Category Archives: Self-medication

Health, Sexuality & Culture

 

I became a Dr in Health Sexuality & Culture 13 years ago in the building pictured in the screenshot of my Facebook Profile above.

It was lovely to have the chance to go back there and visit for a workshop convened by Associate Professor Niamh Stephenson, from the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at UNSW this week.

Niamh recently published a book with our supervisor and mentor, Professor Sue Kippax, Socialising the Biomedical Turn in HIV Prevention, and the workshop was a nice way to celebrate it’s publication.

The campus looked so beautiful, more beautiful than I remember. And it was so nice to reconnect with colleagues working in the area, some of whom I’ve known for 2 decades (!!)  to share what we are working on and how we are thinking these days.  (Click here for pictures)  🌿

The other thing to say is that working in my field over the past 13 years just seems to have made me …gayer  🌸💗💕

#learningoutcomes

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LGBTIQ Harm Reduction Innovations: An Interview with Unharm’s Kane Race

Paul Gregoire from Sydney Criminal Lawyers conducted this smart, well researched interview with me on the activities of Unharm’s Queer Contingent – was a pleasure to talk to him.

You can read the interview here

 

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Geo-sexual networking, apps, websites, and HIV prevention

I accepted an invitation from Zizi Papacharissi to contribute to a volume she is editing – The Networked Self ~ Love on the topic of gay social networking apps and websites.

My piece explores the sorts of solutions these devices propose to various, collectively felt, problems and asks how tech users, product developers and sexuality researchers might work together to construct better infrastructures for sex and sociability between men, among other users of these devices – with a specific focus on how various apps and websites have sought to incorporate and operationalise methods of HIV prevention.

Sexual networks such as Bareback Realtime, Grindr, Manhunt, Gaydar, Hornet and Scruff all feature in the discussion, which you can access by clicking on the title:

Mobilizing the Biopolitical Category: Problems, devices and designs in the construction of the gay sexual marketplace

Abstract: Drawing on previous work in which I have approached digital sex as a marketplace and conceived hookup apps and online cruising sites as market devices, in this chapter I argue that problematization (Foucault 1995) is a useful analytic for conceiving the design of online dating and cruising devices, because tech developers tend to rely on some problematization of the existing sexual marketplace, as it is being enacted, in their efforts to improve the prospects of specific groups of participants, qualify their products and secure a niche in the digital marketplace. Drawing on a rare interview with the founder of BarebackRT.com (‘BBRT’), the world’s largest hookup site for men looking for other barebackers, I discuss how this site was conceived and designed in an attempt to address certain problems its developers perceived in the gay sexual marketplace as it was digitally and practically enacted at the time of the site’s conception.  BBRT is an especially interesting example because it demonstrates how clinical indicators, among other personal and technical specifications, can emerge as criteria for discriminating between prospective partners, populating personal profiles and qualifying the self in the pursuit of sexual encounters.  In this respect, BBRT stands as a fascinating example of how innovations in digital culture can eventuate from convergences between digital and clinical media and how such convergences effect differences in the pragmatic qualification of social networking applications.  But it also stages the categories according to which members are required to present themselves online as provisional, historically situated, and available to experimentation and critical transformation.

 

 

 

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“The things one does! The things one believes in!” Commodity Culture, Gay Play and the Thringing of Addiction

Some queen told me that a selfie I took reminded them of Frank Thring.  I had no idea who that was so I got busy googling and learnt, to my delight, he was a flamboyant Australian actor born in the 1920s who, among his many gay achievements, invented the clapperboard, did stage to great acclaim in London, and in his film career played Pontius Pilate in Ben Hur (1959), a gangster in The Man from Hong Kong (1975), The Collector in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and voiced the part of Zeus in Hercules Returns (1993).  So far so good.

But I struck inter-web gold when I came across this 1976 commercial he starred in for Martins Cigarettes which may well be one of the gayest things I’ve ever seen:

 

Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 12.23.40 am

“This is a commercial, as you may have guessed,” he announces, following a nonplussed eye roll, “and this…” – he gestures dismissively to the bedazzled chorus line – “was the advertising agency’s idea”.

“Totally unnecessary!”  he exclaims.

‘I am simply here to tell you about Martin’s, the new King Sized cigarette,’ he explains, and proceeds to do the job he was paid for and spruce the product.

‘Martin’s in the handsome gold packet has a quality,’ he recites, ‘a quality you can trust!’ before a glamorous blonde dancing partner decked in gold is thrust upon him, prompting an exasperated cry, ‘Must we dance??’

The whole production is delivered in such a withering, caustic tone as Thring goes through the motions of advertising Martins cigarettes, all the while serving up generous lashings of fey manner, camp asides and persistent ennui at the genre he is compelled to work within.

But the queer epiphany occurs in the final moments of the ad, when Thring incants what could be taken to be an aspirational lifestyle fantasy slogan, but into which he sneakily smuggles a  sighing meta-commentary on the market genre he’s just participated in:

 

       The things one does!

          The things one believes in!

 

It’s easy to read this little gem of a phrase as a wry parody on consumer culture; lines that echo Adorno’s claim that consumers see right through the promises of the commodity-process, but go on to buy things anyway, producing an affective climate of cynicism.

But what delights me most is the distance and critical reflexivity his camp manner engenders in relation to the commodity itself,  literal investment in which was conceived by Frankfurt Scholars as a perpetual re-creation of frustration in terms remarkably reminiscent of addiction.

The things one does! The things one believes in!  The slogan works on at least two registers: a literal celebration of the glamour of doing and believing in things, and believing what one is doing when one is doing the consumption thing…  and a parodic performance that ridicules the thing that one is doing, and the beliefs one must entertain when one does the things one does when one does the commodity-thing.

In our hygienic, smoke-free days, the retro-activity of almost any cigarette advertisement might come across as camp in the extreme, but I like to think Thring’s irony sets in motion a novel conceptual feeling. In playing the signifier so gaily and so drolly he multiplies possible manners of relating to the fetishized commodity-form, the object of compulsion and source of possible addiction.

We need not enslave ourselves to the tyranny of literal meaning: we can play with meaning and signification; and in such play we conjure a modicum of agency.  We are not merely slaves to the order-word (the original Latin meaning of addiction).

A very cultural studies thought-chain, if ever there was one.

Those who are cynical about of the critical possibilities of creative consumption, symbolic re-appropration and camp pleasure will object that whatever critical distance camp irony creates has become so fashionable that any critical purchase it might once have had has been lost. Indeed, hip irony and detachment only serve to congratulate the consumer for their cynicism, but in the end works just as well to sell things,  all the while palliating whatever anxiety the commodification provokes. Thring might even be acknowledging this: “The things we believe in!” he exclaims triumphantly, depressively.

But I think Thring’s performance undercuts direct investments in the addictive object in a more generous way, sparking the possibility of new forms of eventful reflexivity,  multiplying possible relations to the fetishized thing.

Indeed, he Thrings it!

In the end, Thring’s ironic, gay, destabilising performance may work just as well to sell the fetishised commodity, but in thringing it, he produces it expansively, not as a fixed and determined thing, but as a problematic object, which is to say, an object available to the pleasure of problematisation.

Dance, we must : )

But in qualitative play we trust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Update: The Gay Science is out now, + info on new projects

Update: the book based on the research this blog was first set up to facilitate has just been released by Routledge in hardcover and e-form, with a paperback edition to be released in late 2018. It’s called The Gay Science: Intimate experiments with HIV (2018). here’s the cover blurb:

Since the onset of the HIV epidemic, the behaviour of men who have sex with men has been subject to intense scrutiny on the part of the behavioural and sociomedical sciences. What happens when we consider the work of these sciences to be not merely descriptive, but also constitutive of the realities it describes? The Gay Science pays attention to lived experiences of sex, drugs and the scientific practices that make these experiences intelligible. Through a series of empirically and historically detailed case studies, the book examines how new technologies and scientific artifacts – such as antiretroviral therapy, digital hookup apps and research methods – mediate sexual encounters and shape the worlds and self-practices of men who have sex with men.

Rather than debunking scientific practices or minimizing their significance, The Gay Scienceapproaches these practices as ways in which we ‘learn to be affected’ by HIV. It explores what knowledge practices best engage us, move us and increase our powers and capacities for action. The book includes an historical analysis of drug use as a significant element in the formation of urban gay cultures; constructivist accounts of the emergence of barebacking and chemsex; a performative response to Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis and its uptake; and, a speculative analysis of ways of thinking and doing sexual community in the digital context.

Combining insights from queer theory, process philosophy and science and technology studies to develop an original approach to the analysis of sexuality, drug use, public health and digital practices, this book demonstrates the ontological consequences of different modes of attending to risk and pleasure. It is suitable for those interested in cultural studies, sociology, gender and sexuality studies, digital culture, public health and drug and alcohol studies.

So thrilled that Indian-Australian artist Leon Fernandes generously granted me permission to reproduce his extraordinary piece Krishna in Erskinville on the cover, an artwork first exhibited at East Sydney Doctors Gallery the week I sent my manuscript off to the publishers (!!); AND to have received such generous endorsements from Lauren Berlant and Steven Epstein – such brilliant, inspirational and inspiring critics and social thinkers.

The Gay Science flyer

Meanwhile I’ve commenced a new ARC Discovery Project with Dean Murphy, Toby Lea and Kiran Pienaar on LGBTQ drug and medication use, ‘Chemical Practices: Enhancement and experimentation‘ this year (DP17), which proposes to treat queer and trans drugtaking practices as intimate experiments (in the science studies sense) while considering the forces that constrain and enable such experiments to assemble and find their publics and thus become more collectively and carefully elaborated. More details and a link to the project’s website, still in development, to follow

I’m also continuing work on my interest in the design and transformation of geo-sexual networking devices and how they structure the arrangement of sex between men, as well as dreaming up a new project about the normalising effects of the terms of national membership in Australia and the opportunistic policing of citizenship via mundane legal provisions that serve as pretexts for increased surveillance of migrant/ethnic and queer & gender minoritized communities & populations.

This project will work across ‘queer’ and ‘wog’ practices of body modification in Australia (car modification culture and queer drug and party practices mainly) to bring anti-racist critiques  into better articulation with queer counterpublic theory in critical studies of the  disciplinary terms of Australian citizenship and national membership, as well as the ethico-political and aesthetic dimensions of self-experimentation, body-modification, collective self-transformation, and how they are inter-implicated with evolving markets, cultural economies, and gender identities in the pre- and post-digital context.

Tentative working title-headers for this longer term project are taken from the subcultures this work will learn form and have particular vernacular relevance within them respectively.  They include “Policing Cruising: body-modification and resistance within queer and wog scenes in Australia”;  “Defected”; or maybe just “@toughstreetmachines”

 

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Unharm Queer Contingent Resources

safer_dancing_guidelines

Click here to access the safer dancing guidelines developed by rave researcher Newcombe, way back when….

rover bum

Click here access our analysis of the G care principles we extracted from our research with the ACON Rovers

09_Figure9.1

My critique of Chemsex discourse: chemsex, a case for gay analysis – where i attempt to reframe the chemsex problem so that it recognises the agency of drug user  (image courtesy of local artist Leon Fernandes ❤ )

 

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PATHOLOGICAL

Kane Race

{Invited contribution to The Great Moving (Further) Right Show, closing panel discussion at the Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference, Sydney, 2016}

 

In Mad Travellers (1998), Ian Hacking argued that each historical age produces its own types of madness or mental illness. What happens when a hegemonic social identity – in this case, white and heteromasculinist – starts to lose its presumptive grip on national space and understand itself as an aggrieved and embattled minority?[1]

In the wake of Trump’s election, digital snippets began to emerge that captured white people ‘losing their shit’ in the course of a range of mundane consumer transactions. Losing their shit is a polite way of putting it: those encountering these clips on social media became spectators to a series of highly public, abusive outbursts, precipitated by frustrated feelings of entitlement to special treatment:

  • In a Miami Starbucks, a white man started abusing African-American employees because his coffee was taking longer than expected. ‘I voted for Trump! TRUMP!’ he screamed. ‘You lost, now give me my money back!’ he demanded of the woman behind the counter, calling her “trash” before going on to harangue and harass employees and other customers.
  • In a Chicago store, a white woman went into a highly public fit of vitriol and abuse when an African-American cashier asked her to pay for a $1 reusable bag (as per store policy). She felt she was being discriminated against because she was white. ‘I voted for Trump!’ And look who won!” she announced for all to hear, before launching into a 45 minute tirade directed against African-American and Hispanic employees and other customers, in which she directly compared one store manager to “an animal”.
  • A man flying Delta from Atlanta to Allentown (located in a borderline electoral district in Pennsylvania) subjected passengers to a noisy pro-Trump rant, demanding to know whether there were any ‘Hilary bitches on here’.

In each of these incidents, subjects emboldened by the Trump win fly into highly public scenes of vitriol, rage  and abuse at the drop of a hat. Trump and Brexit-style rhetoric has carefully mapped out sites of external blame for whatever it is these white folks are suffering: racial and sexual minorities, immigrants, liberal elites, independent women and transgender individuals are typical scapegoats.

The documented spikes in racisthomophobic and transphobic violence that occurred after Brexit and the US election can be read as further manifestations of a syndrome or structure of feeling ‘triggered by’ these official endorsements of populist ethno-nationalist sentiment. These violent acts, committed in bids to reassert failing sovereignty, remind us that the idealised nation  is not only racialized (white), but also has a sexuality (heteronormative) that is felt to be constitutively endangered.

(These vigilante posters, which appeared in Melbourne over 2016, could be regarded as Australian symptoms or subtypes of this syndrome.  The Antipodean Resistance describes itself as a youth organisation that opposes “substance abuse, homosexuality, and all other rotten, irresponsible distractions laid before us by Jews and globalists elites”)

 

What I find particularly interesting about these acts of aggression and violence is their adoption of the prism of identity politics to vent out their claims on cultural supremacy and special treatment. These people feel they have been discriminated against: that, were it not for radical intervention, the liberal state would further conspire to reduce their recourse to the terms of abuse that once kept minorities and women in their place and thus served to ensure their own social status and dominance so effectively.[2]

In 1997 Lauren Berlant observed, “today many formerly iconic citizens who used to feel undefensive and unfettered feel truly exposed and vulnerable …They sense that they now have identities, when it used to be just other people who had them.”[3] What has happened in the interim, and what few could have predicted, is how enthusiastically these self-same subjects have embraced the terms of identity politics to understand their own plight and vituperatively restore their hold on cultural privilege.

In Australia, there has been no shortage of privileged white men prepared to line up to whine at length, publicly and pathetically, about their intolerable sense of of having been victimised. white-man-sooksThe federal government actively panders to these sentiments, withdrawing funding from anti-bullying programs offering sex and gender diversity education in schools, and more recently, announcing a parliamentary inquiry into whether provisions that make it unlawful to publicly “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” others on the basis of race impose “unreasonable restrictions on freedom of speech”. (Won’t someone please unfetter the poor privileged white darlings?).

safe-schools-hate-speechImage: Cartoonist Cathy Wilcox’s critique of Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull’s intention to stall a vote on marriage equality by requiring a public plebiscite, and de-fund the Safe Schools program, February 2016.

 

The ebullient outbursts I’ve described above are steeped in vindictive and vengeful ressentiment that seeks out sites of external blame upon which to avenge hurt and redistribute their pain.[4] It is very tempting to diagnose these psychotic outbursts as symptoms of a new pathology: Trumpitis? Brexophilia? Post-Trump Manic Spectrum Disorder? After all, anger and violence generated by delusions of grandeur and delusions of persecution are regarded as textbook signs of paranoid schizophrenia.

Pathologising people isn’t my usual style – I’ve spent most of my life contesting the imposition of therapeutic morality – but part of me says, why not? If these folks truly want to qualify as minority identities, bring it on! After all, would LGBT, feminists, and people of colour really qualify as minority identities in the absence of their historical subjection to intensive pathologization, criminalisation, surveillance and brutal treatment? If you’re really a subordinated identity, show me the evidence!

The problem with psychologisation is that it dehistoricizes affective complications, extracting these feelings of the world from any broader sociopolitical, historical trajectories. It’s also patronising, and therefore likely to compound the problem: In 1997, when a ‘highbrow’ journalist asked Australia’s far right politician Pauline Hanson if she was xenophobic, Hanson’s blinking response, “please explain?” resonated with many older, white non-tertiary educated Australians, powerfully embodying a spreading sense of alienation from the structures of liberal power.[5]

pauline-hanson-giphy

One of the most subtle and provocative arguments of Wendy Brown’s (1995) States of Injury – perhaps the least popular among liberal critics – is that the disciplinary genres of US identity politics personalise and naturalise some of the complex injuries of capitalism. In taking the white heterosexual middle class as the standard against which social injury is measured, the North American habit of staging politics through identity makes categories of identity “bear all the weight of … sufferings produced by capitalism.”[6]  I find this insight particularly useful in terms of getting a grip on the present conjuncture, where the capitalist dream is failing to deliver on its promise even for much of the white middle class.  In this instance, the siphoning of socioeconomic and cultural frustrations into a racialised category of wounded identity has generated particularly abusive, vindictive and (dare I say) psychotic manifestations.

What I think would be most helpful now is a more affirmative understanding of identity and difference, a reformulation of the possibilities of identity that equips us for dealing with our multi-ethnic, multi-gendered times – and even take some pleasure in them. (I’m struck, for example, by the factoid that recently came to light that Trump supporters ‘are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones’ and have limited interaction with other social groups.  The point speaks to the critical relevance of contact theory, whose vision of social safety is elaborated most imaginatively and queerly by African American Sci-Fi writer Samuel Delany.[7])

Imagine if identity was conceived, not as a category of victimhood or failed sovereignty requiring the protection and reparative intervention of a (presumptively white and heterosexual) state, but a source of multiplicity and difference – a contact zone – that is valued and affirmed for the occasions it opens up for mutual transformation? Whose promise consists precisely in the unpredictable and exciting possibilities that emerge from inter-class/identity encounters for what nations and worlds and states might become ?[8]

With this more affirmative approach to identity and difference, perhaps we will get a more active, constructive handle on what might become of the present phase of consumer capitalism and globalisation. But of course this will require white heterosexual subjects to renounce their claims on sovereignty and special treatment, and address their present manifestation as retaliatory violence against unknown others – as a matter of urgency.

References

[1] In the Australian context of state multiculturalism, Ghassan Hage theorises this situation as one in which a white majority starts to worry it is losing its grip on the managerial relation it has enjoyed over national space, which it feels is its birth-right. See Hage, White nation: Fantasies of white supremacy in a multicultural society. Routledge, 2012.

[2] For a wonderfully pedagogical and accessible explication of this point see Meaghan Morris, ‘Sticks and Stones and Stereotypes’ http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-June-1997/morris.html

[3] Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America goes to Washington City: Essays on sex and citizenship. Duke University Press, 1997, p. 2.

[4] On ressentiment, see Friedrich Nietzsche, On the genealogy of morals and ecce homo. Vintage, 2010.

[5] For a brilliant discussion of this moment to which this argument is indebted see Meaghan Morris (2000), “‘Please explain?’ignorance, poverty and the past.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 1,2: 219-232.

[6] Wendy Brown, States of injury: Power and freedom in late modernity. Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 60. For another brilliant excavation of the trials, tribulations and terms of US identity politics see Cindy Patton, “Tremble, hetero swine!” in Warner (ed.) Fear of a queer planet: Queer politics and social theory, 1993, pp.143-177.

[7] Rylan Lizza, “What we learned about Trump’s supporters this week”, New Yorker, August 13, 2016.  For a queer vision of social safety that draws brilliantly on contact theory see Samuel Delany (1999), Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.

[8] For a more detailed elaboration of the theoretical coordinates of this approach, and an attempt to put it into practice, see my  forthcoming book, The Gay Science: Intimate Experiments with the Problem of HIV, under contract with Routledge.

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