Introduction to Queer Circuits: Critical Performance and Digital Praxis | Benjamin Haber and Daniel Sander (28.2)
In a world of pervasive computational infrastructures, the thematic of queer circuits offers a paradoxical yet generative provocation. The sprawling computational networks quantifying and modulating everyday life operate in ways that, at first blush, seem far from queer. Indeed, the mathematical ordering and control promised by digital systems evoke words that could be antonyms for the many definitions of queer: binary, categorizing, determining, normalizing. And yet, queer theory and performance studies offer a perhaps uniquely useful framework for encountering the digital, as these fields have long been focused on the contingency of identity, embodiment, and the social. Digital power and practice, too, offer lessons for queerness, highlighting the marketability of difference and queer cultural forms and the limits of a politics centered on normativity. Working through the rich intersections of queer imagination and digital culture, this special issue of Women & Performance reflects on the opportunities and challenges that this bidirectional critique can offer to our understandings of economy, sociality, materiality, and life itself.
The history of computing has, from the start, been conjoined to feminist and queer concerns. For example, Sadie Plant (1997) has explored the overlooked role of women in the development of modern computing technology through the work of figures like Ada Lovelace. Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank (1995) have connected the concepts undergirding digital technology to Silvan Tomkins’s theory of affect, which they pose as a non-binary amplification of Freud’s theory of drives. And, without positing a biographical causal relation, Homay King (2015) has written about the linkages between Alan Turing’s scientific research, to which we owe computers, and the social position of gay men in interwar Europe: for example, the relationship between the act of code-breaking and the queer need to speak in coded language.
In the contemporary moment, our entanglement with digitality can feel grindingly dystopian, a tedious practice suffused with ambient danger. Hopeful visions of the internet as a queer space of play and experimentation have largely withered, replaced by brand-building, risk management, and racist trolls. However, because for most, participation in these circuits is no longer optional–even withdrawal and deletion are shadowed by ghostly traces left via commerce, surveillance, and gossip–it is all the more critical that queers and feminists develop a world-building vision for the politics of digitality. While deeply critical, this issue strives to be generative and hopeful by “making perceptible presently uncommon senses in the interest of producing a/new commons and/or of proliferating the senses of a commons already in the making” (Keeling 2014, 153). This issue continues the task of developing what Kara Keeling has called “Queer OS” and what we refer to as “Queer Circuits,” highlighting queerness as an underutilized epistemology for encountering computation.
This encounter is all the more vital because of the digital archive’s increasingly vast yet granular information about our everyday lives. As the capture of queer life and performance accelerates, we must question the consequences of binary storage and display. To orient ourselves within this fast-moving landscape, we have framed these archival times through four thematic clouds. While these keywords easily overlap and bleed into one another, we see this structure as a starting point for encountering emergent modes of theoretical inquiry and queer praxis.
A robust archive of queer thought has involved the articulation of styles of relationality and performance, social practices that speak to the unique affective, aesthetic, and epistemological contributions of queers. This genealogical thread starts with live, human bodies being together, a co-presence in material space. But a queer orientation to digitality shifts our understanding of performance and relationality.
At the level of the human, the digital seems to almost encourage a queer vision of social life and the performance of self: Tumblr makes visible non-binary identities and queer perspectives, OkCupid actively promotes their recognition of an array of non-standard relationships and sexual identities, Tinder mainstreams cultures of gay cruising and promiscuous sex, and Facebook refracts our practices through non-familial “communities” of association. However, computational technologies require us to rethink the very nature of queer performance and queer sociality. In other words, what constituted a queer sociality in proximate physical space cannot simply migrate online without the technology fundamentally altering the terms themselves. Digital capitalism increasingly operates above and below conscious reflection, computational epigenetics and microbiome research visualize the body in ways that undo phenomenological and Cartesian understandings of time and space, and artificial intelligence and quantum computing are no longer science fictions. Queer circuits are superhuman, posthuman, or inhuman assemblages that throw into tension the ways in which we talk and think about the social.
But the new infrastructures of relationality wear the drag of yesteryear. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (2016), for example, has written about the appropriated language of friendship on social networks as leaky, a profitable muddle of public and private, work and leisure, trust and security (103–127). This flattening of connection and intimacy is further complicated by bots and spam, which blackbox the nature of relationality from the user: we might think of straight cheating site Ashley Madison’s tens of thousands of algorithmic women sending millions of messages to fleshy men as the commercialization of the Turing test. Needless to say, an understanding of queer circuits needs to disentangle community from collectivity, communication from contact, and expression from virality.
The digital even queers the haptic and affective potential of touch, creating new relational possibilities with politically ambiguous results. Monica Huerta, in her contribution to this issue, charts the way in which Jason Enriquez’s cholafied.com opens and overloads an ethnically and geographically specific style of makeup. While running the risk of becoming a problematic Snapchat filter, Huerta suggests that Enriquez’s project brings “two neighborhoods and cultures into a proximity that geography on its own did not secure,” making way for “socially, economically, and racially disparate histories to touch, to mark one another, even to caress and poke at one another.”
In her vision of a thoroughly postmodern feminism, Donna Haraway (1991) articulated the cyborg as an intersectional figure, both as elaborated in the theoretical argument of the text and as a figure that emerges at the intersection of feminist science fiction and women of color feminisms. Drawing on the work of Octavia E. Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Audre Lorde, Cherríe Moraga, and others, Haraway’s cyborg reflected the potential of political coalitions between those “not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (1991, 122). In contrast, digital culture offers an ascendant, and for us troubling, mobilization of the politics of intersectional identity.
We might imagine that the internet–long analogized with flows, speed, and breakdown –would lead to a malleable digital culture focused on process and contingency. However, because of the general tendency toward the branded and curated digital self, the language of intersectionality online tends to function more as a standpoint that both back-forms the past and projects to the future. Jasbir Puar has been critical of the ways that intersectionality has become “a way to manage difference that colludes with dominant forms of liberal multiculturalism” (2011), a shallow acceptance of diversity that tracks with the increasing value of identifying information. Puar’s suggestion is to think of intersectionality with/as assemblage theory, wherein “categories–race, gender, sexuality–are considered events, actions, and encounters between bodies, rather than simply entities and attributes of subjects.”
Facebook’s 71 gender identities (and counting) offer a striking example of the limitations of practicing intersectionality online in solely identitarian terms. From one perspective, social media offers a veritable buffet of identity choices, performing the breakdown of gender and sexuality binaries, forms of categorization that have long been a critical object of queer theory. While this may read as reflecting a queer political turn, Jacob Gaboury, in his contribution to this issue, traces the way in which identity has been reduced to the compulsory performance of identification, frequently in the interest of surveillance and capital. Gaboury suggests that what is important for Facebook is that it is able to identify you; if providing an ever-growing number of ways to identify helps further that goal, it is in their interest to celebrate difference, at least a cosmetic or topological difference, a surface for play that then gets recoded into what is currently legible for instrumentalization, with the rest archived for speculative future monetization.
One way to begin to move beyond the politics of digital representation might be to reinvigorate Kimberlé Crenshaw’s original articulation of the intersectionality of identity as “an encounter, an event, an accident” (Puar 2011). In a related move, Gaboury finds the concept of the whatever, through which “all subjects may be understood as an excess of totalities rather than their restriction into any single identity” both helpful and hopeful in encountering the ways that identity has become a trap. He is quick to add, however, that “any ability to make oneself invisible is an unequally distributed privilege accessible principally to those normative bodies who are already least visible to power.” Drawing on the work of Shaka McGlotten, among others, his call is to understand and frame the contemporary privilege of invisibility as one undergirded by the historical desubjectivization experienced by minoritarian individuals and to make central minoritarian forms of life in our future pursuits of the whatever.
In addition to "A Cyborg Manifesto," Jose Muñoz’s “Ephemera as Evidence” (1996) has been a particularly important touchstone for thinking through the themes of this issue. Muñoz’s reflection on the queer potential of the ephemeral still resonates, but the notion that “the archives of queerness are makeshift and randomly organized due to the restraints historically shackled upon minoritarian cultural workers” needs a digital reframing. Today, in the context of our extensive digital archives, and with the increasing popularity of the disappearing media of Snapchat and Instagram Stories, the stakes have changed. One could see the popularity of ephemeral digital platforms as a backlash to an understanding of the self as a slowly accumulating archive of extrapolatable and monetizable media, speaking to a desire for a (now nostalgic) vision of the internet as a place for play, sexuality, laziness, or chaos.
However, rather than an ephemera due to historical restraints, this digital ephemeral is encouraged by technocapital looking for profit beyond the minable archive. And if Muñoz’s vision of the ephemeral was a way to account for minoritarian identity practices ignored or excluded by evidentiary practices, the new digital ephemera turns these practices, if not always into evidence, at least into monetizable data. Perhaps more worrisome is that the digital has allowed for new strategies of measurement and identification, throwing doubt on the strategic potential of ephemeral communication as queer protection. Even without the kind of personally identifying information that has fueled Facebook and Google’s growth into a digital advertising duopoly, location is a relatively good proxy for all sort of identifying information (Savage and Burrows 2007), and smartphones make erasing or eliding your locational traces exceedingly difficult. With location and other form of social proxy, a company or state does not have to preserve your media or even know exactly who you are in order to identify you as valuable or threatening.
This increasingly intensive visibility has changed the political stakes in the queer exploration of archives, as Tavia Nyong’o has noted (Arondekar et al. 2015). In making easily accessible what might have previously been characterized as ephemera, the digital permits “immersion in a kaleidoscopic range of past subjectivities, historical and fabulated” from the comfort of home, shifting the colloquial meaning of archive away from the musty basements of institutions to the search bar (Nyong’o in Arondekar et al. 2015, 218).
In developing our own archives, then, the task shifts from bolstering the traces of queer life and experience to developing a politics around opacity and transparency, deletion and preservation. As T.L. Cowan and Jasmine Rault relay through their work on The Cabaret Commons, contemporary attacks on queer scholarship and thought “are related precisely to the increasing visible evidence and availability of queer and trans- phenomena, ontologies, politics, and styles.” Computational culture makes a visibility politics no longer tenable, and Cowan and Rault call for attending to variable risk with “modulated perceptibility.” Their research on Indigenous digital archives ultimately leads them to forge a commitment to “making space for strategic forgetting.”
Early queer scholarship on the digital focused squarely on sex and the body. Sandy Stone’s The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (1995) highlights the erotics unleashed by the ability to “try on” different identities online, while John Edward Campbell’s Getting It On Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality, and Embodied Identity ( 2014) argues that gay male communication online is intimately connected to corporeal offline encounters. While these texts are in some foundational way divergent on the connection between the IRL and digital identity, both centralize the internet as a field of discourse focused on embodiment, sex, and erotic possibility.
Little is left of this imaginary in the landscape of contemporary digital practice. Sex online is now filtered through the walled garden of Apple’s shifting iOS content guidelines; sexual expression has become careful, PG-13, and commodified. Sex apps like Scruff and Grindr are more likely to be framed through the lens of a population at risk (from drugs, bareback sex, and murder), rather than a space for intimate possibility, while trans and GNC people, especially of color, are disproportionately subjected to the masculinist and racist logics embedded in hook-up apps. Rather than destroying distance, digital sex cultures seem to magnify it, offering just enough to keep you in on a cold night, but not enough to be really satiated.
Working from the perspective of the medium of Grindr and the appification of sex under market capitalism, desire is conceived in individualistic terms–as motivated, proprietary, and contained–something that can be expressed and communicated, lucratively or not, in the profile of an app. One way to begin to recenter the seeming dearth of sex, desire, embodiment, and materiality in queer circuits would be to shift from a particular understanding of queer desires to a more general understanding of desire as queer. As Madhavi Menon (2015) elaborates, ‘far from inhabiting gay or straight bodies–as though object choice could render desire legible–we are all marked by a superabundance of desire that might be termed queer’ (17). From this perspective, we might say that queer circuits are open circuits, or that one queers a circuit by overloading it.
Shaka McGlotten’s Ampersand piece highlights how a more immanent understanding of life within queer circuits is not without intimate pleasures and possibilities. Life in the network can have you savoring the edges, riding the waves of the digital’s affecting landscapes. Still, with all of this knitting together and fraying apart, circulation between and in networks can leave you feeling ghosted or ghostly, ironically in sync with the blasé ethos needed to be successful in the contemporary economy.
A paranoid, neoliberal order has monopolized, enforced, and policed–even invented–a technological infrastructure that deploys a queer sense of performance in order to quantify quality, turning likes into bytes into dollars. But the digital also offers new ways of being together, emergent forms of relationality that can help expand our understandings of queer performance from the specificity and exclusivity of same-sex relations between humans to include the boundary breakdowns around which Donna Haraway structures “A Cyborg Manifesto”: between the human and the animal, the animal-human and the machine, and the corporeal and incorporeal. The black, queer, multimedia artist and self-described “color junkie” Pozsi Kolor’s vivid cover image begins to visualize what these breakdowns might look like, with wire and flesh, noise and silence, and digital and analog intersecting and bleeding into each other.
Aligning some of the above language and the pieces in this issue, we might describe the havoc wreaked by social media like this: identity has been reduced to identification; ambiguity has been coded into the algorithm; and ephemera has been reduced to evidence. In true queer fashion, though, the pieces herein offer no one unified response to the situation in which we find ourselves today: we might prefer not to; we might open ourselves to different makeups of reality; we might fail towards one another; we might ask to be forgotten.
Notes on Contributors
Benjamin Haber received his doctorate in sociology from The Graduate Center, CUNY in 2017 and is currently an Instructional Technology Fellow at Macaulay Honors College and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University. His writing on the intersections of digital sociality and queer theory has been published in WSQ, boundary 2, Real Life Mag, and a variety of edited collections. He has curated and performed queer media in a number of contexts, primarily with the Judy collective and through The Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center.
Daniel J. Sander holds a BA in Studio Art from Reed College and MAs in Arts Politics and Performance Studies from NYU. He is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at NYU and Assistant Curator at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. His antidisciplinary artistic and scholarly work concerns the philosophy of desire, the psychopathology of deviance, libidinal materialism, and queer nihilism, and has been exhibited, published, and performed internationally.
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Campbell, John Edward.  2014. Getting It On Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality, and Embodied Identity. New York: Routledge.
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Haraway, Donna. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149–181. New York: Routledge.
Keeling, Kara. 2014. “Queer OS.” Cinema Journal 53 (2): 152–157. doi:10.1353/cj.2014.0004.
King, Homay. 2015. Virtual Memory: Time-Based Art and the Dream of Digitality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Menon, Madhavi. 2015. Indifference to Difference: On Queer Universalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Muñoz, José Esteban. 1996. “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 8 (2): 5–16. doi:10.1080/07407709608571228.
Plant, Sadie. 1997. Zeroes and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture. New York: Doubleday.
Puar, Jasbir K. 2011. “‘I Would Rather Be a Cyborg than a Goddess’: Becoming-Intersectional in Assemblage Theory.” PhiloSOPHIA 2 (1): 49–66.
Savage, Mike, and Roger Burrows. 2007. “The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology.” Sociology 41 (5): 885–899.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, and Adam Frank. 1995. “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins.” Critical Inquiry 21 (2): 496–522.
Stone, Allucquère Rosanne. 1995. The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.