Deathly or Inhuman? Queer Life and the Biopolitics of the Digital

Shaka McGlotten, media | society | & the arts, Purchase College, SUNY
Black Data
The world is becoming data. Ubiquitous, location-aware computing gathers our biographical and spatial information; it records our choices, and uses algorithms to predict what we will choose or want next. Meanwhile, biometric technologies digitize the body, attempting to capture it on behalf of an array of actors, from states in their ever-expanding search for terrorists, and the private sector, which both works in tandem with the state and seeks to monetize these data. State agencies and corporations collaborate in unprecedented ways in order to obtain and operationalize this data. If you’re connected, you’re captured.
This talk/performance uses an eclectic handful of online artifacts to explore the notion of “black data,” a heuristic I suggest offers analytical and political traction for black queer studies. Black data refers to the historical and contemporary ways black people are interpolated by big data, which here include both the technés of race and racism and the various efforts of states and corporations to capture, predict, and control political and consumer behavior. I also use black data to refer to the informatics of black queer life, to expressive practices, emergent epistemologies, and everyday ways of maneuvering through the world. Drawing on some anarchist and cryptographic perspectives, I figure black data as “black ops,” secret or encrypted forms of counter-knowledge that challenge or refuse some of the demands of contemporary imperial power, especially the demand to be seen. In so doing, “Black Data” seeks to bring black queer studies into dialogue with critical studies of new technologies and network cultures.
Shaka McGlotten is Associate Professor of media | society | & the arts at Purchase College-SUNY, where he teaches courses on ethnography, screen media, and queer studies. He is the author of Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect, and Queer Sociality (SUNY Press 2013) and co-editor of Black Genders and Sexualities (21012) and Zombie Sexuality (McFarland 2014).


R Joshua Scannell, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Inhumanist Archiving and Smart City Surveillance
Debates over the rise of the Smart City as an emerging paradigm of contemporary governance have tended to frame the model’s potentialities and shortcomings in terms of future-oriented surveillance. Increasingly functional large-scale data analytics systems promise to be able to “know” future events before they occur, whether potential clients or crimes, and to orient institutions towards most effectively exploiting future contingencies. Often understood through of Gilles Deleuze’s theory of “control,” critics have highlighted the creepy ways in which such digital technologies enable fine-grained, “modular” means of guiding people and things towards outcomes most desired by capital or the state. Without disagreeing with this basic analysis, this paper will contend that the “futural” narrative of modulation and soft control papers over the critical way in which these technological systems intervene in, and reformulate, digital archives. By producing urban banality as potential value, urban informatics transforms the city and its processes into a datamine – an accumulation of digital traces that promises nothing, but generates value for economy and security precisely because of this uncertainty. The possible future development of an algorithm or app that might retroactively make sense of a city that was  is a form of inhumanist archiving, or archiving from the future. The curatorial processes of imprinting and solidifying the meaning of the digital traces of life are retrofitted to purpose-obscure data sets. Rather than draw on an archive to make sense of a history or point to a future, analytics retroactively generate an archive that never was. In this weird archiving from the future, the “real” city becomes meaningful through the authorization of the datamine. This produces an ontoepistemological blurring in which the city of concrete and flesh oscillates back and forth between the speculative place of a predicted future yet to come and the retroactive authorization of its own reality in the app or algorithm Meat space becomes a haunting, a trace of a trail of a digital accumulation and calculative techniques.
R Joshua Scannell is a PhD candidate in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. His current research looks into “Big Data” driven predictive policing practices and urban informatics studies in New York City. His work focuses on the intersection of theories of the body, carceral racial capitalism and contemporary political economy.


Scott W. Schwartz, CUNY Graduate Center, Dept. of Anthropology
Uncontrollable Knowledge: Vulnerability in the Age of Algorithms  
This paper posits that control and domination are enacted through the privileging of predictive utility as the premier attribute of knowledge production. Through an excavation of vulnerability, I illustrate that contemporary power is built upon the naturalization of vulnerability as a malignancy to be suppressed. This problematic perception is based on hypothetical realities constructed out of probabilities derived from the quantification of reality. Quantified information is more amenable to projection, trendcasting, control and domination. Privileging quantifiable phenomena as the basis of knowledge production has led to a socially constructed schism between mutually exclusive categories known as real and unreal. That is, predictable, quantifiable phenomena is normalized as categorically more real than non-­‐ patterned, non-­‐reproducible, queer phenomena. My work traces the manifestation of this epistemology from the development of quarantine in response to plague in Europe and the cultivation of ‘contagious identities’ to the deferral of responsibility attendant with algorithmic decision-­‐making today. Drawing heavily from the queer ecology of Karen Barad and feminist scholar Ewa Ziarek, I discuss means of subverting the control at the heart of predictive knowledge production. Uncontrollable Knowledge, a revolt against the accumulation of data, observes non-­‐quantifiable, non-­‐predictive metrics – scrambling the data with information that cannot be employed towards enhancing predictive capacity (how many years per hour a tree grows, how many kilograms per meter a car weighs, the angle of a protest, the temperature of a law, the momentum of a commercial transaction, how many times I don’t fall down per day) – and injecting such metrics into the datastream algorithmically culled from social media. As Arendt asserts vulnerability is the price of mundane freedom. Freedom is the capacity for unpredictable action. Systems that suppress vulnerability suppress freedom. More gravely, only the dead are invulnerable.  
Scott W. Schwartz is an archaeologist focusing on the material culture of knowledge production. Specifically, I engage in the excavation of measuring instruments devised to construct and naturalize the quantifiable reality that has aided and enabled the prevailing contemporary epistemology of insidious growth. Drawing on Karen Barad’s assertion that meaning and matter cannot be separated, my aim is not to translate traces of material culture into discursive narratives, but rather to investigate the material strata of discursive concepts, such as vulnerability. I have conducted fieldwork in the North Atlantic, and am finishing my Ph.D. at the CUNY Graduate Center. 


Jake Silver, Duke University, Department of Cultural Anthropology
Deathly energies in the wake of the digital
Queer theory has long contemplated how the limits of life and death subscribe to heteronormative futurity (Edelman 2004; Muñoz 2009). Queers face violence, challenge reproductive projects, and die; straights live. To embrace death, then, is and has always been a queer orientation, one that challenges the legacy of homo oeconomicus, of the reproduction of both the human and of the (national) economy to which it is tethered (Berlant 2011). In the digital age, however, death is no longer a state that we can relegate to a radically separate ontology, one that Levinas once called essentially “ungraspable” (1987). The digital not only networks the living, but the digitized and growing archive of the dead (their images, thoughts, musings, writings) co-penetrates the social. While we still cannot understand what “being” dead is, in this paper I question how death unravels in this queer sociality, how and when it becomes lively, energetic, and political in a digital age that increasingly archives any and all deaths. To pair queerness and death alongside one another I find especially productive in an age of networked archival, as the many faces of queer and trans persons (particularly of color) that have encountered disproportionate violence, and in many cases have been murdered, stare back at us through our screens, meeting us, intimately communicating with us in otherworldly ways.
If queer (as well as black, indigenous, and female) states are always already prefigured as “deathly” or “deadened,” as Sharon Holland has argued (2000), then what does unraveling death do to a queer politics that is itself deathly? To unravel death as a process or a concept, in the first place, is necessarily queer, upsetting naturalized distinctions of the human, the other, and the virtual. In this paper, I drive forward Levinas’ notion that death is ungraspable—and thus, like queerness, I argue, unable to be fixed—to theorize what a queer sociality of the living and the dead may be. That we come in contact with the faces of the dead more than ever forces us to think seriously about how the dead act within and on politics. In opening up a space for this sociality, not only do I hope to queer the ontological and biological distinctions between life and death, but I also hope to question how queer, trans, black, female, and indigenous ontologies can, like death, similarly become lively, can penetrate and upset politics. To penetrate politics in this framework is not only theoretical, but it also has political, aesthetic, and everyday implications: how can queer collectives or individuals use new media to upset politics, how can the (queer) dead participate in this conversation, and how can the queer and the dead perhaps work together? This paper gives both death and queerness effectual rather than a wavering voices, voices that can confront biologisms, prejudices, and assimilations.
Jake Silver is a PhD Student in the Department of Cultural Anthropology whose research focuses on the intimate ways that we feel we come to know social and political worlds through various forms of mediation, particularly through new media and the interface.


Respondent: Daniel J Sander holds a BA in studio art from Reed College, MAs in Arts Politics and Performance Studies from NYU, and a PhD in Performance Studies from NYU. His transdisciplinary creative and academic work concerns the philosophy of desire, the psychopathology of deviance, libidinal materialism, and queer nihilism, and has been exhibited, published, and performed internationally.