seeking, lacking in talent, and outrageously gaudy must be understood as indicative of what Pham calls a "racial aftertaste." Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu, Pham describes racial aftertaste as "the souring of public tastes toward what was once a curious novelty and that now threatens to become a permanent feature of the new fashion and media economy."1 In other words, she argues that the longevity and prominence of Asian superbloggers in contemporary fashion media have made them threatening to the dominant (white) norm, prompting what might be read as a backlash couched in dismissive language, with roots in racism, sexism, classism, and ageism.
Pham contends that this racial aftertaste reveals the limits of a discursive liberal multiculturalism that often informs discussions about digital culture. Indeed, it is easy to conclude that the accessibility and prevalence of digital media has democratized the fashion industry and that the mere visibility of Asian personal-style bloggers suggests that race is no longer a barrier for people of color who want a career in the fashion and media industries. Yet Pham's analysis complicates this argument, and throughout the book she uncovers the various ways in which racial hierarchies of fashion bodies, tastes, and economies remain relatively intact in the digital era.