on queerness

Yesterday, as I walked to my office, I listened to a podcast episode on the history of the word queer. It wasn’t some heady academy-burdened series of definitions – more for popular audiences than not. The host asked a number of people from the LGBTQIA+ community to explain what the word meant to them. 

“It’s an umbrella term,” said matter-of-factly. Or, “It wasn’t until we gained marriage equality that I started to embrace the word,” (I grimace). Or, perhaps more pointedly, “I’m haunted by that word.”

To be haunted by queerness resonates for me. The sort of “I am haunted by this haunting,” kind of haunting ad infinitum.

Last week I facilitated a conversation on Sara Ahmed’s essay, “Happy Objects.” We settled into a discussion on happiness for the queer child, read as unhappy by the adults around them. Ahmed looks to a coming out scene in the novel Annie on My Mind – one of the four queer books stocked by my public library around the time of my own coming out. It was written in 1982, but I read it almost two decades later while spending my free time kissing girls backstage at my community theatre. Three and a half decades later, it shows up in my seminar room. Haunted, I guess. 

Someone in seminar asks me, “What does queer mean for you? Does it lie in negation?”

I am not sure if it is meant as a jab – an attempt to discredit queer theory in all its frustrating nebulous definitions. Sometimes it seems that all things which cannot be settled become queer, read as queer, queer queried. Struggling with queerness is a biweekly conversation with my adviser: What does it mean to do queer work if queer is in constant opposition? What does it look like to build a queer foundation when queer survival has relied on a mutable mobility? What will our monuments look like? 

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote Queer and Now in 1993, a decade after Annie on my Mind and a decade before I will discover it. She opens the essay by declaring her motive for queer work. “I think everyone who does gay and lesbian studies is haunted by the suicides of adolescents. To us, the hard statistics come easily: that queer teenagers are two to three times likelier to attempt suicide… I look at my adult friends and colleagues doing lesbian and gay work, and I feel that the survival of each one is a miracle.”

I relay this to my seminar-question-asker. “It comes down to suicidality,” I say. “And the importance of care work, care activism.”

“So it isn’t negation,” he says back to me. 

I keep playing this one-to-ten-second interaction over and over again in my head. What I should have said was, “Yes. Yes of course it is negation, this all lies in an indelible negation of queer youth. I just want queer youths to be happy.”

I didn’t, though. I just nodded my head in the hopes of moving on. I just want us to be happy moving on.

Ahmed writes that the speech act, “I just want you to be happy,” is damning for queer youth in their coming out. “What does it mean to want ‘just’ happiness? What does it mean for a parent to say this to a child?” The father in Annie on My Mind wishes happiness for his queer daughter in the same breath as fearing for her happiness. “The father makes an act of identification with an imagined future of necessary and inevitable unhappiness,” Ahmed writes. “Such an identification through grief about what the child will lose reminds us that the queer life is already constructed as unhappy, as a life without those ‘things’ that would make you happy (husband, children). The desire for the child’s happiness is far from indifferent. The speech act ‘I just want you to be happy’ can be directive at the very point of its imagined indifference.”

My first interaction with the word queer came from academia. I wrote an essay for a literature class on Peter Pan and its queering of heteronormativity. Wendy Darling, virgin mother, darning socks for all of her boys. A sexless desire to play house, Peter’s homosocial utopia, the erotically charged feuds between Tiger Lilly, Tinkerbell, and Wendy gone unnoticed, yadda yadda yadda. It meant a lot to me at the time – almost a decade ago, and almost a decade after reading Annie on my Mind, and almost two decades after Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote Queer and Now.

My life is punctuated by meaningfully queer work. I am haunted by it. I am trying to build a foundation from this haunting, I am trying to build some sort of monument to its negation. Most of all, I am trying to care for the queers around me. After all, the survival of each one a miracle.

On death, dying, and depression in academia

At the end of December, as so many queers are to do, I purchased an enamel pin. My mother was at my side in a romance bookstore in Culver City. The pin reads, in large pink letters, ALIVE. I got it as a celebration for making it through the year. I still haven’t pinned it to my denim jacket. I do not yet feel as if I have earned it. 

The irony is not lost on me that a pair of tumors my mother kept from me were making their way across her right kidney – 4 and 5 centimeters each. 

“I didn’t want to stress you out,” she said over the phone to me a few weeks later. “It’s just that now we have a surgery scheduled.”

My mother had cancer and then, suddenly, she didn’t have cancer anymore. The doctors (for whom this is their job) took their special magnifying glasses to x-rays or MRIs or infrared ultraviolet pictures or what-have-you, and decided for sure. And then a couple of other doctors decided for sure. And now she gets wheeled around to a doctor every other week or so to make absolutely, 100% sure. I suppose that’s what it will look like for the rest of her life.

I lay in my sun-kissed white-linened bed in southern California surrounded by books waiting quietly for some urge to do anything other than die, and my mother carefully pencils in a partial nephrectomy. She always uses pencil in her datebook.

“You have to be prepared to erase, Kathryn.”

It feels garish to write on my mother’s condition in the same line as my struggles with an impasse in academia. I can’t help it. As I walked to lecture, I watched my reflection walk to lecture in a mirrored wall and wondered how many academics were kept from publishing to tend to sick families, to process death, to grieve. My job is simple: do not die and produce good work. I cannot say I have been doing particularly well with either. 

The other day on Twitter (and no story which ends up well begins with that) a prominent philosopher made a slight jab -- a small joke, really -- referring to the suicide of a colleague. You know, just one of those topics rife for joking. This move, abhorrent and distasteful, I saw minutes after closing Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling. Her book discusses the depression which kept her paralysed through much of her academic work, interrupted by bursts of manic productivity. It is part memoir, part cultural theory, navigating an affective turn toward sentimentality and feeling in contemporary theory work. “How does capitalism feel?” Cvetkovich asks. How can this focus on “sensation, tactility, and feeling…resist what have sometimes been overly reductive models within Marxist theory for analyzing the mechanisms of social change”?

As I read about Cvetkovich’s struggle with depression, I can’t help but think of Mark Fisher and his own. 

Is there any writer who is not so constantly plagued by the push and pull of productivity and self-flagellation in its absence?

Berardi has argued that the intensity and precariousness of late capitalist work culture leaves people in a state where they are simultaneously exhausted and overstimulated. The brain is exhausted by too much to do. The feminist postcapitalist thinkers J.K. Gibson-Graham resist the mind/body dualism which spurs late capitalism, in turn. They resist the idea that thinking operates somehow in a “register above and separate from untamed bodily sensation.” And yet, of course, we have all experienced the feelings which accompany new knowledge – how the body folds inwards upon hearing devastating news, or tremors of joy when receiving the opposite. 

In a stark example, I remember my own bodily response in the months following the 2016 US general election. In that great fog of depression, I was sick with cold after cold after cold – bedridden in ways I had never before experienced. I kept my partner up nights, coughing and coughing. They, in their impossibly British way, attempted to soothe me with apologies: 

“I’m so sorry you’re coughing.”

“No, I’m so sorry that I’m keeping you up.”

“No, no, I’m sorry you’re not getting any sleep!”

I could write for ages and ages about sleep – how it entices and eludes, how the Silicon Valley tech bubble promises an escape from its weight on productivity. It’s cliched and useless – Ariana Huffington has already made her way to it. I try and only dip my toes into this late capitalist fever for insomnia, de-eroticizing a culture inundated with people always up, always working. This is Berardi, again, who tells us that the art of seduction takes too much time for the contemporary. The mysteries of culture are lost to us, and so we make up that time in the sludge of feeling which we then, of course, guilt ourselves for having. 

I am unable to min-max my output, no matter how many flow charts or bullet journals or time spent meditating. Worse, perhaps, is the overwhelming feeling that the goal centered in my research, abolishing metrics for success outside of the affective, is unobtainable in any feasible way. “No one is going to want to take on these models,” I whine to my advisor. “No one will hire me if I say they should be giving more of their money away, or that they should incentivize post-capitalist forecasting.” I berate myself for writing over-indulgent essays about my academic impasse.

Yesterday I sat in the sun outside the mechanics, waiting to hear how much repairing a broken head gasket will cost me. I called my dad on the phone to check in. “Your mother had a pain-free day yesterday,” he said. I decide that is pretty good, as far as things go. 

on sex in tech & abstraction

I made a Twitter bot. I've made a few before -- and my flatmate, the inimitable George Buckenham, is the guy responsible for Cheap Bots Done Quick! (a tool I cannot recommend enough). This one is an erotica bot. 

It might be because I'm more attuned to queer spaces in games and tech, but maybe also the conversations about sex and sexuality in games has been getting louder. Especially with the release of Christine Love's Ladykiller In A Bind  last year (another recommendation), and its recent move to Steam, I see a lot of women in the industry (and a lot or queer women, particularly) talking about sex. Which is great. We should all be talking about sex, and we should be talking about it as much as possible. The more people talking about embodiment, about sexuality, and queerness in these spaces, the more of it there is. 

I worry, sometimes, that how we talk about sex feels abstracted. This is no surprise, especially in the digital industries. Tech is clinical, it is hardware, it is an unfeeling string of commands and processes or whatever. To come up against this is difficult. "Okay!" We say. "Let's make the computers kiss or something!" "This is the emoji for penis, this peach is an ass, and I don't know, like a taco or something for a vagina?" "I love it when the girls in BioWare games kiss me."

These conversations are good. These conversations are not enough. 

I've long admired the work of Nina Freeman, a game designer from New York and now Portland (working with Fullbright on Tacoma) for her unashamed use of bodies in games. From Cibele to How Do You Do It to her earlier Twine games (which remind me a lot of Porpentine's body of work), the use of soft, squishy, pink, organic bodies having sex frankly, openly, and with othered bodies is crucially important. Robert Yang, Lovable Hat Cult, and Ghislaine Boddington are each adding to the conversation of sex in tech and sex in games with frankness and honesty. Mainstream games are struggling to keep pace with their peers on the fringe (as always, I suppose), and mainstream criticism feels even further behind. 

So I decided to add to the conversation & put my money where my mouth is (as both a critic and an academic). 

sexwithflowers, Flora and Fauna, is an erotic abstraction bot, which uses a set text of erotic and natural imagery to be purposefully sexual, while simultaneously is at the mercy of procedural generation. I took a page out of literary and art history, where sexuality was often obfuscated by floral imagery, endowed with a meaning both secret and universally understood. sexwithflowers is earnest. It does not shy away from words and phrases like, "fuck me," or "my wet cunt," or "shuddering lilacs." At the same time, it has no delusions of seduction, no opinions, no ulterior motives.

It just is what you make of it. Which is pretty hot.