Monday, 28 October 2013

Use My Body

So having spent the last class watching Forbidden Voices, a documentary about three women in three repressive regimes using blogging to challenge the political establishment, I've been brooding and chewing the insides of my mouth as I do thinking about one thing, mainly: is there gonna be a documentary like this for Chelsea Manning?

For anyone not in the loop, Chelsea Manning, while in the military in 2010, leaked a large number of classified documents to Wikileaks, including footage of the murder of civilians by US soldiers. Of course, at the time she was living under the name Bradley Manning, and in the aftermath of her trial she came out as transsexual and took the new name Chelsea. The American government, predictably, are being assholes about the question of whether or not she will be able to receive hormone treatment in prison, and she's been roundly vilified in even the ostensibly "liberal" American press (who more and more these days are revealing themselves to be, at best, a paler shade of red).

All of this is a big deal to me, honestly, as someone less than straight and less than completely comfortable in one gender, and it's been heartening to see, after going questing for feminist takes on Chelsea Manning's case, that there's actually quite a lot of support. I wasn't sure at first whether there would be, what with the pretty caustic transphobia in some feminist quarters. But a quick google search actually turns up a web full of feminist support for Chelsea Manning. This is, it seems, being considered a feminist issue (and rightly so). I particularly enjoyed this scathing critique of the complete systemic failure of the corporate media to show even a modicum of respect, humanity, and empathy for Manning.

Hi, yes, this isn't one of those blog posts where I pretend to be anything resembling neutral and aloof. Maybe I should've added a warning to that effect at the beginning? Too late now.

Anyway, this gives me great hope that we may, in time, get a documentary comparative to Forbidden Voices on Manning that is informed by a queer feminist perspective. It would be great, in fact, if the same folks who put together Forbidden Voices, which unfortunately focused on three women in countries that the United States isn't friends with, could broaden their scope to encompass a more diverse range of experiences and perspectives, among which Manning would fit well as a woman now subject to state persecution for acting as a whistleblower against abuses of power. Maybe not being a "blogger" strictly disqualifies her but I mean what is a blogger even, really? The sheer fluidity of modern social media makes the strict delineation of blogging a little fluid to begin with, and I'm not sure there's so much difference between, say, Farnaz Seifi blogging with the facilitative help of Reporters Without Borders and Manning making information public with the facilitative help of Wikileaks. Anyway, regardless, it seems like a potential right step forward to help balance some of the relative weaknesses of the film (which I'll be talking about in a later week).

And all of that seemed nice and neat, tidy little conclusion, tie it with a bow, hit post, and ship it out on the intertubes, but then I ran into this slightly incoherent but somehow deeply troubling post on Alternet: "Chelsea Manning gives us a Rare Opportunity to Create an Anti-War Coalition of Feminists."

Feminists of all types must widen their commitments to see how anti-militarism is part of the larger sexual, gender and racial democracy. The civil rights movement should see an ally in Manning, who has stood openly against the US military's killing and maiming of Arabs and Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We have a rare opportunity to create an anti-war coalition of anti-racist feminists of all sorts, no matter their biological body. This would be a coalition that embraces sexual, economic, racial, and gender rights for each and every one of us.

Something about this rubbed me the wrong way... largely, I think, because we just read Tiziana Terranova's "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy," which has a lot to say about free labor on the Internet.

The implication that I find somewhat disconcerting here is that rather than Manning actively leading the charge, as it were, her body is being used, in absentia, as a political rallying point. Or at least that's what the article's author, Zillah Eisenstein, seems to be suggesting implicitly.

Like, I'm really into this whole finding affinities across diversity lines thing right now, yeah? I'm really loving Harraway and Sandoval and that sort of camp of people. Coalition-building is a good thing.


The sort of... almost casual suggestion here that if Manning is still stuck in prison, hey, we can build a movement around that so there's an up side... that is disturbing to me, because it suggests that Manning's existence, her presence in prison, is a form of free labor that the Left can draw upon. The part of me that sees myself reflected in Manning recoils from the appropriation of her transgender body for political purposes without her consent, no matter how noble the cause.

I think this makes for a good ethics question in academia--is the use of case studies, political examples, &c. a form of exploitation, a way of using someone's free labor without even their awareness, turning them into an actor with no autonomy or will of their own? In particular, it seems highly problematic in this case since Chelsea only recently came out and there may be a level of uncertainty or fluidity to her own identity that must, by necessity, be compressed down to a static identity in order to better facilitate a clean political rallying point. God knows queerness outside the narrow confines of white middle class gay and lesbian family-building is already politically catastrophic enough! I really don't think these fools who complain about "Political Correctness" have any sense of what truly is politically correct. It's a lot easier to be their brand of "politically incorrect" than it is to be, say, a genderqueer polyamorous pansexual.

But I digress.

The point is, I worry that Manning here is being reduced to a particular kind of body that can serve as a particular kind of ideological standard, and that this reduction is happening in a way that is potentially exploitative--that Manning's "work" as an imprisoned trans woman is producing a convenient tool for the radical left. And that's a situation that I'm not comfortable with.

This is Cyborg Maria, and I'm really pleased with the multiple layers of meaning presented by my ending song choice this week.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Fertile Games

So, the other day (actually almost two weeks ago now--how the time staggers forward bleary-eyed, weighed down by a backpack full of theory texts) we were talking in class about the pretty dire state of science's literary tropes.

The basic idea--and this isn't new at all; Emily Martin's "The Egg and the Sperm," kinda the core text for this area of exploration, was published in 1991--is that the language scientists use to describe things are often gendered in a pretty problematic (and let's face it, often pretty offensive) way. Martin's big point is that the narrative of the mad rush of sperm against one another, where only the best sperm will claim victory and attain the female-coded egg as the prize, reinforces constructed gender stereotypes and lead to bad science. She describes how the reliance on this descriptive narrative of sperm as masculine action heroes has prevented dissemination* of more accurate, modern models where the sperm and egg have a more interactive relationship.

*Pun not intended by shamelessly embraced.

For a good example of this, paired with some really delicious racism masquerading as internationalism, check out this video, courtesy of my fellow femtechnet blogger BorgBlog:

Don't watch the whole thing though because your brain might start to ooze out your ears. In particular, I love how there are four Mexican kids while there's just one kid for every other nation. Charming, really.

Anyway, in pretty grotesque form this video lays out the basic metaphor, with the drowning sperm and so on. (Really, who thought that was a good idea?) It's written to explain the concepts with metaphors that avoid explicit discussion of sexuality but consistently reinforce the strictly gendered nature of reproduction.

So, the question was raised, though, of how you could even begin to teach these concepts differently. I mean, there's an element, even at best, of dominating instruction--the truth-telling voice of authority of the traditional documentary. The problem, and your mileage may vary as far as how great a problem you think it is, is that such an authorial voice excludes the possibility of dialogue back and forth. Furthermore, it limits the narrative to a single pathway leading from orgasm to conception. There's no time to go through a whole bunch of scenarios where things work out differently.

It was suggested in class that there might not be an alternate way of handling things. The medium is just a natural limiter in some respects.

That got me thinking though. If the medium is acting as a natural limiter for the narrative and metaphorical content, what if we think not solely about altering the narrative but about altering the medium itself? And we have, more than ever before, an unprecedented ability to create media experiences with divergent narratives.

It seems to me that video games, visual novels, hypertexts, and works of similar scope all would be ideal formats for conveying this sort of information--both on a minute biological level and on a broader sexual interaction level. A game, or a gamelike work of interactive fiction, would allow for a dialogue rather than a lecture to take place, and it would better accommodate a new narrative of sexual reproduction that recognizes the complex interactions that allow conception to take place. For example, consider playing as a sperm cell, with a group of other students in similar roles, playing with an AI representing the egg. Now, already you're introducing a potential for competition but also a potential for collaboration--the group goal is conception, but the individual goal is to be the "winning" sperm cell. There's a pull and tug between different aims there that makes for interesting gameplay and can, if accompanied by strong guidance from the game or from an instructor, help to reinforce the complexities of impregnation.

An effective AI would make it possible to simulate the interaction of gametes and make real the possibility of different outcomes that do not lead to conception--or lead to unusual conceptions resulting in twins or triplets! Would it be difficult to make nonconception feel like something other than failure? Sure! But this, I think, is a solvable problem, and games provide far more potential solutions (in particular, alternate goals, multiple types of unlockable achievements--perhaps even mutually exclusive ones for different types of non/conception!) than other media do, while not substantively increasing the number of problems with the traditional narrative. The problems, in short, already exist, and certainly will carry over into gameplay, but ultimately can be countered with a wider variety of solutions.

Perhaps even have students play as sperm cells is too traditional. Fine! There is a long tradition of AIs being played alternately by other players during multiplayer, why not port that logic in here and make it possible to have players as egg, sperm, or both? Obviously, my gravitation towards sperm as PCs and eggs as NPCs demonstrates a bias, but that bias comes from the narrative, not the medium, and the medium offers readily available alternate narratives that can counter my design biases. Again, solvable problems.

I think this logic can be extended even further, in fact, to encompass much of sexual health. The wide proliferation of dating sims, h-games, and erotic moments within larger game worlds shows that players are interested in simulated sexual and romantic experiences.

To me, it seems logical to take these established game types and develop versions that present sexuality in a more nuanced and egalitarian way, with an eye toward representing more diverse experiences. I can't think of a better way of having students explore the different ways in which they can negotiate sexual experiences with partners than in a setting where their choices have an impact on the way the narrative proceeds. The idea that sex is something to be negotiated can't, I think, be expressed as effectively in static media as it can in a medium where you actually collaborate with an AI in developing the story's course.

Essential to this sort of experience, I think, would be the ability of students to discuss their experiences within the game--potentially anonymously on the web?--in order to get a more full and comprehensive picture of just how events can play out. If we're trying to express how there can be multiple experiences of sexuality, then being able to talk about the variety of possibilities within the game seems fairly important.

Similarly important would be the ability of students to anonymously craft their own characters and interactions--interactions that might span a whole range of gender expressions and sexualities, with a whole range of possible outcomes positive (and negative? The value of negative experiences in simulations would have to be carefully weighted and tested, but might be potentially useful).

Would it ever happen? Ha ha, of course not. All of this is far too corrupting and sinful to get implemented in schools, at least in the US and probably in Canada. Even European countries might balk a bit at the idea of an actual sex sim, no matter the wide proliferation of such sims in far less egalitarian contexts or the proliferation of low-grade, narratively stunted, sexist pornography.

It's a nice thought though. And I think this illustrates the power of the tools available to us now. It's worth considering how we can bend these tools to our own ends, thereby challenging the narrative.

This is Cyborg Maria, and I'm ready to play.

I have the most ridiculous taste in music.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Sexualities Slipping Thru the Net

What kind of sexualities are we making?

I love that line. It's my favorite line in this whole dialogue, actually, because I feel like it really sums up the conversation as a whole.

There's this great notion Wilding and Russo touch on* about the way the corporatization of the 'Net has made it more difficult for chance interactions, and discoveries, and--hey, here's this concept popping up again--identity fluidity. We can see that with the Nymwars with Google and the ongoing privacy concerns on Facebook--identity is locked into a marketable set of likes/dislikes.

This is fascinating given their earlier discussion of how technology enables sex discourses but also controls the terms of those discourses. I mean, this isn't new stuff--this is Vintage Foucault, 1976, favorite beverage of contemporary academics everywhere--but it feels fresh in this context largely because the endless dialogues back and forth about the social net work that we're all caught in and how likely we are to be hauled out of the cyber sea and sold as hors d'oeurvres alongside the aforementioned Foucault Wine have, from what I've seen, largely lacked this kind of theoretical critique, at least in the popular media.

And yet the effects of the commodification of preferences has filtered out into our understanding of sexuality within the context of these social net works. There is a strong encouragement to embrace labels and identities that can be caught in these nets--Facebook still, for example, allows you only to describe yourself as interested in Men, Women, Both, or Neither, enabled by a series of checkable boxes. There is no way to customize the descriptor for your relationship, and I know for a fact that you can only be in a relationship visibly with one person at once.

This is fascinating to me because it suggests that part of the more corporate Web** is the easy categorization of sexualities in order to create market groups. One of the possible side effects is that exploration of sexuality is deincentivized as users are encouraged to see the addition or subtraction of a preference as profound alterations of their fundamental identity. And while it is possible to change your orientation or your descriptor for your relationship, such a change is an Event, and signals the end of one era and the beginning of another rather than an arbitrary moment in a fluid progression from one state to another.

Wouldn't it be fascinating to study whether or not coming out or exploring sexuality is more stressful for people that heavily use social media? I think there's some real potential there, especially considering the predominant high school and college age demographics of Facebook*** and the drama already associated with sexuality at that age.

Even kinks are largely codified and divided into subsets. While sites like FetLife are often seen as a boon to sexual exploration, given the critique here I have to question that logic somewhat. After all, the existence of such a major, centralized platform naturally allows that platform to shape the discourse on sexuality. In the context of a web where the application of particular terms creates chunks of identity large enough to be caught and sold, even the simple act of dividing up different kinks and preferences and sex acts into separate pages within a website might be dangerous.

Now, I think Russo makes a great point here that there's some issues with the total breakdown of structure, but at the same time I think maybe there's room for the establishment of some spaces for sexual identity play--even play only in the realm of the mind--without us actually just ending up having lots of queer sex in public, as she puts it. Like, I'm thinking in particular of this interesting little tool I came across today--Yay Genderform!--which is... well, another range of selections to choose from delineated by checkboxes.

Wow, what an improvement.

There's two things that fascinate me here though. First of all, there's the sheer dizzying array of possibilities, most of which I've never even heard of before. The massive number of options is so overwhelming that the exercise immediately becomes not one of identification but exploration. There's no alternative but to explore if you want to use the tool, and by the end I suspect using the tool because quite extraneous. It's a fake tool, in a way, doing its job by adding to rather than reducing effort! The sheer deconstructive flip-flopping here is pretty delicious on its own.

On top of that, there's this absolutely wonderful little button at the very bottom.


What better way to encourage people to think of this as a tool for identity play rather than identity processing and packaging? Spin the sexy wheel of fortune, the site suggests, and see what you get. See if those identities work for you. If not, spin again! We've got all night.

That's glorious.

There's a danger, I think, in falling too deeply into a kind of assumptive, passive love with set structures. We get really comfortable with the idea that this series of tubes, not unlike the series of tubes within the human (and particularly the female) body, naturally are supposed to function a particular way, and it is paramount that we invent technologies in order to control that functionality. It's not even a question of efficacy past a certain point--it's a matter of making sure that people are using their tubes in the proper way.

Often the demands for the regulation of women are just as sensible, well thought out, and scientifically sound as the demands for bandwidth throttling, data usage caps, &c., &c.

Which isn't to say that the two conflicts are equivalent in the sense that they have equal weight and importance--that would be as ridiculous as treating the Internet like a big truck!--but maybe there's some value to this as an analogy in the way it points out some of these issues of technobiopower and how they unite very disparate fields of interest.****

There's one last thought that isn't really connected directly to the above thoughts necessarily but is still worth at least mentioning, I think. Considering the dominance of women in many (although not all, as the continued awfulness of the gamer and comics communities demonstrates) fandom spaces, it's worth considering the various purges carried out by of adult content, often without warning resulting in stunning loss of data, from a feminist perspective. If fandoms are potentially a space for the exploration of sexuality in a relatively safe and imaginative way by women, then these purges almost certainly disproportionately affect women and damage the ability of women to engage in a discourse on sexuality.

This seems like a strong intersection between the always-present and steadily-growing culture of data preservation and protection on the web and various strains of feminist and queer theoretical thought. To me, it seems that even if there's an element of perhaps overly idealistic fervor to these sexual liberation projects, making room for exploration is of paramount importance. Maybe that's my artist's bias coming through, but if we're going to talk about the kind of sexualities we're making, we should also be talking about the technological systems that make making sexualities possible.

This is Cyborg Maria, where all the lonely droids and lovers have their wildest dreams.

 *Not as long as maybe a longer session would've made possible unfortunately but nevertheless.

**Isn't it interesting that "cyberspace" with its implications of vastness and openness has given way to the "Web" and the "Net," methods of capture and control?

***Google+'s demographics are naturally higher as the social network is used exclusively by Google employees.

****Or it may just be a great excuse to post the "Series of Tubes" remix video.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Keeping of Many Names

The meat world often ends up being an interesting test case for the digital world. This should be a little worrying for techno-utopians, since part of the whole idea behind moving toward a digital future is that we should be able to transcend the errors of the existing world. The fact that we can map problems in meatspace onto problems in cyberspace suggests that we take our baggage with us.

Which, not coincidentally*, is sort of obliquely-speaking the theme of Amade M'charek's essay "Fragile differences, relational effects: Stories about the materiality of race and sex." The stories in question are two tales of identity in Holland; one is a story of M'charek's own identity and her attempts to navigate Dutch society, and the other is the story of a medieval Dutch boy whose identity was reconstructed (and fabricated) by modern scientific techniques.

Part of her argument is that identity shifts and comes into new configurations depending on setting and the other individuals being interacted with. This is fascinating stuff, and very useful for understanding the performative nature of identity--the idea that it's not so much that I'm, say, a particular gender but that I am performing genderedness. The edge that M'charek adds to this is the lack of agency that we as individual actors have over how others view our performance. She relates how, after attaining a short haircut in order to seem less overtly "Muslim" and thus avoid harassment, she was accosted by a white woman who, thinking she was a man, accused her of "pinching her buttocks." The woman, upon realizing her gendered mistake, she hastily retreated behind her "strongly built partner" and let him handle things.

She goes on to suggest that from moment to moment during that altercation her identity shifted: 
"At the beginning of this conflict, the woman with the short haircut was enacted as an Arab man. Upon her face becoming visible, she became a woman. However, within these seconds, and standing not in front of the blonde woman, but in front of the man instead, her identity changed for a third time. Confronted with the heavily built Dutch man, she became a representative of a people. A people that is often typecast as potentially dangerous and difficult to control. The woman was thus enacted as the Arab woman, the Other."
Which just goes to show that there's no pleasing some people, no matter what identity is being enacted.

What I find particularly interesting about this is that the chain of events cascaded from the decision to avoid enacting a stereotype that ultimately was reasserted in the end, anyway. This suggests to me that there's a limited ability of individuals to create their own identities. In a way, this feels almost obvious once it's said out loud. If one of the major moves in Theory over the last century was the realization that an author can't depend upon the reader to interpret zir text "correctly," it's not a large leap to consider a boy a text prone to misreadings--even deliberate misreadings.

This has some rather unsettling implications for life in cyberspace. I think many of us that have second lives on the Net tend to believe, to a greater or lesser extent, that we can transcend our identities or keep them separate. We can, we hope, escape the prison of our enacted physical bodies and take on new names. But Redditors are male, Tumblr users are female, who's ever met a queer gamer, you're just pretending to be a woman for attention, and so on and so on. In the absence of a physical persona, URLs take on the function of signifiers that allow us to typecast users just as much as appearances are used to typecast in the physical world.

I think the pain of having your identity pinned down is the pain of having your waveform collapsed, the pain of knowing that no matter how diffuse you make yourself, no matter how many names you keep, the enacted identities that others project stalk you, a constant shadowy substance ready to harden upon you if someone catches sight of it in strong enough light. The waveform collapse, to me, is one of the greatest anxieties of living in the digital age, because the utopia of fluid identity that we were promised in science fiction is tenuous. 

You can only run so far before the body catches up.

Call me Cyborg Maria.

*I mean, of course it's not coincidence. If it was, this article would just be nonsense that happened to arrange itself in a useful argle bargle glub glub cthulhu ftagn.

**Even leaving aside the supervillian's impulse to leave little hints to alternate identities. Was Tom Marvolo Riddle foolish when he anagrammed his name, or was he leaving a trail in the hopeless wish that someone else would be brilliant enough to retrace his footsteps, discover his game?