“What’s Queer @ Internet Studies Now?”: Reflections on Queer Internet Studies 2 at UPenn ICA

I had the blissful, joyous experience of co-organizing the second Queer Internet Studies Symposium with my dear friend and colleague, Jessa Lingel (Annenberg UPenn). I framed our opener to the conference as “What’s Queer @ Internet Studies Now?” so that Jessa and I could riff on that state of the field–a field defined by having this very meeting, as our participants told us! This post was originally shared on the UPenn Alice Paul Center website and newsletter. Check out the https://jgieseking.org/qis2/ for posts from other attendees. A special issue on QIS is in the works! Jessa also shared our post on the Microsoft Social Media Collective, where I recently spent a truly fabulous week in the company of Mary Gray, Dan Green, Dylan Mulvey, Tarleton Gillespie, and Nancy Baym at MSRNE in Boston. This was another three year-previous parallel since my visit to Microsoft SMC in 2014 led to the co-creation of the first QIS with Jessa.

“What is Queer about Internet Studies Now?”

Jack Gieseking & Jessa Lingel

In 2005, David L. Eng, Judith Halberstam and José Esteban Muñoz wrote the introduction to a special issue of Social Text titled “What’s Queer about Queer Studies Now?” Frustrated with the marriage and military-fixation of the modern lgbtq movement, the authors observed:

The contemporary mainstreaming of gay and lesbian identity—as a mass-mediated consumer lifestyle and embattled legal category—demands a renewed queer studies ever vigilant to the fact that sexuality is intersectional, not extraneous to other modes of difference, and calibrated to a firm understanding of queer as a political metaphor without a fixed referent. A renewed queer studies, moreover, insists on a broadened consideration of the late-twentieth-century global crises that have configured historical relations among political economies, the geopolitics of war and terror, and national manifestations of sexual, racial, and gendered hierarchies.

Twelve years later, we ask “What is Queer about Internet Studies Now?” as an anchoring question for Queer Internet Studies Symposium, organized by the Alice Paul Center and held at Penn’s Institute for Contemporary Art on February 17th, 2017.

The call for queer studies to intervene and interact has only increased since Eng, Halberstam, and Muñoz wrote over a decade ago. In part, this is because queer theory is no longer the domain of humanities scholarship alone. In part, queerness did not succumb to epic tides of homonormativity. In part, an After Marriage organizing movement has been galvanized in response to and alongisde movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, NoDAPL, and now NoBanNoWall, the Women’s March, and many more activisms to come.

Yet, Eng, Halberstam, and Muñoz’s call for what queer studies is and could be did lack one critical area for action: the internet. The goals and aims of QIS2 mimic those of the first QIS in 2014 at Columbia (jgieseking.org/qis2014): to connect, share, collaborate, and amplify the work and voices of scholars, artists, and activists on behalf of social justice. Bringing back QIS at Penn, we again wanted to queer the structure of the usual conference, and continueto build an interdisciplinary space that could foster conversations, provocations, and connections among artists, activists and academics.

We opened the day by inviting participants to break into groups for small discussions that could discuss key questions for the Symposium: What would a queer internet look like and how could we study it? Participants shared the questions and projects that brought them to QIS and began to talk about potential points of connection. We followed this with a research roundup, with five experts sharing their perspectives on a particular facet of queer media and technology: Mia Fischer (Colorado – Denver) talked about intersections between trans people and surveillance studies; Oliver Haimson (UC Irvine) described his work on trans identity and social media; Carmen Rios (Ms. And Autostraddle) spoke about online communities and feminist politics; Adrienne Shaw (Temple) talked about the LGBT games archive,;and Mitali Thakor (Northwestern) shared her work on digital vigilante-ism against sex trafficking. With both queer theory and internet studies, speaking from across a number of fields and disciplines, the research round up spoke to the breadth of possibilities for thinking about queer internet as both a research and policy agenda.

Artist and academic T.L. Cowan then led a participatory workshop called “Internet of Bodies/Internet of Bawdies.” Part theoretical inquiry, part brainstorming session and rapid prototyping exercise, the workshop offered an embodied means of working through sexuality, performativity and technological change for all attendees. Next, rather than a traditional keynote dialogue, we asked Katherine Sender (Michigan) to act as an interlocutor for Shaka McGlotten (SUNY Purchase). Their dialogue ranged from racism and desire to sped up and slowed down experiences of intimacy, from surveillance and performativity to social media platform politics. As a freeform conversation, Sender and McGlotten both addressed and reworked themes that had surfaced throughout the day around queerness, technology and desire. Our closing session focused on brainstorming a series of future projects and connections, which we hope to see develop in the coming weeks and months.

We close by noting that Eng, Halberstam, and Muñoz also wrote that “The operations of queer critique … can neither be decided on in advance nor be depended on in the future.” We planned QIS without a prediction of what participants would say or do, but we (Lingel and Gieseking) were both blown away by the excitement for making and sharing a space with, for, and about queerness. In the face of an uncertain, terrible, radical moment in history – never before have we bound so clearly to so many, looking back on a lgbtq movement history whose organizations repeatedly failed when failing to account for racial, gender, sexual, religious, ability differences. We seek to make our present and our futures differently, online and offline and across lines.