Mohammed Cheded and Alexandros Skandalis
Our story starts with an initial observation of how our interactions with surfaces, objects, and other humans have changed tremendously, after touch and contact have become heavily policed during the COVID-19 pandemic. By discussing processes of prohibiting and policing touch and contact, we refer to such juridical processes enforced by governmental structures, as well as those implemented by individuals and collectives based on their own sense-making of biomedical rationalities around epidemic control (as well as other modes of reasoning).
In this bizarre real-life scenario, we started viewing the outside world (outside our ‘homes’) as impure and then became afraid or sceptical of contact and touch. We sanitised our laptops to give us access to a virtual ‘outside’ world as a means to cope: thus, resulting in a policing of touch and a reframing of contact. However, a significant part of the socialization process is lost in translation due to the digitalisation of entertainment and community formation. Or is it really lost? In line with de la Fuente (2019), we could ask how will the world be shaped and sensed in a post-COVID-19 society?
An event description for a queer digital fetish party made us reflect on the latter. The event was organised as part of the 2020 edition of digital pride. The excerpt of interest from the event reads: “the digital space is not an unknown territory for many LGBTQI+ people, as these were the spaces where many of us took the first steps in exploring our identities”. Indeed, there is a historical relationship between queer communities and digital technologies in fostering and nurturing embodied socialities in safer environments – particularly when corporeal possibilities of touch and contact were limited.
Queer practices have been long infused with textural sensibilities while – at the same time – touch and contact have been historically policed for queer people, whether this was performed through juridical or societal norms. Queer touch and contact have historically been constructed as something deviant and abject, and therefore regulated culturally and legally. As Butler (1988: 526) notes, ‘the gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space and enacts interpretations within the confines of already existing directives’. Subsequently, queer folks had to identify creative ways to find and bond with like-minded people in a safe environment in order to engage in performative, non-heteronormative practices which challenge heterosexuality. As such, it is not surprising to see that queer communities have been pioneers in utilising digital technologies to connect with each other. For instance, the launch of the geolocation dating apps Grindr and Scruff for gay men, in 2009 and 2010 respectively, have completely transformed the world’s dating scene into a gamified erotic terrain wherein ‘bodies, places, and identities are discursively constructed through the interplay of virtual and physical experience’ (Roth, 2014: 2113). The effects of the usage of geolocation technologies for dating has since moved beyond queer spaces with the development of dating apps such as Tinder in 2012, and many other apps that followed for queer and straight folks alike. Although these dating apps highlight the gradual transition of queer people online (along with the decline of historic gay institutions), we still lack a solid understanding of the variety of ways through which such online apps influence and shape existing interpersonal relationships and practices in offline contexts. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that some of these spaces constituted a fertile terrain for the reproduction of systems of oppression and inequality such as racism, ableism, xenophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, and so on. For instance, it is only after the global protests after the murder of George Floyd that Grindr finally removed the ‘ethnicity filter’ – a move that has been considered insufficient to tackle the rampant racism and xenophobia on the dating app. Therefore, an intersectional approach is essential to ensure that the process of digitization of queer spaces (and the reframing of touch and contact subsequently) are safe and inclusive.
Digital spaces can be joined either synchronously or asynchronously, meaning that both ‘temporal’ and ‘spatial’ setups of the encounter are metamorphosed. A careful crafting of the ‘material’ and ‘symbolic’ dimensions of the space is necessary for enacting a rich experience of interaction. This is a space where the clash and tensions between soft (such as art and aesthetics) and hard (such as technology and economic rationality) textural qualities are not just an issue to be overcome, but a necessity to bring into being new forms of human encounters. In other words, queer digital spaces re-orient the intimacy of social relationships and interactions towards specific embodied qualities. The intra-activity between humans and screens (as well as other materialities) provides both challenges and alternatives to the power of touch to symbolise human interactions. Aesthetics play an important role in reframing contact and interaction from various qualities of ‘touch’ (such as texture, shape, temperature, and vibration) to being confined with those of ‘sight’ (such as colour, shape, movement complexity, and depth) and ‘hearing’ (pitch, rhythm, harmony, and dissonance). The effects of these aesthetic qualities are ‘produced on and through the live and lively bodies of audiences’ (Hawhee, 2009: 13). The flow of matter-energy shifts from a multi-sensorial experience to one that focuses on auditory and visual stimuli.
Furthermore, and following the work of Karan Barad, the current pandemic pushes us to think of touch beyond conventional phenomenological framings of hapticity, and consider the vast alternative possibilities of intimacy (such as haptic encounters through language) through a quantum ontology perspective. The queering and digitisation of interaction, touch and contact requires creativity, resilience, and courage. The life-threatening climate of the pandemic, alongside the feelings of loneliness driven by both lockdown measures and fear of the unknown, as well as queer folks’ attachment to the sense of community, inscribe these digital encounters and gatherings in transformation processes of unbecoming and becoming that are intertwined with textures marked by both unison and anxiety. This is further exacerbated in countries where government regulations around touch and contact are intertwined with heteronormative framings of ‘support bubble’ (such as the case of the UK) – thereby privileging a heteronormative construction of nuclear household as a primary source of support, which leaves queer people (including polyamorous folks) in further uncertainty and at risk of discrimination by local authorities. As Miles (2017: 1607) notes, the ‘hybridisation of virtual and embodied domains expedites new encounters’ which bring about a series of tensions which lie between ‘the generative potential of ubiquitous technology and ambivalence towards the implications of being so plugged-in’ online and call for a more critical understanding of ‘how technology mediates real-life social and sexual encounters in embodied space’.
In light of COVID-19, it is therefore important to develop a digital textural sociological understanding of both current and historical experiences of queer resilience and queer creativity in mobilising digital technologies to create digital entertainment spaces that engage artists, creatives, organisers, promoters and audiences in times where contact and touch are policed in light of COVID-19.
Dr Alex Skandalis is a Lecturer in Marketing and Consumer Culture at Lancaster University. His research interests revolve around cultural sociology, consumer culture, and cultural industries, amongst others. A key aspect of his research relates to aesthetics and musical taste and the phenomenology of music spaces and experiences in various social fields. His work has appeared in several academic journals and one of his recent research projects was published in Sociology.
Mo Cheded teaches and researches at the Department of Organisation, Work & Technology at Lancaster University. Coming from a transdisciplinary background, his research interests revolve around identity construction, gender, genetics, and human enhancement technologies, amongst others. When he’s not teaching or researching, you’ll probably find him dancing – most likely hip hop, waacking, or voguing. He tweets @mohammedcheded