Note: this is about the 2017 Queer Internet Studies Symposium, a conference I participated in at UPenn last week.
You can find this article on the event website here.
Imagine you’re online and something unexpected happens. You see an image that you didn’t intend to see or come across a message meant for somebody that isn’t you. You have an encounter that, incidentally, helps you think through a personal problem. Maybe you try to visit a favorite website only to discover it’s down.
These innumerable little disjunctures happen to every one of us every day. (I’m assuming that, like me, you go online every day). We constantly reorient ourselves in relation to these occurrences, infinitesimal as they are. Because they are so small, we rarely bring our full awareness to the lived experience of each spatial recalibration as we traverse the virtual. A lot of contextualizing and self-localizing work goes into maintaining the integrity of our identity as we move.
Of course, to speak of “moving through” this world implies a plane, a certain dimension within which such motion occurs, which is no longer an accurate description. Now, online and offline spaces have interpenetrated one another too completely to speak of “the digital” as its own hermetic sphere. The phrase “going online” has an anachronistic ring — it sounds sweetly eventful, not unlike the ways people once described their living-room ceremonies of turning on the evening radio, or waiting for a newspaper delivery to hear about what happened in the world last night.
Those ritualizations, the formal self-inductions and discharges from a mediascape, have decayed into barely-noticeable (and hardly notable) gestures as the fact of being always-on has normalized. There is no traveling of which to make a ceremony, no “there” to visit to or “here” to re-enter. The famous Microsoft slogan where do you want to go today? wanes in marketable relatability with every passing year. (This is probably why it was decommissioned by the end of the ’90s).
If this sounds like a variation on the cliché of the inescapability of technology — it is. My work as a scholar and writer is, on one hand, to excavate the appearance of techno-determinism and show it for what it is: a genuinely remarkable phenomenon, something whose seeming inevitability should give us pause. On another hand, it’s to provide a theoretical framework for thinking ourselves outside of this cybernetic nexus, to envision a genuine exteriority to the formerly distinguishable, now-collapsed spaces of digital vs. IRL.
This is a staggering ambition, but I know that I’m not alone. Over the years I’ve found a community of technologists, scholars and creators who do this work. Their existence of has assured me that strategically casting technology in an unusual light is not only a worthwhile task, but one to which many, many people are devoting their time. This affirmative group, however, can be difficult to find if you don’t seek it out. It primarily exists on the social web, and as part of a recent pact with myself to spend less time in online communities, I’d somewhat lost touch with this dispersed group.
It was in hopes of reconnecting with other “weird technology” people that I found myself at the second Queer Internet Studies Symposium. Half conference, half participation-based workshop, QIS2’s events squared queer theory with internet studies to provide a new forum for inquiry, theorization and creative work. Although sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, its proceedings and speakers superseded that of academia-as-usual: the day featured lectures and activities on topics as far-ranging as the difficulties of studying child-porn prosecution, the history of gay video games, and the overlaps between queer and indigenous issues of visibility in online communities. Indeed, it reveled in this eclecticism.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, eclecticism is a foundational principle of queer Internet studies. When I tell people I’m in an interdisciplinary PhD program studying networked technology, I often find myself appending my already overly-long description with a few words on how the web is “inherently interdisciplinary.” By that I mean: it’s a subject that does not give itself entirely to one canonized research field or another. At QIS2, I found it easy to dispense with these prefatory remarks as I spoke with other attendees. Hearing about what urged both presenters and my fellow non-presenting participants to find their way to Philadelphia that weekend, a sense of ease washed over me as I realized I was in good company. Everybody had complex reasons for being there, and while most had found at least enough language to articulate these reasons, they were also motivated to attend by the possibility of building the critical mass of those who experience and communicate the digital through a queer lens.
Before I keep going, it’s probably useful to explain what I mean by “queer” in this specific scenario.
I quote Wikipedia:
Queer theory is a field of post-structuralist critical theory that emerged in the early 1990s out of the fields of queer studies and women’s studies. Queer theory includes both queer readings of texts and the theorisation of ‘queerness’ itself.
With full respect to the fact that it emerged from the lived experiences of those who identify as queer in terms of gender and sexual orientation, “queer theory” is also, importantly, a way to articulate difference in a more broad sense. I write of the digital through a queer lens because (as I mentioned) I want to make it appear strange — to counteract its insidious normalization. Queer perspectives, which reflect a non-normative and frequently (if regrettably) alienated relationship to oneself and one’s society, can offer us a lot in terms of rethinking the digital. Of course, there is no one way to approach queer Internet Studies. It is inherently diverse, and I think “weird Internet” professionals have a responsibility to expose themselves to alternative perspectives outside of their own experiential scope.
While I was not at the inaugural QIS, this was not my first time at a “queer” technology gathering. Crypto parties, hacker conferences and Theorizing The Web — events at which I’ve found myself somewhat regularly in recent years — all champion an unusual (if not downright radical) approach to the digital. One thing that often strikes me when I’m at weird-tech happenings is how subversive it feels to hear others speak on their experiences of digital disorientation: the hidden confusions and traumas along with moments of improbable grace borne through a screen darkly.
The unspoken etiquette of the social web rarely condones these divulgences, at least not beyond their trivialization in memes and appropriation in commercial advertisements. Considering this, there is something subversive about openly discussing profound experiences that we have online. Such conversations can identify you as still maintaining a psychic identity distinct from the network, since it means you’re capable of distancing yourself from your online experiences to the extent that you may analyze and communicate meaningfully about them.
QIS2 was full of these moments of quiet validation and communal bonding. Scholar and performance artist T.L. Cowan provoked conference members with the following thought experiment: what do you do in public that you would be absolutely opposing to having broadcast online? Immediately it occurred to me that I no longer do anything in public that I would be so absolutely opposed to having go online that I’d request a take-down (assuming such a demand could even be satisfied). This is not because I’m an exhibitionist, but because I’m so aware of how many cameras and other recording devices surround me at all times. Such is the extent to which I’ve internalized the mechanisms of the surveillance state, although it took T.L.’s question to make me see it.
The deepest sense of communion I felt, however, came not in the instances where my own private realities was reflected in the words of another, but through a decidedly scholarly connection with presenter Shaka McGlotten. After they gave a talk that veered from Afro-futurism and affect theory to Eastern religion, racism on dating apps, and Gilles Deleuze I asked them for their thoughts on maintaining a whole, cohesive sense of self when working with critical theory, gender and internet studies, all of which emphasize multiplicity and fragmentation under the broad sign of postmodernity.
This had been on my mind a bit recently, especially since critiques of capitalism haunt all of my work. I see the permeation of the digital in the “real world”as an exponent of the perpetual extension of profit-oriented logic into new spaces. Mired in this strategic indistinction, the integrity of minds and identities — their wholeness, their irreducibility to means not determined by sovereign individuals— seems to me to becoming more and more relevant over time (as capital demands new markets be made of the previously unprofitable). Trapped between the binary poles of poststructuralist theory’s anti-essentialism and the need for integration in order to survive, theoretical interventions can help us triangulate a new way of conceiving ourselves as transcendent, ineffable, but integrated beings.
McGlotten’s articulations of his experiences as a writer on critical race studies, a spiritual person, and most certainly a weird/queer technology scholar, assured me that the queer lens brings form to the seemingly irreconcilable realities of which they spoke. Inspired by the talk, I wrote down the phrase quantum identities in my notebook later on that day. A wordplay on the emerging field of quantum computing, which envisions computation beyond the binary construct of zero and one, I reflected on “quantum identities” as a means to conceive selves that are as flexible as context demands, but which retain structural integrity at their core. Nonbinary, infinitely mutable, but essentially whole: quantum identities are who are are as we move across various dimensional fields. They may occasionally resist the languages of one or another (resist definition, resist articulation) , but they always of informing our actions and ethics.
A writing professor once told me that poetry “makes language strange.” I think queer theory can be used to make computing strange — after all, code is language too. I have my own reasons to make “queer” networked technology; perhaps identifying yours can help you remember who you are, even as a rapidly-digitizing society may encourage you to forget.
Queer theory can inspire new ways of conceiving identity to keep one’s sense of self intact, even as the permeation of technology demands greater psychic leaps and bounds across spaces whose borders shift more rapidly than we can ever hope to notice. Call it an anti-alienation mechanism.