Intimate immanence: A conversation between Shaka McGlotten and Katherine Sender
First Monday

Intimate immanence: A conversation between Shaka McGlotten and Katherine Sender by Shaka McGlotten and Katherine Sender



Abstract
Intimate immanence is a transcript of a keynote dialogue between Shaka McGlotten and Katherine Sender at the second Queer Internet Symposium in 2017. Their conversation covers a wide array of issues related to queerness and technology, as well as McGlotten’s recent and forthcoming work.

 


 

Editor’s introduction

Rather than a keynote lecture, QIS2 organizers sought to queer the traditional conference format with an extended dialogue between two preeminent scholars who have long theorized sociotechnical entanglements of queer bodies, desires, devices and media flows. Katherine Sender is professor of media and sexuality in communication studies at the University of Michigan. She specializes in gender sexuality and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer representation. Her research areas span television audiences, creative industries and cultural production, marketing and consumer culture and globalization. Her current research focuses on sex museums as sites to investigate transnational sexual mobilities. Shaka McGlotten is associate professor of media studies at Purchase College, State University of New York, and Doris and Carl Kempner Distinguished Professor 2016–2018. Their recent chapter, “Black data”, appeared in No tea, no shade: New writings in black queer studies (Duke University Press, 2016), which follows Virtual intimacies: Media, affect, and queer sociality (State University of New York Press, 2013) and Black genders and sexualities (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), which is co edited with Dána-Ain Davis. Their conversation reflected a serious engagement with each other’s work as well as the day’s conversations, touching on intimacy, prejudice, stigma, temporality, mediation and socio-technical flows of desire.

Katherine Sender: When I was reviewing Shaka’s work, there are some very compelling photos across your different projects. I thought we could frame the initial part of the discussion around four photos. The place I want to start is with your book Virtual intimacies (McGlotten, 2013). Right in the coda is this image from Grindr, “Not into spice or rice.” I thought this was a good way to open up a conversation to talk about what are virtual intimacies, what does virtuality bring to intimacy? And also your idea of immanence, which I think is very exciting. In Virtual intimacies, you do a really beautiful job of elaborating this. I was wondering whether you would start there.

Shaka McGlotten: The Virtual intimacies project came out of my dissertation research, which was largely about public sex in Austin. A significant portion of that research had to do with the ways that Austin, as a city that was being groomed to become a new Silicon Valley in the late ’90s and early 2000s, was an early adopter of all of these new technologies, everything from chat rooms and so on. It was a very technologically sophisticated city. I was interested in the ways that these earlier kinds of materialities around public sex were increasingly being ... initially I thought supplanted, really just overlaid with these other kinds of digital ... we can use a word like “affordances.” There was actually a kind of multiplication effect, in terms of the kinds of sexual practices and connections that people were able to engage in.

One of the things that animated that research, and then I have tried to weave throughout the book, was the relationship of queer sociality and queer intimacies to failure.

Failure, of course, in the context of queer intimacies, might be the ways in which queer intimacies are seen as always already failed, because of the ways they don’t adhere to heteronormative logics, whether of coupledom or of family. You guys know the drill.

At the same time, there is a kind of immanence, a latent potentiality in intimacy all the time. First, there’s all the ways that queers resisted this sense of failure and created all kinds of new counter publics, new forms of sociality, new forms of kinship, and so on.

I was still really struck by this sense of failure. In my ethnographic research on public sex, it showed up, for example, in the ways people mourned all kinds of losses that were tied to HIV/AIDS. There was this failure for the politics of sexual liberation that was happening in the ’70s to ever fully realize itself. In addition to the heteronormative gays that saw these intimacies as always already failed, you also had the very material sorts of failure of certain things to be realized. Within failure, there’s always some excess or some potentiality. Failures are never absolute.

I was just interested in that tension and I guess the other side of the failure then would be immanence, this idea that there is always a potentiality there that has not either been captured or expressed. In this work, I was, of course, influenced by people like Jack Halberstam (2011), who wrote a book called The queer art of failure. My work with immanence was really coming from Deleuze (2001). This sense, too, of — especially when we think about our scholarship — as queer scholars, and especially queer scholars of technology or of the Internet, that there is always something latent that we actually don’t know yet. That, for me, was something important to continuously point to. There was a balancing act between the failures of queer intimacies from the outside, from the inside, and the ongoing immanence, the ongoing potentiality of queer sociality.

Katherine: You talk about sexual publics and sex publics in the book, so I was trying to think through, what does this mean? What do you mean by sex publics? What are virtual sex publics, and are there meaningful distinctions around that virtuality and/or different mediated versions of sex publics?

Shaka: I’ll start by answering the unanswered question from the first one, which is how do I understand the virtual. That’s, again, from most of my understanding that comes from Deleuze, where immanence and the virtual are understood in the same way. The virtual is real but not concrete, ideal but not abstract. This is some parsing of that.

In terms of the sex publics, maybe the easiest way to address that question has to do with all of the ways in which — especially for gay men — sex was key, really part of the glue, of these queer social networks. When I use the term sex publics, I’m both referring to these hailed groups of people who are engaged in some kinds of mutually engaged in sex together. I’m also referencing, in a way, the many ways sex can be made public. Here, of course, the work of Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner (1998) was really important. These aren’t ideas that I came up with on my own.

When it came to virtuality and virtual sex publics, again, in many key ways, they overlap even today. This is, again, going back to this notion of immanence. There are all kinds of things that are constantly happening all the time. Just thinking about certain terms that have emerged in recent years through dating or hookup apps, like “Ghosting,” this idea that you’re talking to someone, you’re into each other, you share some pictures, and then they disappear. So there are all kinds of new sexual practices that are emergent, kind of constantly. How many think of your phones as an erotic objects now? What’s foreplay? Foreplay is swiping, right? Foreplay is tapping, foreplay is clicking, right?

When I think about that again, I’m not using the notion of the virtual as developed by Deleuze in the faithful way. I’m actually kind of trying to have it both ways, the virtual as both immanence and as something quite concrete, but those are some of the ways that I think about it. I think that these worlds are still overlaid in a sense that even a public sexual encounter, the sort of the classic cruising encounters are mediated through virtual means, through digital means. People will arrange now to meet at a particular university bathroom, or a park, or whatever, using Grindr, Scruff, Snapchat, whatever.

Katherine: I was really interested in your discussion of black affect. You talked about anxiety, paranoia, including looking at John Jackson’s (2008) work, and I was wondering whether you felt you could extrapolate on virtual intimacies as a form of “cruel optimism” (Berlant, 2011).

Shaka: Lauren Berlant’s (2011) Cruel optimism was very influential for me. It was one of those books that really under your skin, everything becomes cruel optimism. Virtual intimacy is a great way of framing and also sort of highlighting that paradox between going online with potentially the sense of openness. The immanence of this virtual space, but then, that longing to connect may not actually be nourishing for us in the ways that we actually are able to connect or not with other people.

When I was thinking about black affects too, I was a student of Katie Stewart. In the orbit of a lot of the people who are doing affect theory and affect studies, especially from a kind of cultural studies or into logical perspective that actually Katie Stewart is one of the only anthropologists who really tackled it directly (see Stewart, 2007). I was just sort of struck by the absence of, not discussions of race, but the racial specificity. I've always been within this feminist science and technology studies lineage, and I thought about affect theory and I noticed it was just like you have this body of theory that never really intersected with critical race theory.

This is not true anymore, but at that time, very few scholars of color had really been talking about it (José Muñoz was one, but the only, exception). There was another critical theoretical concept Afrofuturism, which never achieved the visibility or the theoretical way of affect theory, which took over. Even by the early 2000s, it was all over the place and Afrofuturism, you could do like a little chart of it, there was a little rise and a dip, it would disappear, and then there would be a rise and someone would publish a book and talk about it and there would be a dip. Thinking about black affect and thinking about these digital context, more and more I’m going to be moving toward extending that into a longer discussion of Afrofuturism and trying to draw out some of these theoretical and historical connections.

Katherine: One of the things that is really helpful about Berlant’s expression is the ways in which these affects get folded into new forms of revenue generation, monetization, capitalization of different kinds. Maybe you can talk more about how you see these virtual intimacies being capitalized in different ways, and how those ways are changing, because it seems to me that even since your book came out there are new options [for monetizing affect].

Shaka: I think from the very beginning of my research, when I was really looking at the chat rooms at Gay.com, there was never a time outside of neoliberal capitalism. Though my feeling was when I was first encountering these, these really were vibrant spaces of sociality, and then you began to have different kinds of emphasis. For example, when I was first in these chat rooms, it was really text-based still, and so there was a lot of writing. You would build up sexual tension through text, and then maybe you would cam. After a year or two as cameras became more widely available, there was a demand to have a photo. No one would talk with you if you didn’t have a photo, and that is maybe an intensification or acceleration of that neoliberal logic.

Certainly with Grindr, you could just submit a case study in neoliberal capitalism in the ways that people are turned into little grid. The design of these apps, whether it’s the grid of Grindr or Scruff or the swiping of Tinder. In the former examples, there is just this flattening. You’re one of the different cereal boxes. The question is how can you stand out? Are you Fruity Pebbles? Are you going to be Lucky Charms? Are you going to be some muesli? You swipe through decks in Tinder and, if you connect with someone, the app will ask, “You want to write to them, or do you want to keep playing?” Intimacy has been turned into a kind of game. Arguably, even in the ’70s, you have psychologists writing books like the games people play. It’s not that intimacy hasn’t had a history of being related to playing a game.

Katherine: I want to come back to your idea of “browsing” before we talk particularly about this image, but it’s in the same chapter. I love your discussion of browsing as a form of a failed connection that is nonetheless full of its own kinds of intimacies, possibilities, and immanence. It made me think about the gendered dimensions of hookup acts in particular.

Adrienne Shaw and I published a special issue of a journal on queer technologies earlier last year (Shaw and Sender, 2016). One of the pieces in it is by Sarah Murray and Megan Sapnar Ankerson (2016). They talk about how some efforts to make a lesbian app were really hard because of very different kinds of temporalities for lesbian dating. The capitalistic capital generating logic of Grindr, and Scruff, and Tinder is about speed, and rapidity, and lots of options, and selecting and then moving into a different place, and that’s how they make money. Various attempts to produce apps for lesbians have been really fraught, partly around their temporal features, because the conventions of lesbian sociality and romantic relationality have traditionally been much slower and more tentative. You want to chat, then you want to chat some more, and then want to think about it for a week, whatever the certain stereotype is. Which, of course, drives the venture capitalist nuts because it’s like, “We can’t have these two members going off and chatting for a month before they decide whether or not they’re going to get a cup of tea.” You talk a lot about the queer potentials of virtual intimacies, but where do you think the places of friction are around the gender dimensions of that?

Shaka: When I did do that research, even though the book is mainly focused on the experiences of gay men, I did conduct interviews with women, trans folk, and others. For all kinds of reasons, they didn’t appear in this book. One thing I think is that, with the gender dimensions, there have efforts to create apps, for example, like Bumble, which were more straight-focused, but the idea there was that a man couldn’t connect to a woman unless the woman had already signaled her interest in the guy, so there was a kind of gatekeeping effect. There have also been other efforts to create apps and to market them explicitly as not hookup apps because there's this trajectory of these apps where they’re meant for sociality, but almost instantly are appropriated for sexual purposes. I do think that gay male intimate sociality, sexual socialities, stranger socialities are really fast, but I’m not sure. I wonder if the problem really is around temporality.

Katherine: What would it be if it wasn’t around temporality?

Shaka: I think maybe the forms of intimacy. This is just a wager, but the forms of proximate intimacy. My guess is it would be that AFAB [assigned-female at birth] folks are interested in certain forms of interaction that are durational. It doesn’t mean that you don’t hook up. There’s a kind of durational thing that has to do with a certain kind of desire for proximity. This is the sort of extension, more extended temporality. I can’t help but think of the classic, “What do lesbians do on a second date?” “Rent a U-Haul.” There is an accelerated temporality to lesbian sociality as well, but the gay male would be like, “Thanks for coming over.” Like, “Hi,” we’re social and, “Bye-bye,” 20 minutes later. Whereas the lesbian temporality, I think, for all kinds of reasons are stretched.

Maybe someone here can do research with programmers and developers who are trying to work on those apps to understand whether the problems they’re facing are problems that have to do with their own assumptions about lesbian sociality or something else. I do think, too, that women, not just lesbian-identified women, but when you think about the socialities that really made the Web social, my sense is a lot of those were driven by people who are assigned female at birth. Forms, fan pages, fanfiction, and so on. The bandwidth of gay male sociality was actually much more narrow.

Katherine: Let’s talk about this image [see Figure 1]. You talk about different forms of failed intimacy. Could you talk about where this came from and what kinds of failure and what kinds of productivity come out of this site which is called “Douchebags of Grindr”? Right?

 

Screenshot from gay dating app Grindr displaying a profile that using racist language, posted on Web site Douchebags of Grindr
 
Figure 1: A screenshot from the gay men’s dating app Grindr displaying a profile that using racist language, posted on the Web site “Douchebags of Grindr”.

 

Shaka: This image comes from a site called “Douchebags of Grindr”. It’s basically a name and shame Web site. It’s, as far as I know, no longer posting new content. Essentially, it was calling people to account for their fat phobia, fem phobia, racism, and so on.

It was just highlighting what had been, by the time the Web site went up, already a well-established pattern of racists, and effeminate phobic, and fat phobic, transphobic discourse in these apps. I got to it, again, through being interested in browsing. In other words, this idea that — in spite of, in some ways, what I just said — that not everyone is going online to get off. There’s a logic immanent to browsing itself. That can be the aim. It’s just going through. One of the things people would do is even more heightened now with the phenomenon of cat fishing or baiting — the B-A-I-T-I-N-G, not the other baiting — with baiting is they’re just looking to collect stuff. They’re looking to collect pictures. They’re looking to collect weird stories. They’re looking to collect douchebags.

That was the site. I think that there’s an interesting ethics to the site in that it got a little bit of press. It was operative, I think, for a couple of years. It wasn’t something you would just stumble on. You had to find it. Here, I did a really quick job because I had the original file. In the book, it’s pixelated a little bit nicer. It did present me with the dilemma that people were talking about navigating earlier, which is, namely, “How do you deal with something that is semi-publicly available?” Here’s someone did a screenshot and then posted on the Web site of this person. Maybe this has to do again with the sort of narrow bandwidths or these forms of gay male sociality that have a narrow bandwidth that are built where there are all of these exclusionary hierarchies built into gay male sociality.

When I was the first engaging the work with public sex and doing field work on public sex, there was a sense that, as Samuel Delany (1999) wrote about in Times Square red, Times Square blue, that certain kinds of public sex spaces were more egalitarian than these new online spaces in the sense that people were much more likely to simply say something racist, and that there was more cross-race and cross-class interaction in these earlier moments of queer sociality. Now, Leo Bersani (1987) is really clear on this point and I agree with him, which is that even in the bathhouse that gay male sexual practices, and bodies, and everything else are mercilessly ranked, but there was still a much greater potential for interactions.

In an app like Grindr, any searchable app, you can decide what you’re looking for. You can actually exclude people from even showing up for you. You think you’re into ginger twinks, you can only search for ginger twinks if you want to. But if you go to the bath house or the public toilet, you can’t choose who goes there. There are certain possibilities immanent to that real-world space that these online spaces can simply preclude or exclude. This dude, he might not be into spice or rice, a.k.a., Latinos or Asians. But if he had gone to that club and taken some ecstasy and gone to the back room, maybe he would’ve been into both, or they would’ve been into him.

Katherine: What I want to do now is move onto some of your more recent work. I was very happy to hear this come up in the panel this morning. Here are two images you sent me by Zach Blas, who's doing really interesting artwork that messes with facial recognition data (see Figure 2). The ways in which technologies are becoming increasingly fine-tuned to “recognize” certain types of people — with, for me, very clearly worrying outcomes. You talk in this paper about this idea of black data, which I think is really interesting. If you could begin by talking about what you mean by black data.

 

Images by artist Zach Blas generated using facial recognition technologies
 
Figure 2: Images by artist Zach Blas generated using facial recognition technologies.

 

Shaka: I started thinking about this maybe four years ago. The thinking really began around what’s now called algorithmic discrimination. The ways that the seemingly objective or neutral efforts to code something actually within the codes themselves. The codes themselves can demonstrate these hierarchies. These racial hierarchies are reproduced; certain kinds of assumptions reproduce because people are doing the programming, it’s not some abstract totally neutral AI or something. With black data, I was thinking about, that’s where it began. Then I thought, well, OK, this is interesting because actually black people have, historically, especially in the U.S. been data.

They have been operationalized as data, whether as commodities and, therefore, as revenue streams — during the transatlantic slave trade as commodities, as things that needed to be insured against loss or theft. In the twentieth century, the ways that black people are reduced to data in terms of statistical deviations or even statistics related to HIV infection. Black people are kind of abstracted away from their embodiment and their ordinary humanity into data for other people to consume. I was thinking about this in early 2013 and then the Snowden revelations came about. Then I was really thinking also about mass surveillance, big data and biometric technologies as the kinds of things Zach is working on.

Then black data was not just these sorts of histories of datafication of black people but also evoked things like black sites, black blocks, the black box. There were these other series of associations that I started to make. Right now, I've written a couple of chapters, including the one that just came out in No tea, no shade (McGlotten, 2016). Another one that will hopefully come out in this journal darkmatter (http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/) that’s sort of been lingering for a few years. I hope also to do some field work in a people of color maker space in Oakland called Liberating Ourselves Locally so there will be an ethnographic component. A lot of it does focus on the work of artists.

I should say too that black data isn’t just this sort of negative critique. It’s also thinking about the ways that black people have created and engaged technology and used expressive culture, not just to challenge their datafication but using technology to express something about black life and culture. Some of my archive is trans women of color on YouTube like TS Madison and other people, who are making these kinds of micro publics available through technology. Elizabeth Chin an anthropologist did this amazing project, called the Laboratory of Speculative Ethnology, where she drew extensively on Afrofuturist idioms to create these amazing body suits and performances in public spaces. I think as I’ve been working more on the project, from the beginning, there was this sort of sense that I would be spending a lot of time thinking about expressive culture — about art, contemporary art.

But there is more and more a sense that I’m going to be returning to Afrofuturism as a conceptual framework and try to — I don’t want to use the word, it’s never gone away, but just bring it forward — to bring it forward in a way that it never seemed to have been brought forward.

I’m not alone in this. As I started doing this work in 2013, there has been a proliferation of amazing work from African American studies, black queer studies. Many people are actually re-engaging these questions of technology in very compelling ways. People like Kara Keeling. There were a number of people at the Affect Theory Conference if you guys go online, that was held in Pennsylvania a couple years ago. There was a whole stream of work on race and many of those people are working with both theories of ethics and theories and dealing with technology in interesting ways, so I’d really recommend that people check that out.

Katherine: When I was reading this chapter, I couldn’t help thinking and remembering, is Sharrona [Pearl] still here? This would be a perfect one for her. These are images from Francis Galton, who back in the late nineteenth century was doing these similar kinds of activities of sort of compositing data and trying to find a link between a kind of normative facial image that says something particular about the body and about the person and about the self. This is actually a really long-term project of trying to work with compiled data across lots of different subjects to try and think about what the face of the pervert is, or the queer, or the syphilitic or whatever the person is supposed to be (see Figure 3).

 

Example of an image published by Francis Galton in the nineteenth century that was part of a study that attempted to link facial structure to individual attributes
 
Figure 3: An example of an image published by Francis Galton in the nineteenth century that was part of a study that attempted to link facial structure to individual attributes — in this case infections with syphilis.

 

I wanted to ask you about what you think about going back to this idea of publics. My first book was about gay marketing and how marketers took all of these aggregated consumer data, really inaccurately collected, and said “This is the gay consumer.” These were collected mostly through gay publications which, of course, had very limited readership and numbers of people who would volunteer this information. It was very specific to the kinds of people who felt safe enough to do that. We moved from gay print publications, through the portal phase, Gay.com, PlanetOut, those types of things, to much more disaggregated context but very differently aggregated material. So it’s moving from the print medium through the portal to the algorithm as a form of organizing. How do we have to think differently about publics and/or markets when forms of collecting and parsing data have changed so much?

Shaka: I’d actually be interested in hearing more what you think about that. I like that from printed to portal to the algorithm. I have to think about that. First of all, I think it’s much easier for marketers or companies to do certain forms of data scraping where they wouldn’t have to use such a small sample size like in the era of print, where people gather data to think about how to market to gays based on this, as you said, very limited sample size. I think back to the portals like PlanetOut or gay.com, I don’t think about them as searchable or certainly not easily searchable. But I think about Tumblr. That’s really searchable, really easy because of the logic of the tag. But I’m not really sure. Is there a gay market right now ...?

Katherine: What does that look like? I think people are still targeted in ways. Ages ago there was that headline, “Facebook knows you’re gay even if your mother doesn’t.” There are very clever ways algorithms that look at the media you like, the friends you have, and say “Hmm,” even if you haven’t self-identified.

Shaka: I get underwear ads on my Twitter feed or when I had Facebook early in the morning. They figured out when I’m going to buy underwear and I’m most vulnerable to buying it when I’m not fully awake.

Katherine: Or dressed.

Shaka: Or dressed. Exactly. They’re going to be like, “You’re probably going to think about this while sitting on the toilet.” There is this kind of predictive capacities of algorithms that are very important while thinking through this. Like what does the gay market look like now? To go back to the concept of failure, I think of apps like Grindr as fails. It wasn’t for lack of users. It wasn’t for lack of venture capital. It wasn’t for anything. They just couldn’t you know, they moved through a couple of iterations. Did they sell to the owners?

Audience member: Majority sell.

Shaka: It was a majority sell. I haven’t followed it that closely. So, there’s actually some kind of problem with it.

Katherine: In terms of monetizing?

Shaka: Yeah. When Grindr first came out, it was free to use, and then they created these tiered systems, which I think is a very typical way. Grindr is no longer entirely gay male. The ecology of the app changed. Just like with the chat rooms of gay.com. When you first went there, it was this great vibrant sense of sociality. You could get dick to your house faster than a pizza.

But over time, certain kinds of conventions, maybe familiarity with other people who are in the network, the environment changed. I think the same is true with a lot of these apps. A lot of younger gay men won’t use Grindr, or they migrate to other apps, or they use Craigslist.

There’s a challenge in holding onto a market and being able to accurately anticipate the market. I think part of that might be to do with the ways that many of these apps. Even if the app developers understand something about how those apps will be used. They can’t actually anticipate the uses to which they will be put. Then you have the developers responding over time to how people are actually using an app. Snapchat today is very different than Snapchat four years ago. I think I’ve said enough. I’d actually be really interested in hearing more from you about this.

Katherine: There’s something about a porousness of boundary that algorithmic forms of organization enable. The good and bad. I also am really struck by the relationship with the physical market, like gay bars, gay bookshops, lesbian stores, and so on. Part of [these venues’] multiple intersectionalities with other form of social relationality is made differently in new marketing contexts. I don’t quite know how to describe that difference. This idea of “I’m in the gay market,” if I’m in an urban setting, for instance, “This is where I go to drink, this is where I go to shop, these are my gay friends, or lesbian friends, or queer friends.” These things are less dominant forms of queer social organizing. This is actually research question for me: What would it mean to study the gay market now, and how would I go about that? [1]

I’d like to move on because I’m just getting aware of time. In light of these very invasive data collecting and organizing strategies that are happening across the board, but differently inflected for different groups, you talk about this idea of “Black ops.” The idea of going undercover, of secrecy, and masking. Hence the Zach Blas masks. These might be strategies of resistance. It begged for me the question: Who can’t afford to be secret, to be hidden, to be unseen? For example, I was thinking about, again going back to Samuel Delany’s (1999) wonderful book, you are much safer on a very busy street in New York at four in the morning than you are somewhere where there aren’t other people around. Being seen for some people might be strategies of survival. Or being covered, being unseen might make you more available to harassment and threat. I just wanted to turn that on its head a bit and ask, for whom might secrecy and evasion actually be a worse outcome?

Shaka: I think it just highlights the double binds of politics of visibility which has come up repeatedly today. The increased visibility of trans people and trans bodies has also resulted in a new trans-normativity. In this, I was especially interested in the work of hacktivists like anonymous or some of the thinking of, whatever you may think of him, of Julian Assange.

Also the work of Édouard Glissant (2010) who kind of writes against the hegemony of the transparent. The logic of transparency of visibility is a Western logic. Something has to be seen to be real. Something has to be seen to be recognized. Glissant is articulating a politic of refusal. I don’t actually have to show you who I am. That’s actually the way that I maintain a sense of my own autonomy.

I gave a talk a couple of years ago called “Against the hegemony of the transparent” (McGlotten, 2015) — this idea that by seeing or by making one’s self visible that one can achieve something. I think the question is an interesting one, who can afford to be invisible? It’s not that I would argue against all forms of visibility, I think about the kinds of efforts that have been made in recent years, as someone talked about C. C. McDonald’s case, to make the issues facing trans women of color more visible to a broader public. That’s really important. But that doesn't mean that we have a right to trans women’s interiority. I think those things, especially in our culture, are deeply intertwined. Part of it is the fantasy of self sovereignty. We have to express this sense of our interiority, especially now that expression is really a form of neoliberal self branding.

It might be good to go dark. Some ways that people do this like in online you use encryption. Make it so that you can’t be seen. I don’t have all of the best practices when it comes to my own Internet use. I have started to do certain things, like I just deleted my Facebook account. I was just like, I’ve had enough. I’m not going do it anymore. I’m not going to give my labor to Facebook, I’m not going brand myself through Facebook, I’m just not going participate. I just refuse. I think sometimes we forget that refusal is a politics. Even here, there’s a kind of double edge. I was really struck and Zach was the one who turned me. I really have to say that the black data project was a tremendous debt to Zach. I’ve been thinking about this project for maybe about six months and then I’ve had like really long conversations with Zach who is working on a book. I think it’s called “Informatic opacities.”

A lot of that is about the politics of refusal. These masks were very exaggerated ways to refuse the logic of biometrics which are becoming increasingly common, specifically, facial recognition software. Visibility and refusal will each contain these tensions or paradoxes within them.

Katherine: I want to move on to your porn fast paper (McGlotten, forthcoming), in which there was this very dense image for me (see Figure 4). Particularly given that my students just did a comic strip on superpowers for me this week. I did love the fact that you could “Seize control of your sexuality and turn it into a superpower today.” As a way into this article, I want to think about activity trackers, and about the erotics of activity tracking: our obligations to be appropriately sexually active, but not too sexually active.

 

NoFap homepage, targeting people recovering from addiction to online pornography and masturbation
 
Figure 4: NoFap’s homepage, targeting people recovering from addiction to online pornography and masturbation.

 

You are more at the abstinence end of self-monitoring in your piece, but I also, of course, had to go online and look at what else there was. There is actually a whole brand called OhMiBod (see Figure 5), which is all about how to monitor your masturbation activity. Making sure you’re masturbating enough, in the right ways, for long enough, as a form of sexual health. This becomes another kind of obligation. I thought this was a hilarious rock and a hard place. I would love to hear you talk about this, again going back to the presentation of the neoliberal self as being sexual enough, but not too sexual, and the role of apps and technologies like the Fitbit in this. I tried to find out whether there was a Fitbit that tracked sexual activity but they haven’t quite got there yet.

 

OhMiBod, application and digital products targeted toward people who want to keep track of their masturbatory habits
 
Figure 5: OhMiBod, application and digital products targeted toward people who want to keep track of their masturbatory habits.

 

Shaka: This is really part of the larger bio-politics of self-management, self-regulation. I’ll talk about the porn fast stuff first, because before I had even encountered these whole things I had gone on my own porn fast sometime in 2009. A lot of it was that I had found porn so boring and repetitive. I was like, “I need to take a break.” Or I would find myself using it when I was really tired and I would be like, I was just going to jerk off before bed but then it became a two-hour edging session and then I got only four hours of sleep or something. There was this sort of effort of, “How can I manage something that is like excessive,” or whatever.

I can’t remember exactly how I came to the idea of writing about it, but I think it really highlights, again, all of the ambivalence we have about sex and sexual practices, and also this sort of new demand towards self-optimization. Like “be the best person you can be,” which means monitoring all of your behavior. And there was a great keynote by Melissa Gregg, where she talks about this history — where the history of these self-monitoring devices comes from. She traces it back to the ways that media technologies like film were used to record and then optimize and, therefore, manage the behavior of laborers.

We are all laborers on our own projects of self-optimization, whether that is porn fasting, managing our affects, or different kind of affective excesses, maximizing our opportunities for whatever — for sociality, for meaningful work, and so on. I really look at this as part of this larger demand that we all self-regulate. One of the things about the Fordist process, Fordist assembly line, and Fordism more broadly, was that gender and sex and sexuality were not peripheral to that process. They were actually central. You couldn’t be a worker if you didn’t have a wife and an appropriate, decorous sex life. This was part of the logic of capitalism as it developed in the West, that you have to manage your appetites. Whether these are appetites for sex or tobacco, or, “insert your excess here.”

Katherine: I was thinking when you move on to talk about porn fasts not as a noun, but as an adjective. The idea of fast porn, and the idea of kind of slow porn, or slow fapping, is that a form of liberation? You know if we’re going with the slow movement, slow food, slow professors, if we become slow masturbators. Is that a form of resistance or is that another form of self-monitoring?

Shaka: I think both. I wanted to ask in the panel earlier about Adrienne Shaw’s queer game archive, the LBGTQ game archive because there is this, I don’t know how big the trend is, I think it’s just a minor trend toward gamifying masturbation. There are pornographic videos on PornHub, the rubric is Cock Hero. Like Guitar Hero, Cock Hero. The idea is that you masturbate to the beat of music that is overlaid on pornographic material so that you have like a stroke count, and you win by orgasming at the right time. Like maybe it’s about slow porn and like extending the pleasure, like an auto-erotic encounter. It’s also self-management regulation because you’re being told what to do, so maybe there’s also some sort of masochistic pleasure and delaying, deferring, being told what to do. Like there is a pleasure that rests in and itself.

Katherine: So onto our last image which is just irresistible to me (see Figure 6). This is from the same article about masturbation practices and monitoring one’s masturbation life. I just thought context was everything here. I love that this says, “Please, masturbate in your bedroom!” OK, I’ll go and do that right now! I’m using this — this is a little bit cheap — but I’m using this as a way into a conversation about the likely failure of method. I’m sure that this didn’t work.

 

A fake notice posted with the University of Pennsylvania insignia asking people to masturbate in their bedrooms not the showers and bathroom
 
Figure 6: A fake notice posted with the University of Pennsylvania insignia asking people to masturbate in their bedrooms not the showers and bathroom.

 

Shaka: It’s not real! It was a meme! It was like a hoax.

Katherine: I believed this because I could totally see this is something that would go out. So tell us about the meme and then we can talk about it.

Shaka: I can’t remember how it came about but it wasn’t only at UPenn. This happened to be the one that I used in the paper and the talk that accompanied it. But again in the porn fast paper, I was sort of linking it to histories of self-regulation, especially around masturbation and sex. Some of the earliest medical tracks like everything about Foucault’s (1973) The birth of the clinic, were specifically tracts against masturbation, like these pseudo-scientific, kind of historical tracts that gained actually widespread circulation.

It was really just to point out the degree to which these are long-standing narratives within a sort of western Judeo-Christian tradition, there are these long-standing demands to self-regulate. I think what’s interesting in this moment, but also when these were posted, people didn’t know immediately that they were fake. It goes sort of hailed all the masturbators to reflect on their own practices. It hailed them to really reflect on their own practices but it also signaled this earlier, this much longer-standing history about what’s an appropriate expression of sexuality.

You see this as well, as I write about in the paper, in the development of whole feels around sexual compulsivity and addiction. None of them have really been accepted as diagnostic criteria, and you have different approaches to managing this. For some, for example, having an orgasm a day would constitute Hyper Sexuality Disorder, it would be considered disorder. For lots of you, it would be like “I would love to have an orgasm everyday,” maybe more than one.

Katherine: Yes, great. As a final question, what you are working on now?

Shaka: Right now, I’m trying to work on two book projects, which I don’t recommend anyone ever do. The first one is called the Political aesthetics of drag, and it is based on field work in Berlin, Israel/Palestine, and New York City, with artists and activists who use drag as a form of political aesthetic expression. I was working with a range of people, cis trans, bio queens, trans men who used to perform as drag kings when they were a lesbian and then who win Best Drag Queen awards after they transitioned. There are certain themes that had been emerging, but I haven't, I’m trying to be a good researcher, I’m not actually coming to any conclusions yet.

There are all kinds of stuff about racial antipathy, political violence, gentrification, and the utility of drag, and this is what I’m really interested in: the potential for drag to engage questions of politics, and in Butler’s (1993) famous essay “Gender is burning,” she’s really clear. Drag both appropriates, and subverts, it reinforces and denaturalizes gender norms, gender expectations. I’m not saying that drag is inherently subversive. I’m not saying that drag has the potential to denaturalize gender. I’m really looking at specific case studies of artists and activists who are using it in often very complicated ways, including using a politics of refusal, or to be so unappealing that there doesn’t seem to be a point of entry, a kind of anti-politics in some cases.

I’m working on that project and the field work in Berlin was finished, the field work in Israel is two-thirds of the way done, and even though I’ve been living back in New York for almost a year and a half, I have not finished that field work. Maybe it’s so daunting. I know the people that I want to work with, I’ve sort of identified them, but I’m going to be 42 in April, I go to bed at 9:30 in most nights, and I live in Westchester, so getting to the city has just proved so difficult to see drag shows that will start at one or two in the morning. I could do it in Berlin when I was on sabbatical, because I would take a disco nap, wake up at eight, have a really strong coffee, and stay up until three, which is actually usually when the parties were just getting started, when people are coming in to check all of their clothes, I was like, “maybe I want to stay here.”

So I’m working on Black data, and I have an orientation toward that project, the piece in No tea, no shade is kind of a manifesto. There will be at least one chapter on liberating ourselves locally, couple chapters on artists and activists including Zach, and a chapter on gaming, and that’s that. End of article

 

About the authors

Shaka McGlotten (they/them) is a social anthropologist with a background in the fine arts. Their work brings together the theoretical insights of queer studies with the methodological toolkit of anthropology to consider new media technologies in relation to queer cultures. They have published and lectured on public sex, online cultures, pornography, gaming, zombies, human waste, voguing and more. Their first book, Virtual intimacies: Media, affect, and queer sociality was published by State University of New York Press in 2013. They are the co-editor of two edited collections, Black genders and sexualities (with Dána-Ain Davis) and Zombies and sexuality: Essays on desire and the living dead (with Steve Jones). Currently they are at work on two book projects: The political aesthetics of drag and Black data: Queer of color critique meets network culture studies. In 2014 they were the recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Award for Experienced Researchers and in 2017‐2018 they are a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude. They are also a recipient of a 2018 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.
E-mail: shaka [dot] mcglotten [at] purchase [dot] edu

Katherine Sender is a professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. Her research and teaching focus on gender, sexuality, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer media. Her research areas span television, audiences, cultural production, consumer culture and globalization. Her current research project focuses on sex museums as sites to investigate transnational sexual mobilities.
E-mail: ksender [at] umich [dot] edu

 

Note

1. Sender develops these ideas in “The gay market is dead, long live the gay market: From identity to algorithm in predicting consumer behavior,” Advertising & Society Quarterly, volume 18, number 4 (2017); doi: https://doi.org/10.1353/asr.2018.0001, accessed 30 June 2018.

 

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Editorial history

Received 1 June 2018; accepted 5 June 2018.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Intimate immanence: A conversation between Shaka McGlotten and Katherine Sender
by Shaka McGlotten and Katherine Sender.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 7 - 2 July 2018
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/9257/7460
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i7.9257





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