Knitting and Knotting Love in the Network

»…love is Reality delighting in itself, in its own experience of differentiation, in the dance of life, in a cosmic game of hide and seek in which Reality, which is also each and everyone one of us and each and every perceivable and imperceptible thing, forgets itself, forgets its own divinity or liveness – in rediscovering that there is love.«Shaka McGlotten

Tantra as a technology for accessing reality? Yarn as an appropriate symbol for the messiness of relations in a network instead of a tidy, connecting line?
These are questions that seem almost randomly fished out of the complex topic-accumulation-pool of Shaka McGlotten’s mindset. In fact, they occurred as two of many questions, when we navigated the conversation about the map of Shaka’s various research interests reaching from fields of queer theory to technology, art, philosophy, sociology, and pop culture. Their topics of research that connect and weave these fields together include – to name just a few – zombies and sex, drag and voguing culture, black data, blackness, and gender, and academia’s relation to love. Titles of their publications like Zombie Sexuality: Essays on Desire and the Living Dead, Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect, and Queer Sociality, and Black Genders and Sexualities give a first impression of the multifaceted approach of Shaka McGlotten’s work. As a reaction to the complexity and variety of Shaka’s work this interview is the attempt to sneak into the way of thinking in these publications by discussing three artifacts that occur in their work. The reason we decided to choose the following objects/ideas was our impression that there are three interconnected overlying topics in Shaka’s research: sexuality, technology, and society. Although we are aware of more, we considered it a helpful reduction that could reach out to an unlimited set of connections made during the talk. The conversation developed loosely around the artifacts and started to generate a network of meaning by itself.

Artifact N.1: Blue Heart Emoji

»Blue heart emojis mean ›love you, thinking of you.‹ Yet it’s not that passionate red heart of romantic love. It’s stable, though, built in trust. The contrast would be ›I have never been not in love with you.‹« – Shaka McGlotten
Here, the blue heart emoji was chosen as a symbol for thoughts on love (and sexuality), that refuse to deconstruct love to a mere political concept and rather prefer searching for something between material/immaterial, permanence/impermanence, matter/energy. Be it in the context of spiritual concepts, pedagogy, or love mediated through social media channels.

Stefanie Bäuerle/Judith Engel: Can we experience love through social media channels?

Shaka McGlotten: Yes, we can experience love through social media. That is, one can find love through social media. I certainly have found romantic love in this way. My last long-term relationship began via a hook-up app. We joked that it was a »hook-up gone wrong.« Then there are the ways we can express our love through social media, from staying in regular touch with distant friends and family, to the unique emojis we send to our lovers. My partner Christoph has emphasized the experience of love as tied to technology this way: we can also be in love with social media itself, as well as the devices through which we access them. This introduces a layer of complexity insofar – as with our love relationships – these interactions with social media do not only involve attachment, but, possessiveness, awkwardness, even hatred! He put it this way, »Do you love your phone?« Engineers and designers are programming these devices to solicit our attention, and therefore they are soliciting and engineering us to love these media forms.

SB/JE: When it comes to academic research spiritual theories are often underrated as not-trustworthy/non-rational sources. In your latest essay, you refer to Tantric models on the concept of love. In what way do you consider spiritual theories as complementary to academic research?

SM: Years ago, I read an academic book by the woman who became my spiritual teacher for many years. It was called Avatar Bodies. In it, she brings together Tantric philosophy with the ideas of Deleuze, among others. There, one sees many similarities in the modes of thinking, even unacknowledged appropriation of concepts. A number of Tantric teachers were in Paris while Deleuze, Foucault, and Lacan were writing, for instance. It’s likely they were aware of this fact, though to my knowledge none addressed these contacts.

»Differences, including, importantly, the feeling of being separate, arise and are in many ways experienced as real, but they are not really differences either, because they emerge/differentiate from the same stuff, the same matter, energy, whatever you like.«Shaka McGlotten

To answer the question more directly, deconstruction’s notion of the simultaneity of absence and presence resonates with many key ideas in spiritual traditions like Tantra (not to mention physics). Things are there, and they aren’t, and they are both and neither there at the same time. In monist philosophies, from Spinoza to Deleuze and others, everything is made of the same stuff. Differences, including, importantly, the feeling of being separate arise and are in many ways experienced as real, but they are not really differences either, because they emerge/differentiate from the same stuff, the same matter, energy, whatever you like. One can also think about vitalist theories – everything is alive because everything that is is, so to speak. Finally, though this isn’t really an ending to this discussion, in conversations with academics one might find that they are deeply engaged in some spiritual practice like meditation, or they regularly consult psychics, or they pray, but for a variety of reasons, they do not write about or publicly address these practices, or their motivations for engaging them.

SB/JE: What is the meaning of love in the Tantric tradition? Is it comparable to a political concept of love?

SM: I don’t think the meaning of love in Tantra is a political concept, though it can perhaps have political implications. For example, Tantric philosophies decentered Brahmin hegemony over spiritual practice. It was casteless, and men and women could practice without leaving the ordinary world to become ascetics. And it’s a hard question to answer because although I have studied Tantric philosophy for eight years, I have barely begun to scratch the surface. That is the work of a lifetime, or many lifetimes! But here’s my best attempt for now: love is Reality delighting in itself, in its own experience of differentiation, in the dance of life, in a cosmic game of hide and seek in which Reality, which is also each and everyone one of us and each and every perceivable and imperceptible thing, forgets itself, forgets its own divinity or liveness – in rediscovering that there is love. In many Tantric perspectives, this cosmic dance is imagined as the play of lovers. Unlike many other Eastern and Western traditions, which see romantic love as delusional or dangerous, Tantra views things like romantic love favorably or at least neutrally – the scholar-practitioner Daniel Odier gestures toward this idea that mature love is non-neurotic. I think that what he means by this is that in the efforts spiritual practitioners undertake to directly encounter Reality, certain forms of attachment can reproduce or intensify rather than relax our fixations, our patterned ways of relating to the world, and especially the sense that we are separate. I certainly have not learned this lesson yet!

»I love storytelling. […] It is a way of connecting to readers in an intimate way, to gather their interest and curiosity. I want people who read my work to be moved by it.«Shaka McGlotten

SB/JE: Very often you choose a specific character as a starting point of your research, comparable to the structure of Paris is Burning, the famous voguing documentary you also cite in your work. What is special about this kind of approach and how would you define the notion of intimacy in it?

SM: I am a nerd who has loved reading since I was a child. I’m an anthropologist too. So, I like to begin with characters and scenes in order to tell a story. I love storytelling. For me this is a way to engage readers, to draw them into a particular world. It is a way of connecting to them in an intimate way, to gather their interest and curiosity.

I want people who read my work to be moved by it. Sometimes, though, I’ve found myself repeating this technique so much that I tire of it! For example, I often work in triads: »Here are three scenes …« I’ve done that over and over again! I’ve been struggling with this issue lately and I am called more and more to alternative ways of extending a text. I was trained as a visual artist so I’m hoping to bring some of these ideas into the world differently – through web pages, apps, visualizations, and material artifacts. My time at Schloss Solitude has been instrumental in this thinking, as has Christoph, who is constantly pushing me to think with but also beyond a text-based practice.

Artifact N.2:
Mask Derived From Biometric Data by Artist Zach Blas

»In recent and upcoming projects, artist-theorist Zach Blas offers creative hacks that disrupt new biometric technologies of the face. The collaborative Facial Weaponization Suite contests the ideological and technical underpinnings of face-based surveillance. In this community-based project, masks are collectively produced ›from the aggregated facial data of participants.‹ His Fag Face Mask responds directly to studies on sexual orientation and facial cue recognition and offers ways to induce failures into these technologies. Fag Face Mask uses facial data from queer men, creating a composite that is then rendered by a 3D printer. The resulting mask is a blob, an unreadable map«. (McGlotten 2016: 272)

The mask was chosen as a symbol for technology to discuss the connection between big data, black data, gender, stereotypes, and masking techniques from voguing culture. The focus was on Shaka’s perspective on how technology affects and affirms stereotypes of marginalized groups of society instead of protecting them.

SB/JE: Which possibilities of masking/hiding do exist in the age of big data?

SM: It’s hard to »go dark«, to become opaque, to escape the capture of these various technologies. One really has to go to serious and inconvenient lengths to hide one’s life in today’s control societies. It would mean working with cash, using encrypted means to engage the web, not to mention staying away from social media and smartphones entirely and for good. It would even entail avoiding certain kinds of record keeping, like filing taxes, or filing your residence here in Germany. Still, some people manage to do it. But for most of us I think we want to be connected, and we are largely unaware of the ways we are constantly being hailed, solicited, by these technologies. There is really a demand to participate. Not to participate is a kind of threat – can you have a life outside of social media? Dare you? Do you want to be alone? Even underground scenes, like the voguing ballroom scene, circulate through media channels. For these communities, there is a simultaneous desire to achieve a degree of visibility while resisting the voyeuristic gazes of outsiders. Look, for example, at Ballroom Throwbacks. Their YouTube channel is an amazing resource for learning about ballroom culture. It is also for that community. They also have a website with original programming.

»Even underground scenes, like the voguing ballroom scene, circulate through media channels. For these communities, there is a simultaneous desire to achieve a degree of visibility while resisting the voyeuristic gazes of outsiders.«Shaka McGlotten

SB/JE: Is masking/hiding more an ambivalence or a dualism? And based on this, do you see more dangers or chances for marginalized groups of society performing this way?

SM: Well, in terms of things like political protests, in many places it’s now forbidden to wear masks. Just as in France it’s forbidden to wear the niqab, and the argument is that the state needs to see its citizens faces? Why? The answer is biopolitics. The state needs access to the faces of its citizens because facial biometrics are becoming an important tool for political power to track and manage its population. At the same time, there are ways, as I say above, to go dark or to disappear. More people use encrypted messaging apps, for example. There is the TOR browser, VPNs, and password managers, alongside other ways to erect a wall of privacy around at least some of your engagements with digital media. In applications like Snapchat, images disappear. Still it’s hard to imagine that these images totally disappear from Snapchat’s servers. I do think that masking/hiding are fundamentally ambivalent. States and corporations see us, and, often, we want to be seen. One of the most poignant themes in Paris is Burning is the desire of the figures to be famous, to escape their marginalization and invisibility against all odds of that ever happening. The film is a tremendously important resource for queer-identified people, especially queer people of color, yet at the time voguing was made famous less by the communities that created it than by Madonna. There is always something awkward and incomplete about visibility. It’s not the same as political recognition; it’s not necessarily going to get you out of the ghetto.

SB/JE: The practices of Reading and Throwing Shade that developed in voguing culture emerges very often in your work. What does it mean? It seems to be more of an oral or physical technique. Is there an equivalent writing practice, too?

SM: Voguing is oral and gestural, but can be expressed in writing as well. I use a lot of humor in my work, and I often grapple with issues that are considered transgressive or taboo. In these ways I am reading or casting shade on more traditional academic approaches, especially those that are unnecessarily abstract or simply boring. This also is a way of saying: hey, gurl, I’m here, and I’m black and queer! 💋

»There is always something awkward and incomplete about visibility. It’s not the same as political recognition; it’s not necessarily going to get you out of the ghetto.«Shaka McGlotten

SB/JE: What’s love got to do with it — the technique of »masking«?

SM: Hmmm, this one is difficult to think through. Most of us want to make our romantic relationships public. Though for some, like many gay men or other men who don’t identify as gay but who have sex with other men, they want to mask what’s going on. Terms like »discreet« or »down-low« articulate in interesting ways with techniques of masking. There are other circumstances too — the notion of the »closet« itself is a kind of masking or obscuring. But interestingly the demand to come out is exactly that, a demand to be transparent, which I think actually limits scope of one’s identifications, as well as erotic opportunities in a way. Here I’m thinking of Foucault and Eve Sedgwick. Once one confesses the truths of one’s sexuality, then one might be hemmed in by that declaration. I can therefore understand the reluctance of people who refuse to come out. Also, on a very material level, one shouldn’t be constrained by the identities one cleaves to. Historians of queerness have pointed this out in a related way: contemporary identities do not map neatly onto the practices of the past. And one finds all kinds of interesting actually existing configurations and practices. Lesbians can sleep with gay men, for instance. Bisexuals are not equally gay or straight. And erotic desires, whether for particular acts or particular bodies, change as well, and I think perhaps they should, or at least I view that as quite a positive thing. Human sexuality is so much more diverse than available identity categories afford for. In the course I teach on drag, I begin with a quote by Foucault: »The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.« I would add to this too: »something else that you were not in the beginning!«

Artifact N.3: Distributed Network + Black Box

The third artifact is an unequal twin of artifacts: the model of the distributed network by Paul Baran and the black box well known from models for communication systems.
The double artifact was chosen as a symbol for the huge, overall topic of society. It was decided to represent this topic through two artifacts, because they show the same model from different angles. The artifacts serve here to think about how society/networks can be imagined and what does this mean for the society based on the idea of this model. How is this topic linked to technology, especially concerning the network being considered the underlying structure of digital culture, on the one hand Facebook, on the other hand activist groups like Anonymous?

SB/JE: How are the two artifacts related? Can the black box be considered the node of the distributed network?

SM: I think the black box can be a node in the network in which we don’t know what’s going on, or in which so much is going on that we can’t actually see it. But I also think the whole schematic of the network can be understood as a black box. One thinks one knows what the lines are — say a communication network — as well as the nodes — a server farm or a community. But this is really a very abstract overlay that masks as much as it reveals. People like Tim Ingold and Donna Haraway critique the classic model of the network precisely because it is a kind of imperial inheritance, a desire to map and schematize and order the world in particular ways. Then, too, there is the mystery of the black box, a kind of pleasure in the unknowability of what is happening inside. Anonymous, which to be clear is not a coherent group nor does it represent any kind of consistent politics, throws elements of chaos into this network. They, or at least some who might be affiliated it, often do know what’s going on inside — like some computer engineers or computer scientists — and they can take pleasure in this knowledge and deploy that knowledge to various ends, even if only »for the lulz.«

»Audre Lorde famously said that the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house.By this she meant that one can’t use the same techniques of violence to undo violence. Personally, though, I do think there’s room for various forms of revolutionary, even violently revolutionary, insurrection.«Shaka McGlotten

SB/JE: Can you change an established structure by using the same materials as the structure you are trying to abolish? An example given by your partner Christoph that added the necessary concreteness was the model of a relationship and the question how a queer relationship can reflect on long established role models/structures.

SM: Audre Lorde famously said that the »master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house.« By this she meant that one can’t use the same techniques of violence to undo violence. Personally, though, I do think there’s room for various forms of revolutionary, even violently revolutionary insurrection. Other models, such as ideas about restorative justice or prefigurative politics, are about creating a commons and living already in the world one wants to create. I’ve been very interested in Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s ideas about »the undercommons,« which I can’t claim to understand completely. But one thing I take from the concept is that one doesn’t always have to confront structures directly, that many of these confrontations reproduce precisely the forms of power one seeks to undermine. Feminist theorists like Teresa de Lauretis, among others, have made similar points about the way some feminists deploy the notion of »woman,« which simply serves to reiterate a sense of essential, binarized sexual differences. Moten and Harney suggest instead that we might take refuge in a fugitive undercommons, which I think of as an already existing alternate reality.

When it comes to queer relationships, I think many of the same tensions are present. Is love dyadic? Monogamous? Should it be oriented toward reproduction? What is a love relationship’s relationship to capital and consumerism? Hence you have critiques of »homonormativity« — like the demand to be let in to the embrace of the state, to participate in all of the benefits attendant to late capitalist cultures, benefits contigent on military hegemony, expropriation of resources, and dispossession of the majority of the world’s population. In key ways I think queer relationships have queered the ways we might think about love and intimacy. But in other ways they are also made of the same stuff — romantic and sexual attraction, the profound need to feel like one belongs, the likewise profound need to feel attached to someone or something. Non-monogamy, intergenerational love, alternate kin structures — these are all ways queer forms of relating that can provide alternative models to more traditional structures of relating. Few of us, however, can help but be interpellated by social pressures. That’s very difficult to navigate. To take one example: marriage. I often critiqued queer desires to marry, or I believed that marriage should be a political commitment — like when one helps someone obtain insurance or a legal residency status. But I’ve been gay married, and I wouldn’t mind doing it again! Some critiques of queer marriage, in their insistence that it simply reproduces all of the violences of that institution, seem to miss the many material ways gay marriage is different, as well as the ways it makes the institution more elastic. Not to mention that if queer political projects are ultimately about broadening the range of affective investments, then we should include within that array of choices the choice to be married!

SB/JE: If we consider the last question in relation to the model of a society, is the structure of a network appropriate or do we need to get rid of the image that defines relationships through straight lines with a gap in between that has always the same length, i.e., the distance of two knots is always the same and not flexible or in an always changing state. Like a tangled orbit for example, with junctions.

SM: Relationships are already like this, in spite of what Jack Halberstam has called something like the demands of »straight time,« in which one’s life is laid out in a predetermined way: childhood, schooling, job, marriage, kids. Very few people’s relationships follow such a simple trajectory. They’re always interrupted by things like divorce or illness, to name only two. Additionally, people dwell in many alternative formations, like long-term partnerships in which other people may be added (the »throuple« isn’t new but it is being newly articulated as such). On a basic level our attachments are, to borrow again from spiritual traditions or deconstruction or psychoanalysis — take your pick — impermanent, ambivalent. That’s why in one of my essays I use the image of yarn. It’s made up of threads, often though not always drawn from living things, and it can be knitted, it can become knotted, it can be elaborated. It’s malleable. I like the image of a tangled orbit, too. Bodies, attachments, desires, pleasures can orbit one another in complicated ways, and they can decay too, fall out of orbit.

SB/JE: How is bondage connected to the idea of network models as they both seem to be built upon the technique of knotting?

SM: I’m not sure how to answer this, but to begin I’m not sure the nodocentric model of the network represents a knotting exactly — here I’m indebted to Zach Blas, Donna Haraway, and Tim Ingold. Even the many instances in which thinkers, like Alex Galloway and Eugene Thacker, discuss the ways networks represent and embody systems of control, I think there is always a kind of trace of what we could call the imperial origins of this model, which is related somehow to western traditions of mapping. So even critiques of the effects that accrue to networks – from their relations to war machines, guerrilla insurrections, attention engineering, or environmental catastrophe – have this weird tendency to flatten things out. I think of Baran’s network models as grids laid down upon existing, and extraordinarily complex, relations between people, non- (or more-than) humans, and technologies. Networks move in lines to points, but there are other kinds of lines, as Tim Ingold points out. Lines can move in curlicues. A line of a wanderer leaves traces. There are the lines that connect past to present to present to future as an infinite series of possibilities. So I guess what I’m wondering about here is whether we are knotted to the nodocentric model, or bound to it. As I say above, I much prefer the image of yarn or of the mesh. Or in Tantra, or in love, the weaving, stitching, knotting together that connects an impossibly vast collection of materialities, immaterialities, affects, bodies, pleasures, times, worlds.