Introduction: Body Destiny
In many ways, following our Race and Ethnicity forum with one on Gender, Sexuality, and Queerness is a productive and intersectional connection, as this forum will also seek to unbind heteronormative, patriarchal and naturalized constructions of difference.
An early essay by J.Jack Halberstam deconstructs the binaristic logics of gender, sexuality and technology through the life trajectory of Alan Turing. Penalized for his deviant sexuality, Turing's suicidal death by a bite from an apple saturated with cyanide bizarrely prefigures the Apple Computer logo. Turing would provide the template for the modern computer, and is only one example of the entanglements of technology with the intersections of gender and sexuality.
This HASTAC forum features a diverse group of featured commentators who have foregrounded and shaped the intersections of gender, sexuality, and queer media spaces through their scholarship, artistic works, and activism. We hope for dialogues that traverse disciplinary boundaries, borders, and fictive territories. We welcome all those interested in learning about this topic - we'd like to offer a few categories and questions to launch the discussion.
What is the relationship between a digital body and a physical body?
Immersive virtual environments offer a space in which bodies are not constrained by the limitations of a physical world. At first glance, the plasticity of the digital body seems to allow limitless possibilities for identities: gender, race, size, and even species might be expanded to the imagination with a few clicks of a mouse. These digital bodies are often seen as less important as expressions of identity than real bodies. While scholars like N. Katherine Hayles demonstrates technology can never free us from life in a body, virtual world residents and its cultural ramifications maintain digital bodies are an important part of defining the self. Sometimes, the digital body reflect a truer identity than the physical world can sustain.
Visual artist Micha Cardenas explores the relationships between gender, technology, and art in her project Becoming Dragon, where she lived 365 hours in Second Life as a dragon. Cardenas formulates questions of the "subject in transition" in a way that crosses not only gender boundaries, but the boundary between the real and the virtual.
How does play and structure affect digital identity?
Queer theorists often speak of ludic identity practices, and in a virtual environment, this term takes on additional meaning. While in theory a synthetic world offers a blank slate for identity expression, in practice these possibilities become constrained by systems of code which can impose identity norms in an otherwise open environment. Environments in which biological sex is non-functional nevertheless demand users to choose an avatar's gender. This is true even in Second Life, where there are different options for editing a male or a female avatar body.
In a gaming environment, the additional pressures of narrative and game objectives often create situations in which the identity of a gamer's avatar contradicts many aspects of hir own identity. To what extent can we say a male-identified gamer assumes the identity of Lara Croft while playing Tomb Raider? We often describe game avatars as hollow shells without personality for the gamer to control, but this is rarely the actual case. Famous game heroines like Lara Croft or Samus Aran demonstrate gender plays an important role in game design.
Intricacies of Online Community
For queers living away from urban centers, the ability to form relationships over a distance gives them access to much-needed support networks and spaces of acceptance, as illuminated in Mary Gray's recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America. We can see evidence of online creation of communities on sites like YouTube, which provides a locale for gender transitioning narratives. But we all know that the "global village" fantasies of Internet community are far more complicated in practice. Jessi Gan observes that Internet representations of Asian transgender women are constructed both as object and as subject. The censorship of pornography in early Internet communities links with debates within the feminist movement around sexuality, as demonstrated by Abagail De Kosnik. Additionally, Juana Maria Rodriguez illuminates in her book Queer Latinidad: Identity Practices, Discursive Spaces that cyberspace complicates boundaries of lesbian space: while in some aspects sexually liberating, these chat rooms are also sites for fierce policing of gender and sexuality.
Moreover, social networking sites trouble the notion of the "public and private" particularly for queer identified subjects. Facebook and other social networking sites complicate the potential for creating closed circles of associates with the move away from privacy. These issues may leave individuals open not only to allies, complicating notions of the "closet." How intersections of gender, sexuality, and technology shape and construct identities and communities is a pressing concern and possibility within our digital age.
Gender.Sexuality.Queer New Media Art
New Media Arts convergence with gender, sexuality, and queer imaginaries ruptures limited boundaries of identity politics as media technologies are utilized for aesthetic and political strategies. While material consequences for subjectivity on the margins illuminate the seriousness of the issues at hand, new media artists engage with gender, sexuality and queerness through diverse interventions. Ranging from the playful to prankish, delving into the whimsical while provoking and inciting, confusing interactivity and objectivity, new media art paves myriad avenues for freedom. As cyberfeminist artist Corneilia Sollfrank elaborates in the book, New Media Art, Cyberfeminism is characterized by its use of irony to join humor and seriousness as political and artistic strategy. The hybrid joining of seemingly disparate affects, strategies, and regimes illustrate the vital contribution of artists delving into gender, sexuality, and queer new media spaces through subversive aesthetic acts.
The featured artists in this special forum illuminate the vital interventions of the intersections of emergent media, art, technologies and gender, sexuality. Pioneering new media artist and filmmaker Shu Lea Cheang is notable for Brandon, the first interactive web-based work commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, which explores the story of Brandon Teena, who was raped and killed because he identified as male despite being born female. Following along these digital lines, new media artist and scholar Zach Blas asks and provides through his project, Queer Technologies: "Does technology bind all bodies to a heterosexist ideology of control or can technology offer empowering, subversive structures and processes to give all bodies a freedom that exists as fact...? Another project, called Remedies, is an online apothecary created by new media artist Monica Ong. One piece playfully poses, "Ever regret being born a girl, or worse, being pregnant with one? Do you worry that junior is a fairy? Some days, dont you just feel too brown to fit in?" While these are just a small sample of the projects out there, these artists question, transform, and create the body from dominant hegemonic patriarchal and heterosexist paradigms that exist in both real time and cyberspace. In doing so, these artists break through new terrains, reconfigure the disembodied body, transform subject/object divide, and our conceptions of ourselves.
The age-old question: Is any of this "new"?
As Lisa Nakamura writes in Digitizing Race, "Interfaces inform all media -- videos, television, literature -- and as this happens we are witnessing the creation of new power differentials in visual capital. Several questions are at stake when considering the transformation of old to new medias and vice versa, and the various platforms gender, sexuality, inhabit. Carol A. Stabile investigates the representations of race and gender historically and to the present, on how it has combined in news media narratives about crime in the U.S. Joshua Gamson documented the earliest LGBT representations on television talk shows in Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity. Gamson's current scholarship demonstrates gay male depictions have changed from freakishly abnormal to "normal" and consumer in emergent reality television genres such as the show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: "Genre conventions, therefore, crucially shape the kind of visibility we get on television for stigmatized or marginalized groups." Nakamura's recent presentation on Web 2.0, myspace.com and reality show celebrity Tila Tequila, also demonstrates these shifts between and across new/old media. Moreover it provokes questions around cyber labor, and representations regards to race, gender, sexuality, and queer subjectivity.
As always, the necessity to historicize technology is vital, Katie King points out in her manuscript in process, Speaking with Things, an Introduction to Writing Technologies. Technologies here are not just the latest machines for sale, or the instruments and infrastructures of science, but the cultural refinements of skills and tools, extensions of human bodies and minds with which the world is continually reshaping in complex interconnecting agencies.
Please join us to discuss questions such as:
- how does queer theory intersect with technology/technologies?
- what is a 'queer media space' and what are the contours of such an "imagined community"?
- how do you see issues of gender, sexuality and identity play out in digital media, digital arts, and the Internet?
- While initially, the body seemed to be free from earthly constraints as pointed out by Nakamura, it is a far more "complicated." How does the body function as a theme within theory and art, emerging from queer, ethnic, and feminist, studies and other related disciplines? And why?
- Is technology historically closely entangled with sexuality? Theorist Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu draws from journalist John Tierney's observation that "sex and the erotic have always had a ''particularly creative impact on creative technologies,'" through its use, and also for innovation. What might this mean for marginalized subjects that are racialized or gendered
in regards to sexuality?
- How can we understand shifts and changes and relationship within and between representational genres such as reality television, talk shows, and social networking sites such as YouTube and myspace.com around gender, sexuality, and queer issues?
- how might the digital age transform and/or create queer feminist issue oriented publications?
We are thrilled to host this conversation, see all of your ideas, and we welcome dialogue on all of these questions, and more!
Front image credit: brandon.guggenheim.org/bigdoll/
Margaret Rhee, Ph.D. candidate in Ethnic Studies with a designated emphasis on New Media, University of California - Berkeley
Amanda Philipps, Ph.D. candidate in English, University of California - Santa Barbara