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Separating the 'Symbiotic Twins'

Posted by Prasad Krishna at Jun 17, 2010 10:25 AM |
This post tries to undo the comfortable linking that has come to exist in the ‘radical’ figure of the cyber-queer. And this is so not because of a nostalgic sense of the older ways of performing queerness, or the world of the Internet is fake or unreal in comparison to bodily experience, and ‘real’ politics lies elsewhere. This is so as it is a necessary step towards studying the relationship between technology and sexuality.

Here, I would like to deal with ‘openness’ as an idea that seems to structure discussions on the nature of both the Internet and queerness, in different ways. What does it mean to read an object/phenomenon/practice as signalling the acts of opening? What is opening placed in opposition to? The terms that come together to constitute the field of openness, so to speak, are these – transparency, publicness, privacy, safety, freedom, expression, anonymity (not so paradoxically), communication, virtuality on the one hand and opacity  on the other, the closet, danger, morality, prohibition, lack of access and real life.   

‘Openness’ is seen as the fundamental principle of the Internet. [1] The ramifications of this statement for Internet studies and by extension for studies on the ‘cyber queer’ or on the implications of Internet technology for alternative sexuality practices are then the concern of this post. What does this idea refer itself to in terms of how we live in the world? It refers to: 

  • communication – the idea that with the Internet, communication has broken free of the temporal, spatial, linguistic and national restrictions imposed by earlier technologies; 
  • space – that space is no longer defined in material terms and the binary or inside/outside and public/private, has been radically recast by the entry into our lives of ‘cyberspace’ and of space thought of in virtual terms;
  • body – dematerialization, disembodiment, terms that imply that on the Internet, you become an entity of the mind and of a desire that does not need the material body. The implications of this then being that the threat to the body, posed by its circulation in ‘real’ space and time, is now reduced, because that body no longer has as much at stake as the mind does, in the world of virtual technology. It also means release from a body that is encumbered by class difference and the various ‘markers’ of social relations;
  • decentralization – that the Internet adopts the mode of ‘weaving’, which is seen as a refusal of hierarchisation, the kind imposed by the ways in which information is made available, or production and consumption are managed, the ways in which class, race and gender restrict the ways in which individuals ‘participate’. Weaving then refers to a network system in place of a top-down system.   

“The evidence of the trend towards openness is all around. Young people are sharing their lives online via Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Google, and whatever comes next. Though that mystifies their elders and appalls self-appointed privacy advocates, the transparent generation gains value from its openness. This is how they find each other, share, and socialize.”[2] (Jeff Jarvis, author of What would Google do?). We are henceforth titled the ‘transparent generation’, and we find the same value in the technology that defines our lives – the Internet. Why we are ‘transparent’ when compared to earlier generations? ‘Transparent’, ‘strawberry’, etc., are all terms that have come to describe the present generation of Internet users, the youth, a category born out of an idea of freedom from both moral and political constraint. In this imagination of them, they use technology in order to gain this freedom, in order to give their minds and bodies, which are straining at the leash, the required escape routes, from institutions (family, school and legal systems), from social relations (class and sexuality), and earlier forms of political identification.

The 90s was seen as the decade of openness, both in terms of new media technology and sexual practice. “With liberalisation sweeping the Indian mindset, more and more people are determined to enjoy the secret thrills sex has to offer. While high-profile executives are being seduced by escort services, the middle-class minds are being titillated by 'parties'. Those who are more discreet go for phone sex or MMS.”[3] What comes across is an idea of a new relationship to the temporal and the spatial, the cultural and the social. And sexuality seems to be central to this relationship. “A sexual revolution is sweeping through the small and big towns of India, and to stay immune to it is a big (t)ask.”[4] This article from The Week tells us how the ‘new sexual’ or the ‘newly sexual’ is described in popular discourse. So much so that the violence of the right-wing groups against women and against ‘obscene’ texts are sometimes explained through this very revolution of/in sex. It is read as a backlash, in a moment that is producing this new relationship, with the help of new media technologies such as the mobile phone, the Internet, the web camera and the ‘things’ that enable this openness. And because it is read as a backlash, the practices of the Hindu right are read as wishing to close, to reverse this process of opening out and to keep things as they used to be. Openness is not just a set of practices; it is read as a mindset, a shift from an older era of being bound within certain social structures. “Earlier only newly married women had the right, indeed were expected, to advertise their sexuality before receding into wall-flowers as respectable married women but today all that has changed….Walk into any college or even a school campus across the country and you have young men and women equating liberation and sexuality” (Patricia Uberoi). The linking of sexuality and liberation or freedom is here crucial, because what is particular to this era is the fact that ‘sexual expression’ is seen an indicator of freedom, whether this freedom is placed against moral or political orthodoxies, or on the other hand posited as Westernisation. Popular discourse reveals us as having arrived at the desire for sexual freedom (whether or not sexual freedom itself). 

Queerness, a phenomenon of the 90s in the Indian context, is similarly described as an opening out. ‘Queer’ signifies a stepping out of the binary of heterosexuality/homosexuality, which will no longer encumber the body or the mind. It is a conscious move away from identities like lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, in fact identity in itself is rendered fragmented and cannot emerge from a monolithic location. 

“There was excitement and apprehension in the early '90s as an endless diversity of images flowed into private and public spaces…. Sexual speech came under special attention as newscasts, talk shows, sitcoms and a variety of TV shows challenged conventional family values and sexual normativity including monogamy, marriage and heterosexuality” (Shohini Ghosh – “The Closet is Ajar”, in Outlook[6]). Queerness is then linked to this rapid spread, this breathless circulation, this new access. Technological change is inextricably tied to this idea of the closet being ajar. “…the rapid spread of satellite TV and new media technologies continue to transform the cultural practices of the urban middle class.” It seems to be an era in which the boundaries of the sexual norm are being forced to redraw themselves, simply by the massive onslaught of ideas, speech and images. Queer identities are then seen as riding the crest of a wave of sexual revolution that has been washing over India over the past two decades.

These two formations, the Internet and the queer (we have not yet established what kind of formations they are), have been brought together in the term ‘cyber queer’ for the purpose of sociological and other analyses. The Levi’s ad for ‘innerwear’ shows a young black man saying, “On my web profile, I am a girl”. You can be a beer-bellied man in real life and turn into a voluptuous woman in second life. The virtual life, the virtual body and the virtual sex – the Internet is often spoken of as performing two functions for someone practicing alternative sexualities:

that it lets them be ‘other’ than they are (or are forced to be in real life);

by doing this, they are allowed to express their ‘real’ sexual desire or gender in a ‘safer’ space than in real life, thereby allowing for a freeing up or an opening (however, secretively it is done). “Cruising in physical spaces of the city has always been an affair which dangles on the edge of unsafety. Arrests and blackmail by policemen loaded with section 377, or extortion for money are often reported within queer circles. The Gay Bombay website has several articles and personal narratives which function as cruising guidelines and warnings. has several articles and personal narratives which function as cruising guidelines and warnings. In this context, Internet portals like guys4men provide forums which can be used to manoeuvre cruising in a different manner, possibly much safer than in moonlit Nehru or Central Parks in Delhi or train-station loos in Bombay.” (Mario d’Penha, gay activist [7])

Again, the notion of ‘space’ as suddenly emerging from the shadowy realms of ambiguity and secrecy, to stand in for freedom, is something that one often encounters in relation to cyber-queerness. And it is not just physical space which is pulled into this discourse of the technological shift, it is desire itself - “Desire is unabashed, playful and complex here”[8]. Desire, personified thus, is then seen as something set free by and through technological innovation. 

Though this notion of sudden freedom is contested by researchers and scholars within the field, the result of that contestation has often been to:

  • affirm, in place of a single figure of the liberated cyber queer, the multiplicity of behaviours, dangers and freedoms that are generated. This is a little like affirming, in place of a single body called the public, several bodies that are termed multiple publics, or subaltern publics. The problem with this approach is that the nature of this public, the public-ness of it, is not then fully interrogated. It is assumed that the multiplicity in itself will be contest enough;
  • return to the body as existing at the root of queer existence. This return then, in claiming something that has been forgotten, or disavowed (our bodily existence), finds a strange comfort in this body, settling within it as if having found a location from which to speak, about the virtual, about cyberspace. For example, though Jodi O’Brien, in her essay “Changing the Subject”[9] refutes the claim “There are no closets in cyberspace”, she finds it necessary to return to the ‘body’ and not to subjectivity in order to do so – it is as if the materiality of the body is the only concrete thing that will allow this contestation. “The ‘alternative’ experiences that are enacted in ‘alternative’ or queer spaces are based on realities of the flesh: real, embodied experiences and/or fantasies cultivated through exposure to multisensory stimuli.” The body then becomes the explanatory fulcrum, and it is only from here that any kind of relationship to what is seen as virtuality can be understood.

An ancestor to the above problem - “What precisely does the cyber add to the queer identity which it lacked previously?”[10] This question, framed as the most basic one can ask of this figure, makes the following assumptions – that ‘queer’ is a human subject that precedes ‘cyber’, a.k.a non-human technology that the latter adds to this human subject and how it performs in the world, or has transformed it after the fact.  

It is remarkably easy to say that in the great saga of sexual practices, technology has been an agent of transformation. Or, more importantly, to place cyberspace and queerness on par with each other, as sharing the same nature, or functioning on the same fundamental principle – of decentering or destabilizing a previously integrated or unified subject. Nina Wakeford asks of the term cyberqueer, “…what is the purpose of creating a hybrid of the two? It is a calculated move which stresses the interdependence of the two concepts, both in the daily practices of the certain and maintenance of a cyberspace which is lesbian, gay, transgendered or queer, and in the research of these arenas.”[11] By this logic, they are interdependent because there is some inherent quality in each that makes it offer itself to the other. “Queer sex is about following the desires of the flesh into an unnamed, uncategorized, uncharted realm, and doing something that neither of you can 'code'.”[12] The value of queerness therefore, derives from this lack of naming, an escape from coding of a particular kind, the zone of ambiguous enactments of desire.[13] “While it is this open transparent character of online existence that lays the Internet vulnerable to surveillance, it is also its self-inscribing character that makes it the playground of possibilities it is at its best. Cyberspace is habitat, playground, university, boulevard and refuge” (Shuddhabrata Sengupta, ‘Net Nomad on a Rough Route: A Despatch from Cyberspace’[14]). It is a zone of enactments of desire, a playground of possibilities, undefined, unbound.  

There is then a reading of technology and sexuality as feeding off each other - “The relationship between technology and sexuality is a symbiotic one. As humankind creates new inventions, people find ways of eroticizing new technology. So it is not surprising that with the advent of the information superhighway, more and more folks are discovering the sexual underground within the virtual community in cyberspace” (Daniel Tsang)[15]. The above quote assumes the following:

  • that humankind existed before technology;
  • that first a technology is born and then there is the eroticization of this technology. It is only because of these assumptions that technology (in this case the Internet) as such can be seen as fundamentally open. Latour’s critique of the first assumption is that “Without technological detours, the properly human cannot exist.”

At the point of encountering this strange euphoria, we need to pause and consider, with Latour, this very relationship between technology and sexuality. “There has been a persistent silence on matters of sexuality in critical cultural studies of technology, perhaps partially because technology was associated with the instrumental to the exclusion of the representational (Case 1995). The creation of the term ‘cyber queer’ is itself an act of resistance in the face of such suppression” (Nina Wakeford). If the relationship between the two is viewed along representational lines, then the only direction that can be taken is one which will posit the human before the technological, will posit technological as that which enables (or not) representations of this human subject. In this sense, the representational is not far from the instrumental as an explanatory framework. 

In all the explanations we have seen above, at one level or another, technology has viewed as the ‘thing’[17], and morality as that which ascribes meaning in a particular way to this thing. For example, the mobile phone is seen as the thing, the technology, with concrete attributes and use value. Morality is what then prescribes how this thing is to be used or not used, or the dangers that follow from its use in the world of social relations. Latour argues against this way of positioning technology and morality, and instead calls them both modes of ‘alterity’, albeit two different modes. Alterity in his definition is being-as-another, technology and morality both then constituting a particular way of being-as-another. Technology is not what you use, it is not a means to an end, it in fact changes the end to which it is the means. It is the curve, the detour. Morality is what questions means and ends and prevents the easy categorization of objects or people as one or another.  

We are used to thinking of morality as keeping things static, wanting them unchanged, preventing new ideas or practices from being absorbed into the domains of our existence. Especially when it comes to sexuality, morality is seen as that which blocks, which lives in the past, which ‘ossifies’ – “…morality consists precisely of the willingness/ability to accept and organize one's behaviour in accordance with… ‘ossified’ recipes for interaction. If gender is a primary (read: coded as ‘natural’) institution for organizing social interaction, then boundary transgressions are not only likely to arouse confusion but to elicit moral outrage from the boundary keepers.”[18] Morality here refers to boundary keeping. Latour shifts our understanding of morality in ways that allow us to read beyond the boundary keeping. According to him, morality constantly interrupts the means-to-end process by questioning the use of something/someone as a means towards an end. Morality is then a hindrance to this process, not an ossification of social relations or practices.

This argument disrupts the location of technology as that which signals an opening out of the universe, and morality as signalling a closing off. True, Latour himself reads technology as creating new functions, or as creating new ends but he does not categorise these and the technologies they derive from as ‘open’. For him, technology is opaque, unreadable. Sexuality also then cannot be read as feeding off of technology, as some kind of symbiotic twin to it. The relationship between technological shifts and sexual practices or identities has to be read alternately to this idea of freedom from the shackles of social relations and bodily constraints. Sexuality cannot also then be opposed to morality, as it has often been done.

 

 [1] www.openinternetcoalition.org.

[2] Jarvis, Jeff. “Openness and the Internet”, http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/may2009/ca2009058_754247.htm.

[3] Doval, Nikita. “Bold Bodies”, in The Week, September 7, 2008.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Quoted in Doval, Nikita. "Bold Bodies", in The Week, September 7, 2008, p 50.

[6] http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?227507

[7] Quoted in Katyal, Akhil. “Cyber Cultures/Queer Cultures in Delhi”. See http://mail.sarai.net/pipermail/urbanstudygroup/2007-July/002827.html

[8] Katyal, Akhil “Cyber Cultures/Queer Cultures in Delhi”. See http://mail.sarai.net/pipermail/urbanstudygroup/2007-July/002827.html

[9] Women and Performance: Issue 17: Sexuality and Cyberspace.

[10] Wakeford, Nina. “Cyberqueer”, in Bell, David and Barbara Kennedy, eds. The Cybercultures Reader. Routledge: London, 2000

[11] “Cyberqueer”, in Bell, David and Barbara Kennedy, eds. The Cybercultures Reader. 

[12] O’Brien, Jodi. “Changing the Subject”. In Women and Performance, Issue 17: Sexuality and Cyberspace.

[13] Here I deal with the idea of queerness at an almost commonsensical level, not at the level of the queer theory of Judith Butler or Eve Sedgwick, just as cyberspace is also dealt with at the level of what it seems to be seen as doing.

[14] Quoted in the Sarai discussion.

[15] Tsang, Daniel. “Notes on Queer ‘n’ Asian Virtual Sex”. In Bell, David and Barbara Kennedy, eds. The Cybercultures Reader. Routledge: London, 2000.

[16] Latour, Bruno. “Morality and Technology: The End of the Means”. See http://www.bruno-latour.fr/articles/article/080-en.html.

[17] I put this in quotes because latour has a very specific definition of ‘thing’ or Ding, which this is not.

[18] O’Brien, Jodi. “Changing the Subject”, in Women and Performance, Issue 17: Sexuality and Cyberspace. See http://web.archive.org/web/20040604123458/www.echonyc.com/~women/Issue17/art-browning.html

[18] O’Brien, Jodi. “Changing the Subject”, in Women and Performance, Issue 17: Sexuality and Cyberspace. See http://web.archive.org/web/20040604123458/www.echonyc.com/~women/Issue17/art-browning.html

 

 

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