Wednesday, July 25, 2018

2018: The Year of Haptics? (Part II of II)

David Parisi
Associate Professor of Emerging Media, College of Charleston

Preceded by Part I.

Historicizing Haptic Hype

Also in 2018, amidst the billowing excitement over the latest wave of haptic devices and the growing anticipation for Ready Player One, I published Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing, where I explicitly attempt to provide a critical and comprehensive history for haptic interfaces. Part of the book's goal is to destabilize the purported novelty of haptics—to complicate what has been a simplistic origin story—by linking the genesis of these virtual touch machines to a series of ancestral predecessors. Eighteenth-century electric shock batteries used to treat everything from headaches to tonsillitis, blunt-ended compasses adopted by psychologists in the nineteenth century to map the nerves responsible for tactual perception, and apparatuses built in the mid-twentieth century to translate sounds and images into tactile sensations: each helped provide the raw materials for contemporary haptics engineers, while also serving as examples of touch being transformed by technology far in advance of Computer Haptics cohering as a dedicated research field in the late 20th century.

As I attempted to contextualize the genesis of computer-assisted touch, the hype cycles that recurrently surrounded haptics technologies became a central target of the intervention I hoped the book would make: at least as far back as 1991, when Howard Rheingold published his bestselling Virtual Reality: The Revolutionary Technology of Computer-Generated Artificial Worlds, the possibility of computerized touch has been a subject of ongoing fascination for technology journalists. Every few years since, a reporter would ‘discover’ haptics, write up a story about the potential of what’s going on in a research lab to revolutionize human-computer interaction, and pronounce the technology’s impending arrival with certitude. The rhetoric in these articles manages to straddle the line between seductive technoutopianism and humanism, with haptic tech offering to provide a sense of embodied presence capable of countering the detached visuality of the standard graphical interfaces. Since I began following the field in 2002, I’ve witnessed this trend repeatedly, with my own opinions and prognostications on haptics swinging wildly over the years. I’ve been intoxicated, at different moments, on hype that served to validate my own research program, triumphantly declaring the forthcoming death of television (a claim I might have unwittingly cribbed from an Arthur C. Clark quote on the back cover of Virtual Reality: “Virtual Reality won’t merely replace TV. It will eat it alive.”). At other points, I approached haptics as a failed tech whose rejection might indicate something about the cultural resistance to technologizing touch.

I gradually came to confront my own roller coaster of emotions on haptics reflexively, trying to see the noisy hype cycles themselves as a type of signal, not of anything definitive about haptics tech itself, but rather, as a sign that we continually want to use touch as a way of transforming our relationship to computing technologies. For haptics prosthelytizers, the fascination with digitizing touch indicates a deep dissatisfaction with the dominant visualist interfacing schematic in computing, signaling a desire to get back to a mode of being in the world that grounded in visceral, bodily interaction, rather than detached and distanced observation. Noting the recurrence of this technoprimitivist impulse in the haptics literature, I became less invested in projecting the future of technologized touch, and began treating haptics as the outcome of a transformative desire motivating those who research and write on it.

The popular press and engineering discourse, as I suggest in Archaeologies of Touch, mobilizes three intertwined logics—or narrative frameworks—to make sense of haptics technologies: The first, the logic of the analog medialization of the senses, suggests that touch technologies will do for touch what technologies of image- and sound reproduction previously did for the eyes and the ears. A 2008 Economist article, for example, described “a new breed of ‘haptic’ technologies that do for the sense of touch what lifelike colour displays and hi-fi sound do for eyes and ears.” The second, the logic of the master device, proceeds from the assumption that the future of haptics will be marked by the triumph of a single standard device for recording, storing, and transmitting touch sensations, rather than a proliferation of application-specific devices. The third narrative framework, a logic of perpetual immanence, situates haptics as an inevitable technology that is on the cusp of widespread adoption and domestication. Back in 2012, for example, IBM’s Robyn Swartz declared “Within the next five years, your mobile device will let you touch what you’re shopping for online. It will distinguish fabrics, textures, and weaves so that you can feel a sweater, jacket, or upholstery – right through the screen.” The particulars of these narratives differ—some suggest more conservative timelines for adoption, while others, like Swartz, predict a more rapid proliferation—but in the nearly 30 years since the publication of Rheingold’s Virtual Reality, they’ve retained a striking consistency to their framing.

During this period, we’ve seen the steady bleed of haptics out from the design labs into everyday life: rumble feedback (ubiquitous in game controllers since 1997), vibrating alert systems (used in pagers, now found in smartphones and wearables), military and surgical training, computer-assisted design, medical rehabilitation, and aides for those with visual and hearing impairments, to name just a small subset (for a more complete picture of the field’s history, see Hasti Seifi’s comprehensive database and visualization project). All while we’ve been talking about haptics as a technology of some exotic and far-flung future, it’s been here, hiding in plain touch. Attempts to incorporate touch feedback into computing began in the late 1960s (first with Frederick Brooks and J.J. Batter’s Project GROPE, followed soon after by Michael Noll’s force feedback joystick), but this early history is frequently overlooked, feeding forward an inaccurate narrative that situates haptics as excitingly novel. Our current moment seems to be less about a sudden emergence of a new wave of devices, but rather, a sort of arbitrarily-chosen endpoint in a long process of gradual knowledge accumulation. The number of haptics-related scientific and technical publications has been rising consistently but sharply since the mid-1990s (roughly 350 in 1997, 2500 in 2007, and then nearly 7000 in 2017), with some significant fruit borne occasionally along the way.

The Future Might Be Haptic

My knee-jerk response to 2018 has been to double down on the thesis I posited in Archaeologies of Touch, and label this Just Another Hype Cycle. But what if, with this latest generation of VR, something fundamental has shifted? What if this array of experimental gloves, bodysuits, and vests quickly settles into an enduring, stable, and widely-adopted unifying device? How would we begin to assess claims that haptics has ‘arrived’ in 2018, especially after so many similar declarations in the past? (another: Wired magazine described the ‘sensational rise of haptic interfaces’ in 2013) How do we see through the fog of marketing campaigns and impressive tech demos to assess the state of touch’s technologization? Premature obsolescence is a danger inherent whenever writing about emerging technology, one the Archaeologies of Touch doesn’t possess any particular immunity to. So it is at least worth considering the possibility that we’re at a long-awaited turning point in the history of touch technology—that we’re entering something that looks like an ‘epoch of haptic interfacing’ (a phrase already used by the interface designer Hiroo Iwata to describe research in the field during the 1990s). But more importantly: why does it matter? What are the macro-level implications of haptics technology that should be of concern to those outside the narrow field of human-computer interaction research?

Rather engaging in the folly of technological prediction here, I’ll speak instead to the latter set of questions. If the foretold future comes to pass—if haptics achieves the widespread adoption predicted for nearly 30 years—then this is where things will get very interesting very quickly. It’s inadequate to merely claim that touch is being taken over by or expressed through or merged with digital technology; rather, we need to describe the microphysics of this transformation. Part of the thesis I’ve been advancing in my work on haptics involves taking seriously Marshall McLuhan’s claim that transformations in media also bring with them transformations in the cultural sensorium—transformations in the ways we use our senses to know, relate to, and experience the world. New technologies of perception change the ground from which we make epistemic claims: the (possibly) impending rise of haptic media demands our attention because of its potential to reawaken and re-empower a haptic epistemology. But ‘touch’ is always an imperfect and messy descriptor: even speaking from a strictly psychophysical standpoint, touch refers to sensations such as movement, weight, vibration, texture, temperature, and pain. If we use the term ‘feeling,’ the range of meanings expands considerably, encompassing all sorts of affective states that can be activated and induced by digital technologies.

Accordingly, when we say that touch is being expressed (or transmitted, or extended, or synthesized, or communicated) by digital media, this should just be the start to a line of questioning: we need to understand how touch is being expressed, and which model of touching is being embedded in the material configuration of these new haptic media. Through their design and standardization, haptic interfaces encode normative models of sensory and bodily functioning—much of the twentieth century research on touch communication, for example, was driven by attempts to rehabilitate bodies deemed to be disabled—and tracing the specific lineages of these models can provide insight on the power dynamics circulated through touch technologies. But these devices are also expressions of a desire to contest existing dominant models of mediation—tacit challenges to the sensory ordering of audiovisualist media, often touted explicitly by haptics designers and marketers for their potential to stage an upheaval in our mode of mediatic existence.

By providing specific examples of touch’s rearticulation in the scientific, medical, and technical literature on haptics, Archaeologies of Touch was intended to lay a historical foundation for future studies of technologized touch, while also recognizing that this history is necessarily incomplete, always subject to contestation and revision. In short, this historical framework implies an ongoing empirical project that will complement, challenge, and perhaps even blow up the genealogy I establish. More flexible models that push back on the rigid scientism of the engineering and psychophysics literature, akin to the sort of investigations currently being undertaken by Carey Jewitt and Sara Price as part of their InTouch research program, can provide a valuable picture of the cultural responses to digital touch. Building partnerships between humanists and engineers, engaging in ethnographic studies of how touch gets constructed in haptics labs, will also illuminate, to paraphrase the medical historian Robert Jütte, the “use value” touch attains as a result of new technologies of perception. We should be grappling with haptics interfaces as sites where conflicts between corporate actors are played out (as with Immersion Corporation’s myriad patent infringement lawsuits), while also recognizing their potential to open up new aesthetic and experiential possibilities (through the incorporation of haptics into digital storytelling, for example). The challenge that faces us, if 2018 ends up being a turning point for haptics, is to navigate between the technofestihism often embraced by hapticians and the technodystopianism that humanist critiques of technology fall too readily back on, so that we can get a clear and sober understanding of the way haptic media, by allowing us to feel things that aren’t really there, transform the sensory epistemology of digital worlds, while also reshaping the constitution of touch itself.


David Parisi is author of Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing. Parisi is associate professor of emerging media at the College of Charleston.

"Archaeologies of Touch weaves a careful history of haptic technology with a provocative analysis on the changing nature of how we recognize and measure touching. This allows David Parisi to provide the remarkable: a history of that which has always appeared just beyond our reach."
—Phillip Thurtle, University of Washington

"Archaeologies of Touch convincingly contextualizes recent forms of digital touch within an overarching history of psychophysiological and technological experimentation with the senses and sensory communication. David Parisi pulls together an impressive wealth of resources for scholars to understand how we ‘haptic subjects’ became haptic in the first place."
—Mark Paterson, author of The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies

2018: The Year of Haptics? (Part I of II)

David Parisi
Associate Professor of Emerging Media, College of Charleston

Based on popular press accounts, 2018 has been the year when haptics technology finally hit it big: by featuring haptics tech prominently in its depiction of a fully embodied virtual reality, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One—an adaption of Ernst Cline’s 2011 novel of the same title—sparked a renewed cultural interest in the possibilities of virtualizing touch. The haptic bodysuits worn by characters in the film allowed them to feel a range of sensations in the computer-generated world of the Oasis (the film’s trailer featured a woman running her fingers running across his chest in VR, with his bodysuit lighting up to indicate points of contact, as she asked “can you feel this?). It was not the first spectacular depiction of digital touch in a big-budget science fiction film—for example, all the way back in 1992, Brent Leonard’s psychedelic The Lawnmower Man portrayed two characters clad in neoprene bodysuits engaging in virtual intercourse, with their liquid bodies melting into each other. But, unlike previous films, Ready Player One was released at a moment when virtual reality had recently passed from being the stuff of science fiction to being something you could find on the shelves at Best Buy and Target. These long-anticipated devices, however, still work primarily through vision and hearing, preserving the audiovisual legacy of twentieth century media. Ready Player One offers a seductive image of a VR more visceral and engaging than what’s currently on hand—one that disrupts rather than enshrines audiovisuality by projecting the body fully into a computational simulation. Even before the film’s March release, it inspired a spate of articles comparing the touch technology available in 2045 to current-generation interfaces.

Those who went looking for evidence of haptics’ imminent domestication found it to be in abundant supply. A new virtual reality glove from the company HaptX wowed attendees at the Sundance Film Festival, with the product demo allowing those who donned the glove to feel the feet of a tiny fox as it pranced across their palm. The Teslasuit—an actuator-loaded, full-body haptic suit that uses a combination of vibration, electricity, temperature, and motion capture systems to create the feeling of embodied presence in virtual worlds—continued to tease an anxious tech press with rumors of an impending commercial release. A Wired magazine article raised eyebrows by (incorrectly) describing a range of new haptics devices designed to inflict pain on their users. Ultrahaptics, with its touchless feedback system that creates midair ‘haptic holograms,’ demonstrated potential applications for their product, including in-dash entertainment interfaces for automobiles, digital signage, medicine, and gaming. Just before Ready Player One’s release in March, Microsoft—which has dabbled in haptics since its work with force feedback joysticks in the 1990s—announced four experimental haptic interfaces that grew out of the Haptics Controllers Project it began in the summer of 2017. Immersion Corporation—a company so synonymous with digital touch that its tagline announces “Immersion: We Are Haptics”—pushed a set of ongoing initiatives, including one aimed at incorporating touch feedback in ads on mobile devices (using haptics to enhance an ad for Arby’s, for example). The Dutch teledildonics firm Kiiroo rebranded to become Feel Robotics, in an effort to expand the company’s efforts beyond the limited but lucrative sphere of sex tech. Buoyed by the renewed interest in virtual reality, venture capital poured into haptics startups (as Sarah Needleman described), with the projected growth of the haptics industry legitimating these investments. So far in 2018, each month feels like it’s brought the announcement of a new suit or new jacket or new glove or a new…something else altogether. With this dizzying flurry of activity, one might reasonably be convinced we’re on the verge of a revolutionizing transformation in the way we inhabit virtual spaces—one where corporeality counters and complements visuality, as just as it did in futurological computer-generated worlds like William Gibson’s Matrix, Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse, and Cline’s OASIS.

This piece is continued in Part II.

David Parisi is author of Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing. Parisi is associate professor of emerging media at the College of Charleston.

"Archaeologies of Touch weaves a careful history of haptic technology with a provocative analysis on the changing nature of how we recognize and measure touching. This allows David Parisi to provide the remarkable: a history of that which has always appeared just beyond our reach."
—Phillip Thurtle, University of Washington

"Archaeologies of Touch convincingly contextualizes recent forms of digital touch within an overarching history of psychophysiological and technological experimentation with the senses and sensory communication. David Parisi pulls together an impressive wealth of resources for scholars to understand how we ‘haptic subjects’ became haptic in the first place."
—Mark Paterson, author of The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Patricia Ticineto Clough: Why the cyborg can no longer be a figure of either politics or ontology.

Professor of sociology and women's studies at the Graduate Center and Queens College, City University of New York

Following the publication of The User Unconscious, I had the occasion to revisit Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” and found myself challenged to articulate the relevant differences between what is proposed in The User Unconscious and in Haraway’s groundbreaking essay. In the manifesto, Haraway famously offered the cyborg as the figure of feminist politics as well as an ontological standpoint from which to understand the late twentieth-century technoscience and its cultures. Minimally defined, the cyborg was meant to point to border wars between animal and human, between human and machine. The latter was the focus of the manifesto and drew attention to what was becoming a machine-human hybrid or an organic-inorganic hybrid. With the cyborg as politics and ontology, Haraway eschewed Freudian psychoanalysis as reductively biological and for its offering an oedipal timeline that implies either healing “the terrible cleavages of gender in an oral symbiotic utopia or post-oedipal apocalypse.” While much of the manifesto still holds important insights, in The User Unconscious I argue that the cyborg can no longer be a figure of either politics or ontology; nor can we point only to the “pleasures” and “responsibilities” in the confusion of boundaries, celebrated more often than not by Haraway in the manifesto.

The confusion of boundaries has been displaced by the indeterminacy or incomputability that ordinarily functions as the condition of possibility of algorithms operating in finance, governance and sociality, while also urging new forms of intervention relevant to datafication by which I mean the data mining of tracking and sensing technologies as well as internet use and all sorts of mobile devices. These technologies are putting us in touch with the agencies of other-than-human objects and environments, which in themselves are inaccessible to human consciousness or bodily-based perception or to which consciousness and bodily-based perception have no direct contact. Feeding forward to human conscious the data of what already has occurred prior to consciousness and perception, the algorithms supporting datafication are operating in ways that often enough are also inaccessible to human consciousness and perception. Not surprisingly the scholars in media studies, critical theory, and philosophy to which I turn in The User Unconscious have fostered a “speculative empiricism” inspired by Alfred North Whitehead, where consciousness and bodily-based perception have been displaced as the stable, substantial hub of all experience, extending the domain of the social to the pre-affectivity of environmental forces or other-than-human agencies that initiates a rethinking of sociality as well as subjectivity, the unconscious, and affect—all as part of the ongoing reconfiguration of the liberal arrangement that purports to sustain a separation of the state, economy, the private and public spheres.

In the manifesto, Haraway would situate the cyborg in a displacement of the separation of the private and public spheres in terms of what she referred to as the “homework economy”–not just a matter of the feminization of labor generally but more “the integration of the factory, home, and market on a new scale” (39), making possible what more recently would be called affective labor or as I would put it: the labor of affect-itself. Referring to the capitalizing of affective capacities at the human scale and the pre-affective capacities at the other-than-human scales of matter, the labor of affect-itself refers not only to economy but to a biopolitics that is as well geontological, as Elizabeth Povinelli puts it, in extending Foucault’s take on power, dismissed by Haraway in the manifesto. In this context, the separation of the public and the private spheres to which Haraway referred in the manifesto now is further displaced by what in The User Unconscious I describe, following Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, as “the separation of the personal and the networked,” where economy and (bio/geontological) politics are confounded in the subject or the I’s inextricability from the networks of data which the I in part constitutes and in part is constituted by through the ‘free labor” of giving off data in using digital media usually without the subject’s consciousness or perception. As the I is composited with its own data traces as well as the data fed forward to it from other-than-human agencies beyond consciousness and bodily-based perception, the subject, I go on to propose, is humanly and other than humanly embodied.

Not only has affective labor expanded to operate from within the human body and from without it, putting the body beyond the skin, or embodiment beyond the organism, there also has been a shift in psychoanalysis beyond Haraway’s rendition of it that has invited an account of affect as the force of the unconscious, its force in seeking objects: that is, refinding objects that are lost (infantile objects). (For a reconsideration of affect and the unconscious, see: Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Volume 19, Number 2: 2018.) But affect is not only a matter of the human scale; there also is the pre-affectivity of the other-than-human scales of matter beyond consciousness and perception. The user unconscious, I therefore have suggested, is a matter of affect, in psychoanalytic terms, the force of seeking lost (infantile) objects, operating, however, in a networked environment of objects that along side those lost are those that are not lost but rather are lively and not containable brought by datafication out of reach of human consciousness and bodily-based perception, that is, an environment of the endless availability of the search that in itself supersedes finding an object. (For a discussion of online searching and the objects of the unconscious, see Stephan Hartman (2011), "Reality 2.0: When loss is lost," Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 21, 468-482.) This endless searchability supported by datafication is another way of posing the liveliness of objects or their other-than-human liveliness that suggests an embodiment of the I and the unconscious that is human and other than human, yet to be fully engaged as a matter of subjectivity and sociality.

As the user unconscious refers to the subject or an I that is both humanly and other-than-humanly embodied, it is necessary to rethink the social and subjective characteristic of race, gender, sexuality, age, and ethnicity usually attached to the body-as-organism but which are being reconfigured in the ongoing rearrangement of inside and outside the body beyond the skin, the public and private spheres and the economy and state. Linked to a biopolitics of populations, what I have described in The User Unconscious as a datafied population racism aimed at the profoundly unequal distribution of life capacities among populations, the body-as-organism now is the site of a shift in critical concern about confused boundaries to one about the incalculability functioning in the operation of algorithmic production of datafication registered differently across populations as a traumatic recognition of other-than-human agencies that are the speculative empirical condition of possibility of human experience.

While “The Cyborg Manifesto” has stacked up a number of criticisms, perhaps most notably those aimed at its all too celebratory take on cyborgian technoscience, I have found in returning to it an invitation also sounded in The User Unconscious to not only research the devastations of current datafication but also to engage a fuller appreciation of it in forming interventions that affectively address changes in sociality and subjectivity registered in the user unconscious.


Patricia Ticineto Clough is professor of sociology and women’s studies at the Graduate Center and Queens College, City University of New York. She is author of The User Unconscious: On Affect, Media, and Measure (Minnesota, 2018); Autoaffection: Unconscious Thought in the Age of Teletechnology (Minnesota, 2000); Feminist Thought: Desire, Power, and Academic Discourse; and The End(s) of Ethnography: From Realism to Social Criticism. She is editor of The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social with Craig Willse, editor of Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death, and, with Alan Frank and Steven Seidman, editor of Intimacies: A New World of Relational Life. Clough is also a psychoanalyst practicing in New York City.

Friday, July 13, 2018

On constitutive contradictions, LGBT citizenship, and the church.

In May 2018, students in Prof. Lorena Muñoz’s University of Minnesota graduate seminar “GWSS 8620: Geographies of Sexualities and Race: Economies, (Im)Migrations, and Borders” read and discussed David K. Seitz’s book, A House of Prayer for All People: Contesting Citizenship in a Queer Church. Prof. Muñoz’s seminar taught first monographs to help demystify the transition from dissertation to book manuscript for Ph.D. students. In this blog post, Seitz offers condensed answers to some of the students’ excellent questions about his book.

What are the curiosities that led you to the meshing of queer citizenship and the church?

What first brought me to the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCCT) was a 2010 story in the Toronto Star about the church’s refugee program. I was fascinated by the ways in which the story positioned members of this predominantly LGBT Protestant congregation as “model citizens,” but model citizens who were extending hospitality and care to and breaking bread with refugee claimants, whose motivations, identities, and claims were subject to remarkably high scrutiny, particularly but not only under the previous Canadian federal government.

On the one hand, the scene presented yet another iteration of the all-too-familiar story of what Lisa Duggan calls “homonormativity” – queers as well-adjusted, ideal-typical, non-threatening citizens of a neoliberal state, one reliant on private charity for provisioning for the most vulnerable people. But on the other hand, it was also a story about refugees, people regarded by agents of the racial state, as Engin Isin puts it, as “the worst kind of beggars,” but to whom these “good” gay citizens were extending hospitality. At a time when some LGBT people in Canada were (and are) quite celebratory and triumphalist about gains like same-sex marriage (or faux “woke bae” Justin Trudeau), I was struck by the convergence of these refugees, who experience so much state violence, with a big-tent LGBT institution that had a non-secular mandate – one that answered not only to the sovereignty of the Canadian state, but to the sovereignty of a loving God.

Of course, what I could not glean from one newspaper article was whether the church approached its refugee work with a savior mindset, or through a framework of solidarity. But in the case of the church, as in the case of contemporary migration politics in the United States and elsewhere, there is an extremely aggressive incitement to put respectable faces on marginalized populations, to differentiate between “deserving” and “undeserving” migrants and/or queers. This incitement is to some extent always present, at the very heart of biopolitics, but it is amplified under open-handedly white supremacist, “family values” governments. Such differentiations must obviously be resisted, and when they are successfully resisted, as it to at least some extent has been in the case of the MCCT refugee program, it becomes crucial to ask: “How?”

What in your personal journey led you to explore affect in your work?

One of the things I had observed as an undergraduate, but not really gotten access to language for interpreting until my graduate work, was that there is a constitutive gap – as much on the radical intersectional activist and academic Left as anywhere else – between what people say and what they do. Many, many people on the Left say all the right things politically, but you have no idea why they as individuals are on the Left until you get to know them, and maybe not even then. Do we want to be recognized for our moral righteousness? Brilliance? Radicality? Sex appeal? Hipness? Efficaciousness? Grassroots authenticity? Charisma? Empathy? Pain? Professional prowess? Vision? Cleverness? For making a material difference in the world? If so, recognition from whom? Or, are our preoccupations even with recognition at all, or are we after something else altogether? What are we running away from, or chasing? What are we trying to resolve or secure for ourselves? Is it enough to be against the Right? What is the Left for, and what are we on it for?

Then there’s the question of attachment, of what keeps people on the Left, or what in a neoliberal moment passes for the Left, and of what keeps people attached to institutions that to one extent or another may be trying to be big-tent, coalitional, with all of the contradiction and disappointment and de-idealization that can attend that. When is that disappointment worth sustaining, and when does it suggest the object is beyond repair?

Particularly in times such as these, it can be extremely easy to let the Right be a limiting foil, one that shuts down self-reflection and debate on the Left, to the Left’s peril. Yet I would argue that it has to be possible for us to ask these questions of ourselves and one another in good faith for a capacious, coalitional Left to accomplish any of its aims. That’s one of the big lessons of the book, probably because it’s one I find myself learning over and over again: it isn’t self-indulgent and bourgeois to figure your shit out; it’s crucial to any healthy relationship, including the relationships that populate and constitute our political and spiritual spaces. Rev. Darlene Garner’s question to the MCC denomination in its desires to grow internationally – “Why are you doing this?” – is one to which I argue the church and the Left should constantly return.

I think these are questions my book tries to open up around a predominantly LGBT church as an object of emotional and political investment for many differently situated people, but similar questions might be asked of a number of different objects: educational institutions, social movements, Left and center-Left political parties. Object-relations psychoanalysis and affect theory have proven helpful to me here, in part because they can offer us less functionalist language for thinking about people’s complicated attachments, while remaining centrally informed by people’s constitutive contradictions. We all contain them.

How do you connect this reparative work with a broader sense of spirituality (e.g., outside of Christianity)?

Reparation in the affective sense is by no means limited to Christian scenes, archives, or thinkers – some of the most writers on the subject whose work I consult most often (Melanie Klein, Eve Kosofky Sedgwick) were secular Jews. For me, working on Christianity is a question of what Minnie Bruce Pratt calls “doing one’s own work.” While psychoanalytic psychotherapy and astrology are probably the practices that most closely resemble “church” in my quotidian life, I consider myself “culturally Protestant,” in a way that goes unmarked in the constitutively Protestant arrangement that we in the United States call “secularism,” but that I think is worth marking if we’re ever to live, as Talal Asad puts it, as “minorities among minorities.”

In that vein, I have long been inspired by the intellectual, ethical, political, and spiritual work of my progressive Jewish friends to resist forms of state racism in Israel that invoke the figure of the Jewish people for self-justification. That work implicates me as an American citizen, too, because of what’s done in my name in the region. In “Love, Guilt, and Reparation,” Melanie Klein uses explicitly colonial metaphors to think about reparation – repairing guilt over the genocide of natives leads to a repopulation of a colonial locale, not with indigenous peoples but with one’s European countrymen. David Eng and others have confronted this colonial way of thinking about reparation, and sought to imagine alternative ontologies of affective and political repair. Judith Butler suggests that ethical cohabitation – cohabitation with the neighbor one doesn’t have the right to choose – is itself a reparative practice. That anti-racist vision of ethical cohabitation is what I saw in the church refugee program, and it’s what I see in the leadership that a lot of my progressive Jewish friends – and progressive Muslim friends – have provided in fighting for the human rights and self-determination of Palestinians and racialized Jews.

Likewise, at this moment in the United States, I think multi-faith movements like the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival do an amazing job of demonstrating how faith can be a departure point for coalitional, multiracial work for economic justice. One bad (but at times salient) caricature of liberal faith communities is that they’re normatively white and/or normatively middle class, crunchy granola spaces in which everyone more or less agrees about the profoundly unjust state of the world, but no one actually acts – to recall Hannah Arendt’s definition of politics – no one acts in public in concert with others, particularly people differently situated from them. Yet the Poor People’s Campaign, which actually stems from the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and began in 1968, brings faith and labor communities, differently racialized, differently religious people together, in public, risking arrest and in a number of cases getting arrested, around robust, substantive political demands like a $15 minimum wage and universal healthcare. That’s the kind of potential that I think brings many people to a wide range of progressive faith communities, and it’s important to both map that potential and to pay close attention to the moments when it’s realized in concrete political acts.

How do you see your work being taken up across disciplines inside and outside of academia?

A number of you talked very thoughtfully about your work in education – what it means to do anti-racist, feminist or anti-homophobic work in an institution so historically and constitutively enmeshed in settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, the instillation of more or less explicitly Western Christian values. To what extent does contemporary education reiterate these hierarchical power relations, and to what extent is repetition with a difference possible? I hope the case that the book makes – for remaining harshly critical of inequality and injustice, but curious about the prospect of historically bad objects to offer even modest good surprises, and for staying around long enough to find out what goes down in “bad” institutions – is one that resonates with you in your important work. And to be clear, I don’t think academics corner the market on the capacity for careful attention to bad, potentially transformative and occasionally surprising, political and quotidian scenes. Community organizing, progressive and community journalism, and therapeutic and other forms of care work are all in their own ways rigorous practices grounded in both a strong sense of justice but also a commitment to careful listening, a commitment not to know their object in advance, and to revise judgment about their objects. Folks in all of these fields have certainly taught me a great deal, in ways that I hope show up explicitly and implicitly in the book.


David K. Seitz is author of A House of Prayer for All People and assistant professor of cultural geography at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California.

"David Seitz’s rendition of the politics of refuge within faith community in Toronto is challenging, insightful, empirically rich, and conceptually bold. Seitz offers ‘improper queer citizenship’ as a messy, unfinished political project. His analysis is essential reading that grows more pressing with each passing day." —Alison Mountz, author of Seeking Asylum

Wildflower Series #4: Heading North

Rose pogonia.


We’ve headed out on a road trip to Winnipeg to catch a plane to Churchill, Manitoba, to take a class on sub-arctic wildflowers at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Our plane leaves soon, but we’ve left a few days early to spend some time in the aspen tallgrass prairie parkland and places en route. Rain hammers down as we leave town, but we’re hopeful we will drive through it. Kelly assures me the forecast is for the rain to end at three.

We’ve packed, unpacked, repacked, shopped for essentials (including bug shirts, our new favorite thing) and packed some more. Churchill’s weather will be cool and rainy, but Minnesota promises to be hot and sunny, a forecast that the cold rain pouring down clearly hasn’t heard. We drive on in hope toward Long Lake Conservation Center, where last year we hiked through the woods to see several rose pogonia and grass pink orchids. This time we’ve been offered a canoe to paddle down past floating bogs toward where we saw the orchids. Rain still falls as we don our new bug shirts under raincoats and launch the canoe at 1:30, but within five minutes the rain no longer matters, because we’ve come to a gathering of blue flag, pitcher plant, and rose pogonia—not just one rose pogonia, but many. We paddle on, past more and more rose pogonia, the occasional grass pink, bog rosemary, water lilies, yellow pond lilies, water shield, bog cranberries, water arum, and sundew with tiny, tiny buds almost ready to bloom.


We paddle back through a richness of flowers we had never imagined when we hiked out to see orchids last year. It all depends on your point of view, and the view from the water is spectacular.

And at three minutes after three, the rain stops.


Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo spent ten years collaborating on Searching for Minnesota's Native Wildflowers: A Guide for Beginners, Botanists, and Everyone in Between. Check back on this blog as they document their wildflower-seeking adventures this summer.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Children. Before. Borders.

Bennington College

Academics are typically tasked with giving complex accounts of complex situations. We specialize in stories of nuance, where power operates with such subtlety that its movement through the social body requires explaining and unmasking. Simple explanations are to be suspect, as are prescriptions for immediate action. There are moments, however, when we confront realities that require a different register of response and resistance. Such is our situation today, with the U.S. government’s treatment of migrant children and families.

What more can be written about – and what mode of historical or theoretical analysis can be deployed to confront – a human tragedy so obvious and odious as one where the naked power of the state collides with the bare life of the child? There is no need for a genealogy of how nativists have historically constructed immigrant children – the answer is too predictable (as criminals, imbeciles, and, more recently, potential terrorists). There is no point in responding to the myths being propagated by the Trump Administration – that this was the Democrats’ fault, that there is a law that compels this, that the Obama administration did the same thing, etc. – because no more than a fraction of the 25% of so of Americans who believe them are going to change their minds. And I can’t bring myself to write a biographical piece that imagines what I’d do if my own infant daughter – together with her parents, sleeping soundly in her crib – were put in the shoes of the children heard wailing through the walls of detention facilities. The mere thought of it is too terrifying. There is no nuanced story to be told here, only a seething rage to be marshalled toward collective action.

What logic can possibly justify the cruel and unnecessary separation of children from their parents? The policy was swiftly condemned by all but the most callous of restrictionists. Jonah Goldberg, writing in the National Review, referred to it as a “moral horror.” Red State called it “traumatizing and devastating.” Rod Dreher, of The American Conservative, opined that it was “vicious and inhumane.” Even immigration restriction groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Center for Immigration Studies, and Californians for Population Stabilization avoided directly voicing support for the policy of family separation, preferring to more obliquely defend it by diverting blame onto immigrants for their allegedly phony asylum claims, the Obama administration for its refusal to control “border chaos,” and even Congressional Republicans who supported Paul Ryan’s “Amnesty Plan.”

Only in the depths of nativist and white-supremacist land did the family separation policy find enthusiastic praise. Fortunately, most people don’t share this sentiment. The images of children, the accounts of their plight, and the recordings of their cries led to widespread outrage. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, herself a Jewish refugee, famously remarked that, amid the rise of 20th-century fascism, the liberal democratic states who had so-loudly touted their commitment to inalienable rights were incapable of recognizing or restoring the rights of refugees. When those who had been stripped of political rights most needed help, she observed, “the world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.” This was – and still is – unfortunately true.

But, much of the world – or at least much of a notoriously nationalistic country – saw, in the images of the children in detention, something sacred being profaned. More than two-thirds of Americans opposed the family separation policy. In this case, the abstract nakedness of being human – the fact that children’s bodies are not perceived to be quite-so-tightly bound to their membership within a national polity – was their saving grace. Due to the lack of agency that we attribute to children, the images are more easily translated, accurately, as the suffering of people who have done nothing to deserve it. They are simply human beings – literally, biological lives – born into difficult situations, taken along on an arduous journey, and now separated from their parents. They made it to the land of freedom only to find themselves in chains. The resistance that these images produced is not proof of American progressivism or a deep commitment to human rights, but it does reflect an extant limit to encroaching neo-Fascism. Thankfully, there are some moral lines that you still don’t cross without political repercussion.

Recent survey data suggest that it is a precarious limit, though, and that the moral lines are blurry. According to an Economist/YouGov poll, 44% of Americans feel that the most responsible way of dealing with immigrant children is to hold them together in detention with their families until an immigration hearing. A CBS/YouGov poll found that 48% want to deport the entire families back to their home country, where many face extreme poverty and violence. These statistics point toward a tension that warrants interrogation: we’ve reached a breaking point on immigration politics. On one hand, if we are going to continue to have restrictive immigration laws, especially those that rely on securitized borders, families will be torn apart on a large scale. It is inevitable given the size and scope of the deportation machine constructed under Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Most Americans don’t want this. On the other hand, if we are to protect children and keep families together, we need to have relatively open borders and an inclusive immigration policy. Most Americans also don’t want this.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways of navigating this tension. The first is to convince more Americans to become moral monsters who embrace the nativist project currently institutionalized in the Trump administration; one that revels in the ethical and political imperative of keeping out non-European populations, including children, by any means necessary. The second is by acceding to the politics of centrist liberals and conservatives, where guest worker programs and paths to citizenship are coupled with further securitization and, perhaps, the construction of Trump’s Great Wall. This still results in mass family separation, but it positions the ethically unsatisfactory result as a regrettable outgrowth of necessary political compromises. The final path is to persuade more Americans to join in the Leftist project of working-class solidarity across borders; one that seeks relaxed immigration restrictions coupled with strong civil rights and labor protections for immigrants and refugees. If ending the separation of families and the suffering of children is our goal, then this is the sole project worthy of our support.

In this vein, the immigrants’ rights crisis of the past month – Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the Supreme Court’s upholding of the “Muslim ban” – has made several things clear. First, immigrant children pose real threats to the nativist project, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see more cruel policies in which they are targeted. The problem – from a nativist perspective – is not that immigrant children are incapable of becoming Americans; it’s that they are too capable. The ease of their transition renders intelligible the real foundation of the nostalgic nationalism to which nativists cling: immigrant children become Americans, but their complexion persists. The danger posed by immigrant children lays bare the foundational urge of the nativist project, revealing the racism that undergirds all hyper-nationalism, and showing just how weak and pathetic the nativists are.

Second, Trump’s failed policy, a response to an imagined influx of immigrants, was unlikely to have any notable deterrent effect to begin with; the real political impact is to lower an already low bar on American immigration policy. Just as Dreamers have been used as bargaining chips in conservative efforts to increase border securitization, the executive order simply ends one humanitarian disaster (the separation of immigrant families in detention) and seeks to replace it with another one (the indefinite detention of families). But now, such a shift appears like progress. (Indeed, classical conservative Andrew Sullivan has already argued for a grand immigration compromise that necessitates giving Trump his wall).

Finally, the racialized – and false – image of immigrant criminality is so ubiquitous today that it takes the image of a child to rupture it, however momentarily, and to remind the American public that our ethical obligations to other lives ought not be dictated by an imaginary line in the sand. This creates a punctuated equilibrium in which changes to immigration policy are possible. The direction of these changes, however, is an open political question. Since the centrist option seems even more palatable to many politicians than it did a month ago, a Leftist explanation for (and alternative to) our current political conjuncture must be more forcefully and unequivocally advanced.

To recap: why would anyone support the separation or indefinite detention of immigrant families? The explanation is simple: they are nativists. What should be done about it? The immediate solutions are not easy, but they are clear: create sanctuary cities and states, vote all restrictionists out of office, abolish ICE, and tear down the border walls. The long-term solution requires a more thorough and thoughtful reworking of the global political economic order. Only then will we have a world – as my friends working with the Repeal Coalition demand – where everyone is free to live, love, and work anywhere they please.


John Hultgren teaches politics at Bennington College. He is the author of Border Walls Gone Green: Nature and Anti-immigrant Politics in America.

On David Wojnarowicz, politics, and gestures.

Professor of women's and gender studies, State University of New York at Stony Brook

Next week, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York will launch a major exhibition of the work of David Wojnarowicz, "History Keeps Me Awake at Night." It notes that Wojnarowicz was “queer and HIV-positive” and an “impassioned advocate for people with AIDS,” who would die of AIDS in 1992 at age 37. Publicity for the exhibition also indicates concern that because of Wojnarowicz’s association with the AIDS crisis and the culture wars of the 1980s, his work is “too frequently treated as a footnote” to this historical moment. I am excited about the retrospective at the Whitney, both as an opportunity to celebrate Wojnarowicz’s work as more than a footnote and as an opportunity to return to a particular moment in time that still reverberates in the present.

In my work, I am interested in the conjunction of illness-thought-activism in time. Or, put another way, I am concerned with illness and disability in action in particular times and places. My recent book Indirect Action explores this conjunction in the period just before and after the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the United States, challenging the frequently repeated origin story that locates AIDS activism in particular and health activism more generally as emerging with the formation of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987. Attempting to demonstrate the conceptual and practical uses of indirection, I conceived of the overall form of the project diagrammatically as a spatial network of interlinked experiences and events of illness, with shorter chapters, which I call snapshots, as nodes in the network that condense and encapsulate the overall structure. The image that helped me conceive of this form was the cover of a xeroxed catalog for David Wojnarowicz’s show In the Shadow of Forward Motion at P.P.O.W. gallery in New York City in 1989. Thinker/writer/activist Félix Guattari contributed a foreword of sorts to the catalog, and his name, along with Wojnarowicz’s, is on the cover of the catalog.

In 1989 Felix Guattari contributed a foreword to a xeroxed catalog
for a show of David Wojnarowicz's In The Shadow of Forward Motion
at the P.P.O.W. gallery in New York City. 

The cover image on the catalog, a detail from Wojnarowicz’s Sex Series, is a copy of an x-ray photograph of a sexual encounter as if viewed through a microscope or pinhole. What we see is difficult to discern, and we must peer closely at the image to see there are two men in the scene; as microscoped, x-rayed, and then photocopied fragment, sex is not simply impersonalized but depersonalized. The sex is both there for all to see and difficult to discern. Our own voyeuristic desire is captured in the pinhole’s structuring call to look. The image vibrates eerily on a black background while the text boxes—“David Wojnarowicz,” “In the Shadow of Forward Motion,” and “Notes by Felix Guattari”—float in white rectangular blocks above and below the image. The catalog materially and conceptually links the names, words, and ideas of Guattari and Wojnarowicz, even though the two men never met.

A name not on the cover of the catalog is that of the photographer, Marion Scemama, who collaborated with Wojnarowicz and was a friend of Guattari’s; it was Scemama who brought the two men together at the very end of the first decade of AIDS, in 1989, three years before both of their deaths, only weeks apart, in 1992. In an interview with Sylvère Lotringer, the founder of Semiotext(e), a cultural theorist and archiver of French theory in the United States, Scemama describes how Guattari’s involvement in the catalog came about and the pleasure Wojnarowicz felt in having his work linked with Guattari’s. Because Guattari couldn’t come to New York to meet Wojnarowicz or see his work in person, Guattari’s “David Wojnarowicz” is, Scemama believes, a “little superficial” but nonetheless important as “a gesture.” “Gesture” is a key word and concept in Wojnarowicz’s work and features frequently in his diaries. Wojnarowicz’s concept of the gesture emerges not only from his practices of art and writing but also from his practices of sex. For Wojnarowicz the gesture is a link between word and image, writing and painting, sex and intimacy. For example, in a diary entry in September 1981, Wojnarowicz describes picking up a guy in a park in the East Village and going for coffee with him. As they make “slow spare conversation,” Wojnarowicz explains, “I knew I wanted to lie down with him but nothing was mentioned. I wondered how it would be approached, if at all. What words, what gestures.” Or as Agamben puts it in his “Notes on Gesture,” “The gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such.” The snapshots in my project are meant to function like gestures: they are intertexts and interimages that make a means visible—here, linking sex, illness, art, and politics before and after AIDS.

In his superficial gesture, Guattari argues that Wojnarowicz reinvents the “inspiration of the great 60s movements” in order to “transcend the style of passivity and abandon of the entropic slope of fate which characterizes this present period.” A superficial gesture, then, links Wojnarowicz back to the social movements of the 1960s, and forward or, perhaps we should say, in the shadow of a forward motion to “a singular message that allows us to perceive an enunciation in process,” as Guattari puts it. The enunciation in process catalogs macroevents, like the worldwide devastation of AIDS, the detritus of capitalism, and the expropriation and exploitation of land once inhabited by Native Americans. In his writing and visual art, Wojnarowicz demonstrates the metamorphosis of all things—rusted-out factories, defunct machines, and insect shells are placed side by side as images of “what history means reached through the compression of time.”

My own superficial and small gesture redraws a line between Guattari and Scemama and Wojnarowicz. The redrawing of the line is not meant simply as a reminder that politics is about the personal, in the sense that through personal relationships we make politics, although of course personal relationships are an important aspect of the practice of all politics. Rather, what I want to think about are those figures who act as relays between people, places, ideas, and entire movements: Scemama between Guattari and Wojnarowicz but also Guattari and Wojnarowicz between the radical psychiatric politics of the 1960s and 1970s and forms of AIDS activism in the 1980s. Like Wojnarowicz, I am interested in “what history means reached through the compression of time,” a snapshot or a xeroxed catalog linking two names, word and image, sex and love, art and politics. Doing politics is about all kinds of further gestures: personal and impersonal, large and small, profound and superficial.


Lisa Diedrich is professor of women's and gender studies at State University of New York at Stony Brook. She is author of Indirect Action: Schizophrenia, Epilepsy, AIDS, and the Course of Health Activism and Treatments: Language, Politics, and the Culture of Illness.