Technoqueer: Re/Con/Figuring Posthuman Narratives

Edmond Y. Chang | echang @ drew.edu | Dissertation Abstract

My dissertation project extends recent technocultural and queer theory discourses by addressing the convergences and divergences between the two fields, particularly addressing the current theoretical tensions and silences in technoculture’s appropriation of queerness and queer theory’s near disavowal of technology.  On the one hand, I argue that technocultural theories must be augmented by the intersectional approaches of queer and queer of color theory to account for gender, sexuality, and race in ways that do not simply amplify liberal (trans)humanist ideals of choice, individuality, and disembodiment or that do not end in technologically-induced colorblind, genderblind, or queerblind ideologies.  On the other hand, current queer theory has stressed intersectionality, as seen in recent Social Text special issues Queer Transexions and What’s Queer about Queer Studies Now?, embracing other terms like class, nationality, religion, war, citizenship, marriage, globalization, and time.  Curiously missing, assumed, ignored, or disappeared, I argue, is a satisfying account of queer and technology or queer(ed) technologies since technology is often read as neutral or instrumental.  Therefore, through an analysis of cyberspace and body modification technologies and through the discourses and literatures that take these real or imagined technologies as world-defining, my project theorizes technologically-mediated and -constituted race, gender, and sexuality, paying particular attention to the promises and consequences, both positive and negative, of posthuman instabilities in the boundaries of embodiment and identity categories.  Here intersections and formations of technology, sexuality, gender, and race serve as the pantheon of what I call the “technoqueer.”

I argue that the technoqueer works to reconfigure the posthuman to demonstrate ways that technology can both produce domination and resistance.  According to Cary Wolfe (2010), posthumanism “names a historical moment in which the decentering of the human by its imbrication in technical, medical, informatics, and economic networks is increasingly impossible to ignore.”  Therefore, the animating questions that frame my dissertation include: How are subjectivity and embodiment (the “human”) mediated and reconfigured by technology?  How might these posthuman subjects and bodies account for how race, gender, and sexuality are concomitantly mediated and produced by and through technology?  One of the popular promises and mythologies of technoculture and posthumanism is that of liberation, whether it is liberation from human frailty, singular identities, oppression, even mortality—the “meat” itself.  However, as writers like N. Katherine Hayles or Lisa Nakamura or Thomas Foster caution, these narratives reveal that “only too often does one person’s ‘liberation’ constitute another’s recontainment” (Nakamura 2002).  The technoqueer then is mindful that technology is co-constitutive of and with race, gender, and sexuality and that freedom from one set of embodiments or identities often means the stabilization or policing of others.  I demonstrate this argument through alternative readings of figures like the cyborg, which has been previously read as privileging gender over sexuality and race, or contemporary cyberpunk narratives, which imagine technologically-manipulable bodies of many colors and configuration yet continue to perpetuate sexist, racist, and homophobic stereotypes, or cyberspace technologies like online video games, which promise players freedom, choice, power, and self-fashioning while they simultaneously restrict and control them via the game’s informatics and protocols.

My first chapter, “The Technoqueer Manifesto,” is an extended genealogy and definition of the “technoqueer,” a term that foregrounds the normative and potentially radical ways that technology itself co-constitutes our understandings and formations of race as more than a single color line, gender as both performative and embodied, and sexuality as less orientation and more circuits of desire.  The technoqueer, I argue, reveals and challenges the structures of the near ubiquity of technological mediation and penetration into twenty-first century life—what I call the technonormative matrix—a technologically enhanced and informatically infected version of Judith Butler’s heteronormative matrix.  My first chapter tracks technologically mediated queerness and queered technologies of late modernity, beginning with Alan Turing’s “imitation game” through Donna Haraway’s cyborg and Nina Wakeford’s “Cyberqueer” to present day posthuman(ist) and transhuman(ist) anxieties and utopias.  Currently, most interventions into technologized subjectivity and embodiment argue for either posthuman liberation and transcendence or the loss or domination of humanity.  Therefore, I present a close reading of Turing, Haraway, and Wakeford to articulate how technoculture studies attempts to provide an account of technologically-mediated race, gender, and sexuality, but more importantly, where each can be extended and reconfigured to be mindful of intersectional approaches.  I argue that the technoqueer recovers and recalculates the alternative narratives, interventions, and imaginings lost or forgotten in the above examples.

My second chapter, “Queering Cyberspace,” I suggest that current critiques of disembodiment, for example made by scholars like N. Katherine Hayles, oversimplify the “nightmare” of cybertechnologies and fail to explore the productive ambivalences that might offer non-normative subjects different modalities of agency and power.  The chapter further refines my argument for attending to alternative theorizations of the posthuman, as particularly framed by the metaphor of cyberspace.  Early cyberspace scholarship and cyberpunk fiction extolled the virtues of cyberspace as a “final frontier,” a space of liberation, individualism, and escape from what William Gibson called the “meat.”  I consider the ways that cyberspace is always-already queer but constantly recuperated by technonormative protocol, what Alexander Galloway calls “a proscription for structure.”  I offer a queer reading of Gibson’s Neuromancer, drawing on feminist and queer responses to cyberpunk, and even use Gibson’s earlier short stories to deconstruct the binarism of “mind” and “meat.”  I then contrast the conservativism of Neuromancer with Jonathan Littell’s overlooked novel Bad Voltage (1989) and the critically-acclaimed video game Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007) to technoqueer cyberspace, to show what identities and bodies are overprivileged or undertheorized, and to articulate alternative visions of a more intersectional and radically configured cyberspace.

Chapter Three, “Bodyhacking Race, Gender, and Sexuality,” extends my second chapter, moving from the virtual to the material, from the avatar body to the actual body.  Again, in response to Hayles’s (1999) nightmare culture “inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories,” I unpack the dangers and possibilities of a fully transformable and revisable embodiment.  For example, I begin with the manipulation of race and close read George S. Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) alongside Paul Gilroy’s Against Race to reveal the radical politics and potentiality of technologized race and racism.  Schuyler’s novel’s anxieties over a machine that can turn black bodies white reveal the ways technology’s attempt to fix race only further fixes panic over the loss of white privilege, which is ultimately routed through sexuality and the fear of miscegenation.  The chapter then connects the problematics of technorace to technosexuality via recent cyberpunk narratives about same-sex relations by Cory Doctorow, Geoff Ryman, and David Gerrold to illustrate the limits of the technological fix and the need to queer transhumanist fantasies.   This chapter takes up these narratives and practices of body modification to unpack the ways that transforming, augmenting, and hacking the body do not necessarily free it from technonormativity and the naturalized logics of biological determinism.  The technoqueer here then negotiates the risks of a fully-manipulable self, uncovering alternative understandings of identity and embodiment and culminating in a critique of techno-possessive individualism.

The fourth chapter, “The Seductions of Gamification,” addresses the recent “gamification” movement in business, education, and digital media.  Gamification put simply is the application of gamic elements—things that make games “fun” and “engaging”—to things that are not traditionally considered games such as achievement points for weight loss, frequent purchases, or grades.  The fourth chapter challenges the techno-utopian desire to see gamification as the panacea to social, political, and cultural ills and argues for a more critical and nuanced approach to and analysis of digital games, in particular via a close reading of the social networking game Frontierville by Zynga and the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft by Blizzard.  This chapter critiques the resurgence of technolibertarian narratives, particularly in the medium of video games, and argues for the need to take games as important cultural productions and manifestations “cybertyped” (Nakamura 2002) race, gender, and sexuality.  Given that gamification exploits and intensifies the technonormative, I argue for alternative modes of game play, design, and scholarship that articulate what Galloway calls “countergaming” or what Jane McGonigal calls “gamefulness.”

Finally, the coda, “Technoqueer Utopias,” takes up the threads begun in the preceding chapters and attempts to imagine the potentiality of the technoqueer, a “bridge” to the antimony of posthumanism and queer theory.  The coda returns to Turing and his incomplete short story “Pryce’s Buoy” to propose queer worldmaking possibilities drawing on Berlant and Warner, Tom Moylan, and Jose Estaban Munoz.  It is through these technoqueer utopias that both queer theory and technoculture theory can continue to revitalize the intersections of sex, gender, sexuality, race, and technology, and it is through this attention to queering technology and technologizing queerness that we can imagine and embolden challenges to the technonormative matrix.

For other sections of my portfolio, go to: