XXVIII.3 May - June 2021
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Queerious futures

Gopinaath Kannabiran

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This article is the final part of a three-part series exploring entanglements between queer desire and the design of computer-related technologies. My goal in this article is to articulate how queer perspectives can inform ecological concerns in the context of designing technologies for our collective futures. Pushing back on the notion of the researcher as an apolitical, disinterested observer in STEM-related fields, I will argue for acknowledging and engaging with anger against injustice in the context of designing technologies for ecologically responsible and queer-inclusive futures.

As a design educator, when I introduce topics about ecological sustainability and social justice in the context of designing technologies for the future, my students have expressed frustration, anger, sadness, shame, hopelessness, and cynicism during class discussions and design-studio sessions. Learning about, working through, and coming to terms with the interrelatedness of various systems of oppression can often be rage inducing, challenging, exhausting, and at times, depressing. Doing ecological activism involves repeatedly exposing oneself to and engaging with interrelated systems of oppression and exploitative practices while witnessing atrocities committed against fellow humans and various forms of life. What ought we to do with our anger at unjust practices in our roles as researchers, educators, activists, and innovators?

During her keynote presentation at the 1981 National Women's Studies Association Conference, Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde argued that "anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification." Lorde advocated for tapping into anger as an "important source of empowerment" while fighting against interrelated systems of oppression. Expressing, contextualizing, amplifying, recognizing, and channeling anger at injustice for collective transformation of futures, hopefully toward the betterment of life for all, is made possible and shaped through technology-mediated interactions. Lorde distinguishes anger from hatred and insists that anger can be "potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being" when facing interrelated systems of oppression. Therefore, it is vital to acknowledge and engage with anger at injustice as a legitimate epistemic positionality while doing sociotechnical research. It can be politically productive and thus has an important place in the design of technologies for the future.

There is a growing interest in HCI toward intersectional approaches in order to understand how various systems of oppression such as sexism, racism, and classicism are related. Lesbian feminist Marilyn Frye uses a powerful metaphor of a birdcage to illuminate the struggles and experiences of oppressed people that is worth quoting here at length:

It is vital to acknowledge and engage with anger at injustice as a legitimate epistemic positionality while doing sociotechnical research.

Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus… [you are] unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere…. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon [1].

Tracing out unjust networks of systematically related barriers and dismantling interrelated systems of oppression requires the mobilization of anger toward collective action, all potentially mediated through the use of technology. Building technological platforms that afford the mobilization of anger against injustice toward collective critical action remains a complex sociotechnical challenge that warrants further research.

But why should we consider queer perspectives when designing technologies for ecologically sustainable collective futures? Shauna M. O'Donnell, with the Editorial Collective of Undercurrents, says "a politics of nature can no longer be an articulation of white, male, heterosexual prescriptive or descriptive privilege" and calls attention to the "disruptive power of any examination of the normative categories of nature and the natural from the perspective of queer identity" [2].

Queer people's identities, embodied desires, and lived experiences have historically been rendered as unnatural through cis-heteronormative patriarchal discursive practices and narratives. A vigilant demarcation of identities, desires, and experiences is required in order to clearly define the essential properties of, set boundaries for, and assign worth to what ought to be considered normal, natural, and desirable through various discursive practices.

Let us consider the following conceptual binaries: man/woman, mind/body, heterosexual/queer, reason/passion, white/color, human/animal, citizen/immigrant, civilization/wilderness, urban/rural, developed/underdeveloped, global/local, Western/Indigenous. In these binaries, the former is characterized as fundamentally different from the latter but also often deemed better (in various terms) within heteropatriarchal discourses. Identities, ideas, and experiences are surgically categorized, characterized, and assigned value through such conceptual binaries to indicate what is normal, better, and desirable for our collective technology-mediated futures.

Queer perspectives then can illuminate the power struggles experienced by marginalized groups through interlocking systems of oppression and help examine how such conceptual binaries are maintained, support exploitative practices, and further perpetuate various injustices. Engaging with queer people's voices, experiences, and struggles in the context of designing technologies for ecologically sustainable collective futures therefore should be understood as a critical response toward "the necessity for an ongoing project of investigation which takes apart both the categories of queer and nature, and then defines and recombines them in innovative, constructive ways" [2]. Studying conceptual binaries in relation to ecological issues from a queer perspective is simply one way to foster the "disruptive power" that is required for uprooting unjust networks of systematically related barriers and dismantling interrelated systems of oppression through collective action. More research is required examining whose visions of technology-mediated futures and how they are prioritized as desirable through design discourses from a queer perspective in relation to ecological issues.

Challenges to queer desire in the midst of heteronormativity often get reframed in terms of access to consumer products and technological services, which can lead to the exclusion of those without disposable income. Jasbir K. Puar states that the "politics of recognition and incorporation entail that certain—but certainly not most—homosexual, gay, and queer bodies may be the temporary recipients of the 'measures of benevolence' that are afforded by liberal discourses of multicultural tolerance and diversity" [3]. Puar argues that the "benevolence toward sexual others is contingent upon ever-narrowing parameters of white racial privilege, consumption capabilities, gender and kinship normativity, and bodily integrity" [3]. Analyzing how the inclusivity of "certain—but certainly not most" queer desires are afforded as "measures of benevolence" through discourses of technological progress can be helpful for understanding how interrelated systems of oppression operate. Based on ethnographic research in a rural region of the Midwestern U.S., Jean Hardy explores how "disparate information access results in the formation of different, and often conflicting, LGBTQ experiences" [4].

Examining such entanglements can be used to critically evaluate the myth of technological progress as the great equalizer of opportunities for all. Critique that does not offer hope becomes well-informed cynicism. Queer perspectives can offer generative insights for exploring better technology-mediated collective futures while being rooted in the awareness and anger about injustices of the present. José Esteban Muñoz approaches queering as "a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present" wherein queer is "not simply a being but a doing for and toward the future" [5]. Foregrounding this interactive tension of being (in present) and becoming (toward future), Muñoz asserts that queerness is "essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility of another world" [5]. Discussing queer ecological perspectives, Harcourt et al. draw attention to what is "queerly termed as dirty resilience" that is concerned with "the dismantling of structures of violence that target particular racialized and gendered bodies as disposable" and "the contextually specific creation of space and structures supporting self-determination and collective liberation" [6]. Queer notions such as dirty resilience aim to bring awareness to the "quagmire of the present" while simultaneously maintaining hope for and insisting on creating better collective futures in relation to ecological issues. Exposing interrelated systems of oppression, the mobilization of anger at injustice toward collective critical action, rearranging power relations to empower marginalized groups, fostering resilience against exploitative practices, insisting on imagining better technology-mediated spaces and structures, and flirting with ideas of hope when faced with cynicism in relation to ecological issues are some efforts toward desiring and designing queerious futures.

back to top  References

1. Frye, M. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Crossing Press, 1983.

2. O'Donnell, S.M. with the Editorial Collective of Undercurrents. Carrying on and going beyond: Some conditions of queer/nature. UnderCurrents: Journal of Critical Environmental Studies 6, 2 (1994).

3. Puar, J.K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Duke Univ. Press, 2007.

4. Hardy, J. Queer information literacies: Social and technological circulation in the rural Midwestern United States. Information, Communication & Society 24 (2021), 1.

5. Esteban Muñoz, J. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York Univ. Press, 2009.

6. Harcourt, W., Knox, S., and Tabassi, T. World-wise otherwise stories for our endtimes: Conversations on queer ecologies. In Practising Feminist Political Ecologies: Moving Beyond the 'Green Economy.' W. Harcourt and I.L. Nelson, eds. Zed Books, 2015.

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Gopinaath Kannabiran is a design educator, HCI researcher, and sexual rights activist currently working as a postdoc at IT University of Copenhagen. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2021 ACM, Inc.

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