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Queer Apps & Migrant Intimacies: An interview with a HASTAC Scholar

Queer Apps & Migrant Intimacies: An interview with a HASTAC Scholar


Last year I had a chance to attend an amazing event called Hot Apps: Queering Location/Mobilizing Media Design. The workshop was organized by Mary Gray, an Associate Professor at Indiana University and Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research. It was hosted by danah boyd and the Social Media Collective at MSR New England.

The symposium brought together a phenomenally diverse group to discuss what it means to "queer the spatial assumptions embedded in industry efforts to push for more mobile digital networks." The room was filled with academics, app designers, game programmers, public health scholars and folks from the broader queer community. It was held in the gorgeous Microsoft Research New England space overlooking the Charles River, and we moved between talks, group discussions, small group breakouts, and we finished by thinking about the big questions shaping this field. 

Our conversations ranged from the infamous app called Grindr  (quick overview: "Grindr: a new sexual revolution?"), to questions of privacy, censorship, communities, mobility, immigration, gender, gaming, digital identity, and connection.

I had a chance to meet fellow graduate students interested in the intersection of queer theory, technology and cultural studies. Dai Kojima was one of these students, and he's now a HASTAC Scholar. Many moons ago, I asked him to fill out some questions on his research, that I am belately posting now. Dai is still working on this project, and I know he'd love to make other new connections and would be happy to answer questions about his work. 

Thanks Dai!


1. Can you tell me a bit about your current grad school situation (year, school, department, intersections with other departments, are you writing your dissertation, have you taught a relevant class)? 

I am a PhD candidate in Human Development, Learning and Culture at the University of British Columbia. It is a highly interdisciplinary program and I have carved out a project that works across a wide range of disciplines including History, Sexuality and Gender Studies, Cultural Geography, Globalization Studies, as well as Education.

I have recently completed fieldwork and am currently in a deep writing mode. I have taught courses on Human Development and Education, Digital Literacies, Technology Studies, Critical Studies in Sexuality, either as an instructor or TA.


2. I'm sure you have many smaller projects on the go, but can you tell me about your project on Asia-Pacific migrations? Is this your dissertation? Do you know the general outline of chapters or sections? 

My dissertation project, tentatively titled "Migrant Intimacies: Queer Migrations and Technologies of Imagination in the Asia-Pacific World," critically engages with the seemingly liberatory, yet often contradictory accounts of “mobilities” and their mediated nature in the context of transnational migration; with an interest in illuminating how mobility is actually practiced and the complex social relations that surround it. This study situates the question of mobility in the everyday life contexts of queer migrants from Asia-Pacific living in Vancouver, Canada asking; What are the existing transnational networks of cultural knowledge that engender the movements of queer bodies across borders? What of the "immobile' relations of power (i.e. histories of homophobia, racism and the nation) that shape these movements and how are they negotiated? How, and with what means, are times and places of intimacy and belonging organized and felt among transnational queer migrants, and critically, what can be said about the normative assumptions of global queer imaginaries based on these ethnographic accounts? I am particularly interested in the affective dimension of media practices and the labor of imagination that is central to queer mobilities––the critical relationship between media and marginality articulated by queer media scholars such as Mary Bryson and Mary Gray––for it tells us about how a body becomes "stuck" as much as about its movements and desires.


3. Can you explain the concept of "affective mapping"? How does mapping change through the addition of term "affective"? 

"Affective Mapping" is a theory I borrow from Jonathan Flately's book with the same title ("Affective mapping: Melancholia and the politics of modernism") in which he offers generative accounts of melancholia as an affect with critical modality. Flately, via Benjamin, disengages melancholia from the psychoanalytical pathologization and instead reads a political possibility in its persistence on the 'lost history of suffering' that progressive modernity denies. He then demonstrates how it circulates among certain "depressed" communities through mediative objects  establishing a 'structure of feeling' that connects and mobilizes desperate subjects. Since loss and displacement are the central dynamics of transnational queer migrations, I find this work particularly helpful in describing the melancholic labours of belonging among Asian queer im/migrants and mapping out the media ecologies of queer diasporas in my research context. 


4. Can you explain the term "queer diasporas"? Why is the term 'diaspora' a particularly interesting or necessary formulation for your project? Is a queer diaspora expressly queer because of the sexualities of the people who constitute the diaspora? Or are you considering what it means for a diaspora to be queered? Or both?

Perhaps both; as I see queer is already diasporic (in its antagonistic relation to the nation and kinship), and also there's something queer about diasporas."Queer Diaspoas" is a framework formulated by US queer of color scholars such as Gayatri Gopinath and Martin Manalansan, among others. Queer diasporas, in my understanding, is a double-edged critique on the "invisibility" of queer of color bodies in both racialized diasporas (where queerness threatens the racial purity and familial kinships) and the white-dominant nation-state (where racialized bodies are excluded from the proper sexual citizenry), which then makes visible the particular formations and experiences of queer lives that are already 'contaminating' the hegemonic imaginaries of national belonging. In my research, however, I use the framework somewhat provisionally, as most of the people I work with (recent immigrations and temporary residents from Asia) don't consider Canada as a permanent home, and their frequent traveling and communications between their originating countries and Canada seem to suggest that there needs to be a more regional framework (i.e. Canada as part of the Asia-Pacific world), than the conventional nation-based analysis, in elucidating the transient subjectivities of queer migrants.


5. If you don't mention them above, what kinds of technologies are you investigating? How do you see the technologies shaping each other, or shaping the user? 

While I was initially interested in looking at so-called "new media" in diasporas, conversations with my participants made me realize that it is only one part of media ecologies that these folks establish in their everyday lives. In fact, I am dedicating one chapter on private Karaoke parties where these guys sing their hearts out to some very peculiar traditional Japanese music (a genre generally considered as "演歌/Enka"). This was an exciting moment in my fieldwork where I clearly saw how the technology and performance came together to constitute an ephemeral public through which certain queer sentiments are circulated and felt transnationally, and it compelled me to make the 'affective turn' in reading these melancholic performances for political analysis. Another chapter also deals with other modes of communication, which I tentatively call "letters of transit" (a term I borrow from Edward Said's essay). In this chapter I examine how the 'consideration of family' continues to shape queer Asian subjectivities. Specifically, I look at the ways in which 'older' technologies such as letters and phone cards, as well as their temporal and geographical "distance" from families back home, have a distinctive role in the performance of "a good life in Canada" by these folks, who nonetheless live under differently compromised conditions of migrant lives in Canada.


6. It sounds like an incredibly rich and interdisciplinary project - critical geography, queer theory, postcolonial theory, ethnic studies all come to mind. What kinds of theoretical inquiries and methodological tools are you mobilizing in this project? What questions in those fields have been useful for you as a way of framing your inquiry? Do you remember an "aha!" moment at which some of these questions started to converge for you?

I think we are at a very exciting point in history (in academia) where the transnational thinking are posing serious challenges to the established frameworks within the disciplines you listed (not to suggest that globalization is a recent phenomenon). For better or worse, people, ideas and knowledges are on the move, within and across national boundaries; with networked media playing a significant role in generating these movements. I believe queer theory has a lot to say about contingent and shifting formations of race/ethnicity and sexualities, by problematizing the normative conditions and technologies of immigration and national-belonging that continue to produce proper citizens and non-citizens. This is a cultural studies project and I utilize a mixed methods; ethnographic interviews and media archives. I've spoken with 12 self-identified gay/bi/trans men from Pacific-Asia regions (Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Philippines), asking about their migration histories and everyday media practices. The media archive contains artifacts from particular websites and other medium that these folks consume and produce at home. The exciting and daunting part of doing "empirical" fieldwork is that your ideas, questions, theories always fall short/apart. One of the most challenging and also the 'aha!" moments was when the question of race in queer intimacy turned into an entirely different one through conversations with these guys; from the familiar "victimization" narrative (the immobility of racialized queer bodies in white-centric gay communities) to more fluid and translocal experiences of racial relations (back home, and here) and how they seem to manage to move through different cultural and geographical boundaries with various technologies of intimacies.


7. What is your intervention in those previous conversations and histories? In which way is your project challenging, engaging, reforming or questioning other projects? What has previous work not engaged with, that you hope to cover? 

I hope that my project will help to expand the scope of analysis in queer/diasporas studies that has so far privileged bodies and subjectivities born into/out of existing diasporas in North America. While experiences ofracialization of queer migrants are indeed implicated by the histories of race and the nation, I think the contemporary narratives of migration read through a regional lens may yield different scenes of encounters that are much more undetermined, uncertain and emergent. Also this project brings the discourse of queer mobility and media to transnational migrations, offering some insights into how imagination and desire play out in mediated publics that intersect with race/ethnicity, national belongings and geographies.


8. What do you see as the most useful, interesting or problematic intersections between queerness and technology? What does queer theory make 'thinkable' that is otherwise obscured in the study of technology and its effects? How might queer theory evoke different considerations within Science & Technology Studies (or just technology studies, or just technology -- whatever word works for you)? 

I think the notion of queerness as a radical practice of "un/becoming" has critical relationship to the study of technology and its embodiment in our live. From a media studies perspective, scholars have articulated that media technologies are transitional objects that mediate 'serious play' of being and becoming with no fixed destination; that there lies certain liberatory possibilities for queer practices and politics, for which Mary Bryson notes; "queer is always-already virtual." I believe that the critique of norms that extends the limits of intelligibility (i.e.  human/non-human, natural/cultural, embodied/virtual) is one of the significant contributions queer theory can make to STS.


9. If you haven't already done so above, can you talk a little about your understanding of how race and ethnicity enter into these questions? Do you have an especially evocative anecdote or case study that can illustrate how considering race changes the question of sexuality, mobile subjects and technology?

One of the things that struck me the most during my fieldwork was that many of my research participants seem to engage with other queer men in much more translocal ways. That is, while their participation in local (Vancouver/Canada) gay scenes seems to be somewhat "disappointing––failing to realize that fabulous "gay life" due to certain racialization and other modes of exclusions––these folks often visit their originating countries or other Asian countries on a regular basis, making connections with local queer communities/individuals via particular ethno-sexual social network sites. One of my participants stated: "It's more fun over there because I'm not just some 'Asian guy' there." I think this anecdote can be an entry point to question the nationalized knowledge of race and its totalizing effects on racialized queer bodies, as well as the whole myth of Western queer liberation and 'backward' homophobia in Asia. This is not to suggest that these guys are the 21st century sexual tourists or that this is the new form of gay cosmopolitanism. It is too mundane and desperate to be called such sexy terms. It is critical to note here that when seen through the queer migration lens, the locations of intimacy for these guys are always contingent and mobile precisely because of certain displacements in both here and over there. Perhaps the question of belonging and their transient subjectivities only make sense in the transnational space and time that emerge out of technological sociality, regional networks of travel, economical exchange and histories of immigration.


Image: transCoder Queer Programming Anti-Language, from Zach Blas' Queer Technologies.




"such interesting spaces of performance, interpretation, identity and community"
Oh that is precisely the focus of the chapter--with a transnational twist. :-)
And I love the phrase--"queeraoke." I'm an avid Karaoke singer myself––usually just me and some karaoke tracks on the laptop in my kitchen at 1 AM, sotimes in actual bars in SF, NYC and Vancouver––and I know these are serious forms of dis/articulation through play and drama. 

Awesome! Thanks so much for this. I know there was a Critical Karaoke conference sometime ago, but this looks to be a great resource, as well. I will check it out now. 

For anyone interested in the peculiar relationship between Karaoke, Enka and racialized (or dislocated) affects:

1) KarenTongson wrote a great (and touching) piece, where she discusses the "immigrant baroque" sentimentality that gets played out in Karaoke spaces. 
Smog and Sympathy:

2) An Interesting case of diasporic circuits of Enka, Race and 2 Nations and Jero, a very popular African-Japanese American singer in Japan. And OMG, my 64 yo mother is a vice president of his fan club. What?
Don't Dream It, Be It: Jero's Enchanting Enka Legacy: 




Great post! You might find recent scholarship on voice productive and interesting for the karaoke stuff. There's a lot out there about voice, alterity, identity, denaturalization, etc. The work of Steven Connor comes to mind, and there's also a great collection called Voice: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media. Looking forward to reading more of your work! 


> Steph
"There's a lot out there about voice, alterity, identity, denaturalization"
ah, this line just gave me a theory nerd orgasm. And thanks for the book recommendation. I will definitely check it out. Hope to continue this conversation on the Sound & Music group page (just joined!). 



Ah, queer readings of Karaoke -- love it. It reminds me of the many "queeraoke" nights I've attended, and they've always seemed like such interesting spaces of performance, interpretation, identity and community. I know that's not your focus, but Karaoke as both a mechanism and site for im/migration and diasporas is such a great concept. I wonder if non-karaoke people would have some ideas too -- other ethnomusicologists who work on pop culture traditions or something. I'll ping our excellent Sound & Music people here to see if they have ideas for you! You should join their Sound & Music group too.


Great post and conversation, Dai and Fiona. Thanks a bunch!

Dai, I feel as though I've heard some talks on Karaoke at the annual EMP Pop Conference. Haven't searched the abstracts in a bit, but I believe the EMP publishes them on their website. 

For now, that's all that comes to mind. Sorry! Best of luck with the chapter. It sounds like a wonderful project!




Thanks tons for this, Fiona (and the encouragement to say "hi")!  
The Hot App workshop indeed had some very interesting people from different disciplines and we had many fascinating conversations. I hope there will be another event like this for HASTAC folks soon (a gentle nudge toward Mary G).  

I was relieved to see that I wasn't as 'rambl-y' as I thought in this conversation, as I was just wrapping up my fieldwork back then. Phew. 
Right now, I'm really excited about doing some "queer disporic reading" of Karaoke as I go over the fieldwork data   and start to write the chapter. Karen Tongson's work in "Relocations" has been really helpful, but I was wondering if there're other media/cultural/performance/ethnomusicology-studies folks here who also study Karaoke technology & culture in general, and its relationship to im/migration, diasporas or queer performance in particular, as well. I would LOVE to hear from you!  


hi Dai ...

so i don't study karaoke, but i do study sound and cultural studies [and religion, and queer theory and and and and ... a confusion of things ... lol]. i have a few suggestions that are likely, if at all, only tangentially related but could be helpful.

Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear by Steve Goodman -- i imagine this work could be helpful because Goodman theorizes the relationship of soundmaking to modes of affective response. so he's really into how sound is being harnessed as a weapon, as a tool, and its long historicity [from, like, biblical times to the]. one of the effects of these modes of sonic warfare, as with all modes of warfare, are the dispersing of peoples, the diasporicizing, the forced migrational patterns. so one can ask how is the sonic being exploited in the service of im/migration -- not as something around which people gather to invoke memory, recall, love but -- as something that prompts escape? it's sorta like when Harriet Tubman would sing and the folks would hear her "plaintive minor strains," and that the uniqueness of her voice is what prompted escape. it seems that nation states harness power of the sonic in parallel ways but with much different goals in mind. 

Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds by Jean-Francois Augoyard -- i imagine this would be useful because it gives explanation for a lot of the language presently used in cultural studies about sound and the sonic. 

of course, there is

The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction and "The Mp3 as Cultural Artifact" [link to article] both by Jonathan Sterne. in both cases, Sterne takes a cultural studies approach to questions of sound and subjectivity, so i think it's pretty consistent with the ways you're trying to think karaoke as sound, as technology and as yielding a sociality through performance. 

Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression by Steven Feld -- this is quite simply an amazing book...beautiful prose and a rigorous analysis of how the Kaluli people of Papa New Guinea perform sound not simply to recall memory but as memory itself; how they perform song not simply to recall place but as a means of placement. i think you're asking similar questions to Feld about how Karaoke of im/migrant queer communities both rehearse a fact of having been moved from some "home" [a major concern for the Kaluli people] and how performance allows for a different relation to any notion of having been somewhere in some past.

ok. i guess that's all for now. i'm not even sure how helpful what i've named could be ... but i hope a bit!

all best. 



Anonymous (not verified)

There's a lot out there about voice, alterity, identity, denaturalization"
ah, this line just gave me a theory nerd orgasm. And thanks for the book recommendation. I will definitely check it out. Hope to continue this conversation on the Sound & Music group page (just joined!