- Cruising DystopiaThe Messy Optimism of Digital Connection in Shaka McGlotten’s Virtual Intimacies
Not a moment too soon, scholarly work on queer sexuality in digital cultures has begun bridging the gap between two vibrant contemporary fields that converse with surprising infrequency—sexuality studies and media studies. At a time when discussions of queerness have become so pervasive that scholars find themselves facing the question “Is everything queer?,” it can seem that queer theory has already succeeded in leaving no stone unturned.1 At the same time, when the digital humanities claim to be revolutionizing scholarship by replacing qualitative thinking with color-coded charts, it’s easy to fear that close readings of culture have become a thing of the pre-big-data past.2 With some notable exceptions, writing on high-tech media like video games has shied away from the controversial territory of sexuality. Meanwhile, queer theory, with some of its own notable exceptions, has taken pains to sidestep the “lower” arts and the hubbub of the Internet, too often dismissed as heteronormative distractions. However, a new wave [End Page 275] of scholarship is revitalizing both visions of the queer and visions of the digital. Multiple academic conferences and collections are being newly dedicated to exploring, for example, queerness as a key element of video games. These intersections, still uneasy, need models to help scholars from disparate backgrounds envision what it might look like to understand technology through sexual practices and identities. Shaka McGlotten’s Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect, and Queer Sociality offers just this: an introduction to thinking contemporary media queerly.
McGlotten, a social anthropologist and an ambivalent participant in a variety of web-based sexual communities, admirably attempts to explicate and expose for his readers both the pitfalls and subversive potentials of searching for lust/love as mediated by a computer screen. Combining ethnographic interviews with personal anecdotes, Virtual Intimacies stretches to address a (sometimes too wide) range of erotic encounters with technology. Frustrated adventures in iPhone cruising are featured alongside hours spent browsing amateur porn sites. Naked video-game bodies are parsed for their ability to “emote” real-world desires. Dating profile photos are shown to simultaneously perform and obscure race. A seemingly fleeting sexual encounter, arranged over the Internet, proves surprisingly moving when one man discovers the other reading a book about mourning. These are the tableaux that animate McGlotten’s writing, and his project is ultimately less concerned with providing answers than with mapping constellations. In such scenes, which ground Virtual Intimacies in everyday experiences of technologically mediated erotics, readers too find themselves inducted into a kind of virtual intimacy, a steamy analytical space where theory melds with the desires of anthropological subjects and the author himself. Bound by mutual arousal, both intellectual and corporeal, we join McGlotten in the phenomenological project of discovering “what it feels like to connect, or fail to, in a technophilic and technophobic present in which intimacy has gone virtual, if it ever was real” (vi, 1). Thus, with his readers in tow, Mc-Glotten seeks to untangle a contemporary web of technology, gay male sexuality, and that slippery feeling called “closeness.” Along [End Page 276] the way he manages to both denounce and ultimately reaffirm the twenty-first-century fantasy of a high-tech sexual utopia.
Virtual Intimacies begins from the premise that our contemporary technological lives have complicated our pre-digital conceptualizations of sex, sociality, and queerness. With the rise of seemingly ubiquitous Internet access comes a constant yet diffuse sense of social connection, whether through laptop computers or smartphones. When using these devices to access sensitive material in public (McGlotten tells us in one of his more poetic moments), we cradle them near our bodies like lovers. Along with these technological connections comes a wave of promises about sexual connections, especially for gay men. The Internet is supposed to be a utopia where discrimination against race and body type is a thing of the past, where partners can be found at all times for all types...