onward and upward

After planning and intending to do so for years, I have finally acquired the domain name queergeektheory.org and installed wordpress on it. I will in future be hosting scholarly content and blogging there, and I’ve already made it a much more comprehensive site than this one — so please change your bookmarks and so forth:

http://queergeektheory.org

blogs and blobs

I’d like to draw your attention to this ongoing series in the online version of the UK Guardian newspaper: A Transgender Journey by Juliet Jacques. It’s great to see a mainstream paper like the Guardian giving space to an account of nonheteronormative culture that is critical and thoughtful and informed by the marginal, conflicting worlds of LGBT culture – that acknowledges the familiar narratives without simplistically reproducing them.

I would be making this post regardless, I think, but I’m also a bit biased here. I met Juliet when we were both studying for MAs at Sussex, and have stayed in touch with her through many of the events she documents in her column. We’ve shared our discoveries of queer and trans theory and art, and I’ve learned a lot about modernism and football through our acquaintance. The last time we managed to meet up, which I think was a year ago, she mentioned that she really wanted to blog about her transition on the Guardian; so when I saw the first installment go up, I felt that little fizz of excitement and glee we have when we see a friend achieve one of their goals.

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I’m in London at the moment, and this week I went to an event at the BFI for the new issue of the queer literary journal Chroma. The theme was “Future Sex,” so I knew I couldn’t stay away. I was completely charmed by Dr Rachel Armstrong‘s presentation, which reminded me of many works of science fiction. Armstrong showed a short film she has made, “Protocells,” and gave an explanation of her work over its silence. She has filmed very simple cells, which are not alive according to standard definitions, and is fascinated by the ways they interact –– changing shape as they reach out for one another, splitting apart, sliding inside one another and converging.

Her video uses text to comment on what might be taking place between these blobs, and the experience of watching it and listening to her describe the experiment was very moving. It’s not predictable or obvious why these interactions take place, and Armstrong was talking about the importance of sitting with that lack of knowledge, of the potential for changing the dominant narrative of science and moving away from biological determinism if the conclusion, the result, were to be decentered. The talk was followed by a rather inspiring discussion of blob interaction as a way of thinking our own affective interactions with objects and beings that reach out to us and/or penetrate our boundaries.

Tiptree winners 2009

I am really proud to have been part of the jury that gave Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku and Greer Gilman’s Cloud and Ashes the 2009 Tiptree award, for science fiction/fantasy that expands and challenges our ideas about gender. The winning texts are very different, and neither fit what would be most people’s first conception of f/sf, but to me that’s what makes them both so exciting. They embody the expansive possibilities of what we can describe as feminist science fiction/fantasy or speculative fiction today.

On the one hand, Gilman’s suite of two stories and a short novel is a beautiful small press hardback where the design is as painstaking as the language, a book dense with labor and allusion that digs deep into the archives of northern European mythology that have shaped fantastic writing so intensely. At a time when I was feverishly speeding through the award-nominated books that were continually arriving on my doorstep, Gilman’s rich language forced me to change my pace.

On the other hand, Yoshinaga’s manga uses the tropes of changing gendered power dynamics that have been beloved of British and American feminists’ imagined worlds since the late nineteenth century, but puts them to work in a very different cultural context: Shogun-era Japan. Although I love graphic novels and comics, I haven’t spent much time with manga, but that didn’t stop me falling in love very fast with Yoshinaga’s crisp images and nuanced storytelling. The premise is that, in isolationist Edo Japan, men have been an endangered species since the onset of a sex-specific plague. Women step into positions of power and keep their fragile men protected, but this isn’t a simple role-reversal story. What I loved most about it was that you could see the patriarchal gender structure that had existed before the plague peeking through all the time: in the interactions of the men in the Shogun’s harem (the Ooku of the title), where much activity takes place; among the women who pay men for sex in the hope of conceiving. And, most fascinating of all, in the trappings of power into which we see the new and feisty Shogun, Yoshimune (a character I can’t wait to see more of in later volumes), being indoctrinated. Much of the action takes place in the homosocial, hierarchical, domestic environment of the Ooku, with only a few glimpses so far into the female worlds of power and politics, but as the second volume delves into history, it seems that we will soon get more. I can’t wait.

I am going to try to make a series of posts about the novels and stories I read for the Tiptree, because there are so many I want to recommend that I may never finish this post if I try to do it all here. So watch this space for more on the honor list and special mention.

Digital Media and Learning

I spent the weekend in a state of gleeful intellectual overstimulation, at the Digital Media and Learning Conference at UC San Diego. The theme was ‘diversifying participation,’ and most of the presentations I attended focused intensely on the divisions, inequalities and conflicts that utopian or dystopian rhetorics about the digital future too often obscure.

I was part of a panel on fan video, which was slightly misrepresented in the program, as we had expected to feature some discussion of other kinds of participatory culture but ended up with five people (six including Francesca Coppa‘s Skype appearance) all steeped in the same fanvidding culture. It made for very complementary talks, but was perhaps a little opaque to outsiders. I dashed around frantically trying to make the recalcitrant technology speak to my computer and gave a short talk on how vidding can be a form of literacy that makes subjugated knowledge formations visible in mainstream media.

S. Craig Watkins’s keynote on black and Latino youth use of digital media was quite fascinating. Watkins talked about the different uses different social groups make of digital media, with particular reference to hip hop culture, and how poor and working class young people can be disadvantaged because the publicity of social networking profiles, twitter etc necessitates such complicated code switching. The news that young people of color spend more time online than young white people was greeted with much excitement on the twitter stream; I couldn’t help thinking that, rather than greater equality, this just marks a change the relationship between access and class. There are a fair few science fiction texts that feature an elite free from the surveillance and alienation of data connections through which working classes labor (two offhand examples: Alex Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer and L. Timmel DuChamp’s five-novel Marq’ssan cycle).

As the conference went on, may aspects of my concerns were mirrored in others’ comments. They are also taken up in Kristina Busse’s non-attending response post to the conference where she argues that, given the current industrial dynamics of the academy, we have to recognize the material privilege that being able to attend large events requires, and make them digitally available to those who lack those resources. DML was free and open to those who could make it, but didn’t have the tech set up for remote viewing.

Despite my presence in the flesh I didn’t get to attend as many panels as I would have liked, partly because I had to leave early. Other highlights of the conference for me included discussions of race in online avatar representations from Lisa Nakamura and Beth Coleman among others, talking about how we need to think about much more than the visual coding of avatars and its relationship to RL images of race: among other things, structures of kinship and belonging and global labor politics should be part of that discussion. I especially appreciated Nakamura’s remarks about how great value is placed on subverting the rules of games when they are remade in forms like machinima, but when capitalist practices like gold farming break the rules they are only seen as cheating.

Most relevant to my own work was the panel on Queer You(th)Tube, with Jonathan Alexander, Elizabeth Losh, and Alex Juhasz. Alexander and Losh laid out the context of online queerness and demonstrated the generic markers of YouTube coming-out videos, talking about the ways queer communities form online and move offline, the support networks that emerge, and how some queers get left off the map. I found the sincerity, diffidence, bravado and anxiety of the queer teenagers’ vlogs quite moving, and it made me quite nostalgic for the message-board-enabled digital development of my own queer self-understanding.

Juhasz punctured that bubble with her provocative YouTube presentation, which took up the parodies made by straight kids of these earnest online comings-out and connected them to what she understands as a pervasive, conservative miasma of irony that permeates all our online discourse. Her critique of the lack of critical distance was very reminiscent of Fredric Jameson’s 1980s analysis of postmodernism, but she emphasized one difference; as Juhasz’s recursive use of YouTube to make her attacks on YouTube underlines, her criticisms of irony are themselves ironic. The debate made me think about the multiple definitions of queer that I feel I am constantly trying to balance in my own work: community, sense of self, political identity, political anti-identity, disruption. Queer theory also offers many important interventions to the intense focus on ‘youth’ that tends to dominate discussions of digital pedagogy: learning is not exclusive to the young, and too often all people are assumed to share an overly normalizing life narrative. Similarly, queer and other radical pedagogies remind us that learning never flows only in one direction, from teacher to student.

Thanks to Twitter and HASTAC’s liveblogging, I was able to get a sense of the panels I missed on the last afternoon. It seems that the critical reflections crossing my mind were crossing many others’ too. As always, I am eager to see what may come of the questions raised about institutionalized vs unofficial knowledge production which are now being addressed in Busse’s blog comments.

Queerness, fantasy and Marxist materiality

Yesterday I attended a talk on “Queer Studies and the Crisis of Capitalism,” with Jordana Rosenberg, Amy Villarejo, and Meg Wesling.

Even given my propensity to take copious notes, I don’t think I can reconstruct the panelists’ arguments. I’ll read the upcoming issue of GLQ and think about the nuances then (or, more likely, incorporate them into my dissertation). My mind is still turning over the implications of Villarejo’s perspective on queer aspects of affective or immaterial labor and the changing temporalities of TV viewing, and especially Wesling’s call to include the transnational material politics of current events in Haiti, especially the burgeoning trade in “saving” Haitian children, in queer analysis and activism. We can’t, or shouldn’t, have a queer critique of reproduction and familiality that doesn’t take the shape of global labor into account.

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One of the talks in particular sparked off some reflections that relate to my own work, and is most suitable to discussion under the heading of queer geek theory. I knew my drive to distant UCLA had been worth it when Jordana Rosenberg, the first speaker, announced she was going to talk about the fantasy writing of Samuel R. Delany and China Mieville. It may be of less obvious importance than immediate, critical political concerns, but I continue to think that the ways we imagine the world as different than it is affect how we might try to change it.

Rosenberg drew from Jameson and Bloch to unfold a concept of “queer durée” based on the formal properties of fantasy fiction, arguing that its very propensity for anachronism is what makes fantasy interesting and stating that queerness is “the intensification of the historical quality of fantasy via sexuality.” I was excited to hear someone draw on the archive of high-concept genre fiction that shapes my own understanding of the world, but that few queer cultural theorists are familiar with. It gave me some questions about genre, though.

Can a formal theory of “fantasy” be built from Mieville’s New Weird and Delany’s fiction-as-critical-theory? I love both madly and they’re very compatible, built as both are from the authors’ education in Marxism and the cultural politics of race, gender, and sexuality. They’re both great ways in to those ways of thinking, because they are so filled with imagination and magic and weirdness; they both demand we step outside of received perspectives on history, science, sociality.

But fantasy as genre? Part of Rosenberg’s presentation discussed the idea of the “infix,” the modifying morpheme that comes in the middle of a word. “Abso-fucking-lutely” was her example, and queerness is (delightfully) the fucking that happens in the infix. But the example from which Rosenberg took that word was from a Twilight fan board, and I was personally fascinated with this appearance of the most devalued, mocked, and abjectly feminine form of fantasy in the middle of a discussion of highbrow, complex, and coincidentally male-authored texts.

This is not at all to say that highbrow, complex, weird, intellectual fantasy can’t be written by women. Just off the top of my head, check out Laurie K. Marks, Catherynne Valente, Andrea Hairston. But questions about genres, examples, and the ethics of selectivity in the archives from which one theorizes, continually haunt me–whether I am writing about vidding, science fiction, fandom, or anything else. Can we save a genre from its cliches? Should we? In particular, can/should we free fantasy from the realm of, well, fantasy–the unconscious and sometimes unconscionable desires that are as likely to reproduce oppressive hegemonies as challenge them? See also: the racial content of most fantasy’s vision of a supposedly universal past, as exposed in Deepa D’s I Didn’t Dream of Dragons.

I don’t intend this as a criticism of the paper, or even really as a serious engagement with it; I just wanted to articulate some of the thoughts it sparked off in me.

Tiptree

This year I have the great privilege of being on the jury for the Tiptree Award. As a young geek, I spent many hours reading about the history of feminist science fiction, and my understanding of the workings of gender and sexuality were enormously influenced by novels like Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Delany’s Trouble on Triton. The Tiptree Award — named after James Tiptree, Jr, the science fiction author feted as a writer of great masculinity and occasionally admired for his understanding of women, who was also a woman named Alice Sheldon — honours science fiction that continues to expand and challenge the ways we experience gender. Nominations for texts published in 2009 are still open, and you can follow the link on the website or just leave a comment here. I confess I’d love to see some nominations that aren’t just in the format of the standard novel or short story, much as I enjoy both.

I can’t write too much about what I’ve been reading lest I give away the jury’s deliberations, but I am greatly enjoying this process. I will post my reviews once the winner is announced.

TWC Issue 3

I’m a little ashamed of how much radio silence I have to break here; life has been very busy. I have a backlog of blog entries to make, and hope to start producing them soon.

In the meantime, I want to announce the publication of the third issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, which you can find here. There are some great articles about everything from quilting to filk to lesbian fandom.

As well as editing on Symposium, my main contribution to this issue was transcribing and editing a multi-voiced piece Pattern Recognition: A Dialogue on Racism in Fan Communities. The piece emerged from some intense conversations at WisCon, and could easily have been many times its current length; I felt unspeakably honoured to be in a room with Deepa, Coffeeandink, Oyceter, Sparkymonster, Naamen, Jackie and Liz, listening to them talk about race, representation and fandom with such depth and complexity.