This is where I’m at right now:
I wrote a paper for the Selfies & Subjectivities Symposium organised by Kath Albury from Swinburne and Anne Harris from RMIT in Melbourne this month, which I later developed into this short contribution to a special issue of Sexualities celebrating 30 years of the journal
Here is an abstract I put together for it:
In the era of smartphones and hookup apps, pornography can no longer be confined to the straightforward production of sexual arousal through representational practices(though this objective certainly remains significant). Rather, digital pictures have accrued additional functions in the interpersonal exchanges and self-projecting activities that characterise interaction and communicative relations on these media. So often, the ‘selfie’ of self-pornography operates as part of the grammar of sexual arrangements, whether these arrangements involve online or offline interactivity, or both. This paper seeks to contribute to pragmatist conceptions of sexual media, selfie studies and digital pornography by situating the communication that takes place on these media, not as mere representations of ‘actual’ sexual practices or the ‘authentic’ sexual self, but rather forms of practical action that propel some version of the self into one or more of the variously formatted and networked arenas of digital culture. They can be situated in this respect as technical constituents of erotic digital assemblages that seek to solicit, collect, process, store, publicise and convey certain kinds of information according to the affordances perceived in their interactive modes, enabling communicants to recalibrate their activities and respond on the basis of specific feelings, attachments and calculations. Once the grammar of digital sex is grasped in pragmatic terms as a performative element in specifically assembled, multi-dimensional platforms, then all sorts of material objects and technical processes can be understood to enter into the labour of sexual self-formation (see Race, 2018). What once might have been read as a two-dimensional form of visual representation elevated to the status of detached self-portraiture can now be grasped as a vehicle for self-articulation, a form of self-experimentation that seeks to participate in the creation of new attachments, and a potential source of practical (self)-transformation.
About a week later I read Meaghan Morris’s fabulous piece Sustaining the Festive Principle: Between Realism and Fantasy which resonated in unexpected ways with work I’ve done on gay partying, it’s significance for queer communal wellbeing, the health of countercultural movements, and institution-building. My primary concern in this work (the last chapter of my new book The Gay Science) is how to adapt and extend the generative energy of cultural festivity – those playful encounters that make us something else – in-to the present transitional context (which involves, in my hometown at least, invasive policing, nightlife lockouts through licensing restriction, hyper-gentrification and incessant redevelopment, social exclusion from urban spaces, homelessness, insurgent homo-moralism, the Heroization of ‘Clean Living’, etc….
Then on Friday night I read Noortje Marres’ excellent chapter on ‘experiments in living’ in her 2012 book Material Participation which contains a concise and really informative analysis of the different ways that experimental practices and demonstrative activities have been conceived and approached by people who study them as a sociomaterial, world-making activityies Marres is mainly talking about public experiments, but I’m interested in the sorts of self-experiments that normative morality deems illicit: for example, how publics and infrastructures of disclosure and support get assembled in contexts of prohibition and disciplinary enforcement, in which any attempt to create a public context for one’s self-experiments is quickly quashed, isolated, quarantined, eradicated, denigrated, privatised or shamed.
The concept of intimate experimentation is something we’ve been grappling with in the ARC Discovery Project I’m conducting with my colleagues Dean Murphy, Kiran Pienaar and Toby Lea, Chemical Practices: Enhancement & Experimentation. In this work and thinking, I’m especially interested in how the diversely theorised concept of experimentation might be put to work to activate new approaches to chem-consumption and bring out new dimensions of the activities and self-transformations associated with the consumption of drugs and medications among queer and gender-diverse communities .
This weekend I’ve mainly just been fucking around on Instagram, a medium which I’ve found makes me enjoy and look for beauty and creativity all around in all sorts of everyday situations and odd places – some kind of f #instaaesthetics of experience
My ongoing enjoyment of this app and how it leads me to engage with the world around me makes me think about how its affordances can be used creatively to bring out startling or hitherto unrecognisable qualities in ordinary things/spaces/people/ everyday scenes through the specific possibilities the app/phone/flaneur assemblage affords: filtering, the possibilities of adopting all sorts of techniques and angles to frame and mediate and make strange or new those things that capture your attention or suddenly strike you as an opportunity for aestheticism ….
Meanwhile other affordances like hashtags can be used to create associations, attachments, and explore various other self-images, accounts and pages: activities which often entail encounters with all sorts of people, depictions of their lives selves-in-differing-situ hat you never expected developing any interest in or becoming captivated by ….
I’ve been thinking all these thoughts …rather manically and rhitzomatically… on the run, so naturally I’ve had to work with the platform closest at hand …(Instagram of course). Basically I’ve been taking a whole bunch of phatic selfies…. < lol>
I’ve accompanied this visual work with streams of lateral thought-association which I’ve articulated as best I can using hashtags that mean particular things for me (usually connected to my idle thoughts and ongoing work) .. which every so often also generate unexpected associations, new attachments, novel modes of appreciation and interest and engagement, and encounters across all sorts of social, material and mediated differences that can result in surprisingly intimate connections or forms of relation
‘in his 2005 intro to ANT, Reassembling the Social, Latour promotes a method he calls associology, that entails tracing the associations and networks that serve to consolidate particular realities which end up producing certain experts and authorities, conferring as well as shaping specific forms of agency: agencements.
But when I read some of the early work from the Actor-Network Theory crew, I’m often left with the sense of an heroically masterful (or tragically unsuccessful) Manager of Associations, the clever scientist who is smart enough to put in place relations strategic assurance, skilled in picking the associations that best consolidate the version of reality they have encountered through their specific experiments.
A much queerer approach would be less invested in the strategic enterprise making and tracing associations to formulate predefined structures according to fixed objectives, and much more curious about the modes of pleasure entailed in noticing and tracing the chance events that end up affecting or transforming us (persons and things) when those things make themselves available to the encounter. As I discuss a fair bit in the The Gay Science, I have in mind the happy, unexpected chance encounters that have the power to take us off into multiple new directions (however subtle, trivial, substantial or world-moving they may at first seem or end up becoming): that produce transformations, the possibilities of which we may want to experiment with
Which leaves me thinking, if we want to experience more eventful, enjoyable, energising worlds and realities, maybe we need to embrace and affirm these moments of random connection, expand our appreciation of the many differences available to us in terms of how we encounter difference and find things to share with whatever is unfamiliar or strange to us; and most of all how different manners of encountering others generate different realities of material consequence.
What we need, in other words – against or alongside Latour’s associology – is another approach which I’m thinking of right now under the working title: encounterology ….. Encounterology is the enjoyable activity of attending to whatever eventuates from unexpected encounters and queer or improbable relations…
Let’s extend our festive activities by bringing them into new situations to multiply our capacities of feeling, to create situations and events that are enjoyable enough to sustain entire movements and counter-institutions.
Keep Partying, Keep Playing!
Kane Race, April, 2018
Thought-events as catalysts for cultural studies
What came first? Theory? or the stuff it theorises?
People often talk about applying Theory to an object, situation, text, problem or event. But there is another way of thinking about Theory, or working with theories, that proposes quite the opposite: Objects, situations, texts or problems affect us, they act upon us as spurs for thinking; we are caught up in events that make us think: thinking happens to us, thinking is a gift from the thought-event.
You might have heard of the Cartesian maxim “I think therefore I am”. It is strongly associated with (indeed said to be constitutive of) modern (Western) enlightenment thought. Here thinking is regarded as a property of the individual rational subject that involves the correct application of universal logics and theories to the world, often in attempts to master, control, order or objectify it.
Rodin’s famous sculpture The Thinker, which I first encountered in the Musée Rodin, proposes a very different model of thinking: Here, thinking emerges an activity of the body – the very body that Descartes would cast as an impedimentto rational thought.
As I exited through the gift shop, I came across pile upon pile of souvenir t-shirts with images of Rodin’s Thinker on the front, and – to my chagrin – Descartes maxim – “I think therefore I am” – in garish big red letters on the back! I couldn’t help thinking/ laughing/ pondering/knitting my brow (no doubt with nostrils a-flare): the museum’s merchandisers had got things entirely wrong!
Contrary to Descartes, thinking is not a property of the stable, sovereign self: Bodies are situated, often involved in difficult or unsettling or troublesome or exciting situations, and then …KAPOW!! thinking happens! We become participants in thought-events that produce new ideas, new ways of experiencing our situation, new understandings of how the world works, new ways of relating to it (For more on this point, see Martin Savransky’s 2018 essay ‘How it feels to think’, to which this preamble is very much indebted)
Another way of putting this is that we think with our bodies, that bodies are always situated, that certain situations endow bodies with the need or capacity or impetus to think: thinking takes hold when events propel us/our bodies into states of uncertainty, confusion, perplexity, exhilaration and active work.
For their part, key thinkers within the field of Australian cultural studies have argued that cultural studies is ‘always at some level marked … by a discourse of social involvement’ (Frow & Morris 1993: xviii): As embodied, social creatures, we are all caught up in situations that precipitate thought-events.
Theories become available here, not as lofty, indisputable explanatory schemes with universal applicability, but as a form of cultural practice, repertoires of concepts and gestures and ideas that put us to work; that are immanently involved in, and emerge from within, the thought-event. What’s more, they can do things! They have the power to recast a situation; change how you experience it, and in so doing, perhaps even change the problem that instigated the need for thinking in the first place.
Ladelle McWhorter discusses how
In this class we begin to wrestle with the place of theory in cultural studies. In reading and discussing together the work of what the unit outline casts as ‘key thinkers for cultural studies’, we might understand ourselves, like those whose work we will be thinking with, to be involved in a thought-event, or a series of thought-events, that have the power to makes things happen, constituting us as practitioners of inventive thinking: i.e. thinkers in the midst of the dynamic field of cultural studies
We’ll flesh out some of these ideas in our first seminar this week. So don’t stress! When you set off an adventure, what better place to start than with some energising food for thought? (Probyn 2004)
Frow, John, and Meaghan Morris, eds. (1993) Australian cultural studies: a reader. University of Illinois Press.
Probyn, E. (2004) Eating for a Living: A Rhizo-Ethology of Bodies, in Cultural Bodies: Ethnography and Theory (eds H. Thomas and J. Ahmed), Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK.
Savransky, Martin. “How It Feels to Think: Experiencing Intellectual Invention.” Qualitative Inquiry (2018):.
“To engage in practical aesthetics … is to conceive of an aesthetics informed by and derived from practical, real world encounters, an aesthetics that is in turn capable of being used or put into effect in a real situation. In other words, it is to orient aesthetics – with its specific qualities and capacities – towards actual events or problems (much as practical ethics is shaped around particular problems).
~ Bennet, J (2012). Practical Aesthetics. New York: I.B. Taurus
Framing the selfie as an instance of practical aesthetics allows us to conceive of it as an intervention that both responds to a particular event or problem, and seeks to amplify, redirect, or intensify the impact of that event/problem.
“An object for practical aesthetics might be said to arise from an encounter with an event”
~ Bennet, J (2012). Practical Aesthetics. New York: I.B. Taurus
The selfie imbues the event with personal meanings and associations and sends these associations and affective intensities into (more or less) public circulation – and in ways that often exceed the intention of the creator.
The selfie does not provide a definitive solution to the problem it addresses so much as a situated response to the event with which it is concerned, assembling a platform in the process for the expression of new meanings, objects, responses and affective relations.
In this sense, the creator is participating in the process of eventuation by mobilising the selfie as an affective and aesthetic repository/transmitter of their particular way of feeling an event.
To reformulate the selfie in this way raises practical/ethical/aesthetic questions for the selfie-maker: what style might one devise to become worthy of the event?
Example: Gay Science selfie
* The t-shirt says Detroit and the upraised spanner symbolises the power of workers in solidarity
*I’m having a cuppa in my Science is Magic mug. I love how Beaker embodies the anxiety and clumsiness and the pervasive imminence of catastrophe implicit in modern Scientific projects: Beaker is a Muppet, but fear not citizens! Because haven’t you heard? Science is Magic!
*You know what else is Magic? A nice cuppa tea.
*I’m wearing my Stephani ring, which I always wear to remember my love for Stephan
*Behind me is artwork by Daniel Joshua Goldstein that I bought after I met him, quite by chance, a few days after watching We Were Here, a documentary about the impacts of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, to which Goldstein, as one of the film’s participants, bears moving testimony. I saw the film in a tiny theatre in the West Village In New York, 2011, and got to meet Daniel himself a week later, when I bumped into him and his partner completely randomly on the sidewalk of 8th Avenue. Daniel was in town to show his For Redon exhibition. His work, and this work in particular, spoke to me. I’m so lucky to be able to enjoy it every day.
*As FB Cover Art, I’ve used an iphone pic of some beautiful chrisanthemums, which graced a vase at home during the weekend of Club Kooky September 2017. A wonderful instantiation of queer chemistry if ever there was one.
What is a selfie?
A selfie is not a simple act of self-reflection, but more like the instantiation of a brand, in the sense that it functions as both a medium and device that projects the self into the various social arena of digital culture.
A medium, in the sense that media are platforms for social action.
And a device, in the sense that it collects, stores and processes information that enables other participants in the platform to calculate, respond, and recalibrate.
Once a selfie is grasped as a multi-dimensional platform, then all sorts of material objects and social processes can be understood to enter into the labour of self-formation.
In short the selfie is an experiment, a platform for self-articulation, a social device and virtual source of relational transformation