Queer Viralities: On Technologies and Weapons of Queerness

I will articulate what a queer viral politics could be by examining the overlappings,
differences, and irreducibilities of the virus (biological entity) and the viral (characteristics of the virus applied to other things). I will consider the virus/viral relation along two axes: 1) the dominant axis, from virus to viral based on replication and cryptography, 2) the imperceptible axis, based on thinking the virus as a diagram for an unrecognizable never-being-the-sameness. I will explore these axises in relation to the the art collective I founded, Queer Technologies.

*note: this paper is already over 20 typed pages; shortening this research is incredibly difficult, so my apologies that this text is a bit longer*

Queer Viralities: On Technologies and Weapons of Queerness

Queerness and the viral connect on numerous fronts, to its histories with HIV/AIDS, controlling medical practices and rhetorics to bare-backing subcultures and anti-capitalist tactics and frameworks. The virus carries along with it themes common to queerness, such as risk, transgression, amorphousness, and multiplicity. Queerness could be said to exist in a paradoxical relation to the virus, as it is both subjected to viral control yet also finds the virus playful and pleasurable.

A queer interest in the virus might be to experiment with parsing the dominant configurations of the virus and the viral. What a virus is and does cannot only be extracted into the qualifier viral just as the qualities of the viral cannot be reduced to the virus. We could say a virality, or viral, is one of many possible identities of the virus (constructed by the human) or that the viral is a creative opening / disturbance into fictions of the virus. Just as queerness has pulled apart supposedly causal relations between sex, sexuality, gender, and subjectivity, a queer viral politics must experiment with parsing the virus and viral in search of minor, or alternative, viralities. A queer viral politics is one way to expand queerness into the realm of the nonhuman.

Today, everything has seemingly gone viral: there are virus outbreaks, fears of vaccine shortages, Anti-Viral Kleenex, PC computer viruses, and AntiVirus Security Software; and just as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have described the new world order’s institutional structure “like a software program that carries a virus along with it, so that it is continually modulating and corrupting the institutional forms around it,” there is now viral marketing, viral advertising, and viral media to aid, support, and propagate this structure  (Hardt and Negri 2001, 197-198). Concurrently, there is the emergence of theories like viral ecology, viral philosophy, viral capitalism, viral politics, viral affect, and viral aesthetics to diagnose our culture. Perhaps theorist Thierry Bardini is right to suggest that the virus is the major trope of the postmodern condition.

These instances help us attempt to answer the question: What are our viral politics today? While Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker have written that “viruses and diseases are obviously not to be looked at as models for progressive political action,” our contemporary moment forces and urges us to look there (Galloway and Thacker 2007, 96). Galloway and Thacker hint that the virus, as a product of globalization and conquest as well as computer security and digital control, is a dead end for radical politics. Yet, political art collectives like The Electronic Disturbance Theater, 0100101110101101.org, and Queer Technologies use the virus as an anti-capitalist tactic. If these groups create a notion of the virus|viral that does not simply coincide with capitalism, are there other possibilities for a radical viral politics that could function differently?

Virus|Virus 1: Action, or Replication and Cryptography

Representations of the virus|viral today typically hinge on rapid spreadability and mutation. In fact, wherever one looks, the virus has gained the most attention through its abilities to replicate and disseminate. In line with this perspective of the virus, Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, two theorists who have written extensively on viruses, state that the virus is “life exploiting life,” that is, viruses take advantage of their host entities to generate more copies of themselves (2007, 83). The virus succeeds in producing its copies through a process Galloway and Thacker refer to as “never-being-the-same” (2007, 87). Maintaining within itself the ability to continuously mutate its code with each reproduction, the virus propagates itself. Defining the virus based on action, they write:

Replication and cryptography are thus the two activities that define the virus. What counts is not that the host is a “bacterium,” “an animal,” or a “human.” What counts is the code–the number of the animal, or better, the numerology of the animal. [...] The viral perspective is “cryptographic” because it replicates this difference, this paradoxical status of never-being-the-same. [...] What astounds us is that the viral perspective presents the animal being and creaturely life in an illegible and incalculable manner, a matter of chthonic calculations and occult replications (2007, 87).

While social media and viral marketing stress the replication and spreadability of the virus, it ignores the virus’ mutating, never-being-the-sameness. Current theorizations of capitalism, however, focus on both the replication and mutation of the virus. Media theorist Jussi Parikka takes Hardt and Negri’s assertion that capitalism is like a virus further in his writings on viral capitalism. He notes that capitalism is now viral in that it is capable of continuous modulation and heterogenesis (Parikka 2007, 96). “The commodity,” he writes, “works as a virus–and the virus part of the commodity circuit” (2007, 97). Viral capitalism replicates itself through a mutating act of never-being-the-sameness, that is, it continuously modulates and reproduces to maintain a global infection. Viral capitalism is another gesture toward theorizing our phase of control capitalism, which has many other labels–ludic capitalism, Empire, protocological control, Deleuzian Capitalism, and digital and liquid capitalism, all underscoring unstable, rapid fluxes of unhuman flows that induce a general commodification of life itself. Viral capitalism highlights the “infectious” nature of this multiplicitous, morphing control process.

Queer Technologies has, at times, described it work as a viral aesthetics, producing works that attempt to subversively mutate, spread, and modulate in antagonistic relation to capitalism’s own mutating, modulating structure. This has led us to forms of corporate parody and critical design and branding. QT produces queer commodities that attempt to infect capital’s logics and infectiously spread throughout its networks. This work strongly connects to a history of tactical media and hacktivism. View Queer Technologies’ work here. Watch Queer Technologies: Gay Bombs Instruction Video, or How to Build and Use a Gay Bomb.

Virus|Viral 2: Escape

As Queer Technologies began to focus on developments in biometric technologies and their impact on governing bodies’ formations of the definition of identity, we returned to Galloway and Thacker’s concept of never-being-the-sameness and began to formulate a viral as a diagram of escape from forms of recognition-control. Galloway and Thacker have written that, “The next century will be the era of universal standards of identification [...] Henceforth, the lived environment will be divided into identifiable zones and nonidentifiable zones, and nonidentifiables will be the shadowy new ‘criminal’ classes–those that do not identify” (Galloway and Thacker 2009, 259-260). Agamben has previously argued for something similar in The Coming Community: “A being radically devoid of any representable identity would be absolutely irrelevant to the State” (Agamben 1993, 85). What are the techniques for such a practice in relation to biometrics and queerness? What must be done to resist standardizations of recognition and identity capture? Is this viral something that has a presence but aids in processes of cloaking, making invisible, escaping, all through a shifting, altering physical volume. Is this viral dimension a tactic to critically evade identity and recognition control while maintaining a poetic and political never-being-the-sameness?

We have begun to explore this viral through a project titled Facial Weaponization Suite that is focusing on techniques to resist facial recognition capture by becoming unrecognizable with masks fabricated from gay male facial biometric data. We consider these masks weapons, based on various political protest tactics that conceptualize wearing a face as being armed.

Watch Queer Technologies: Fag Face Instruction Video, or How to Escape Your Face.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. 1993. The Coming Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Galloway, Alexander R. and Thacker, Eugene. 2007. The Exploit: A Theory of Networks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Galloway, Alexander R. and Thacker, Eugene. 2009. “On Narcolepsy.” The Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn, and Other Anomalies From the Dark Side of Digital Culture. Cresskill: Hampton Press.

Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Parikka, Jussi. 2007. Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses. New York: Peter Lang.

4 thoughts on “Queer Viralities: On Technologies and Weapons of Queerness

  1. I think technologies of people and objects recognition by computer vision constitute one of the most interesting fields of problems and creative researches nowadays. I’ve been working on this issues for quite a long time as well. Despite of not having a very accentuated critical tone, works like Sophie (Ribeiro and Baio, 2010) aim to discuss a context in which the image (or the media dispositif) is what evaluates the public and what likes or dislikes who looks at it, inverting the relation between who watches and what is being watched.
    An aspect that caught my attention in the text was the attention given to the viruses’ properties, such as replication and cryptography. The idea of a “never-being-the-same” virus sounds very interesting to me when you think of a culture of virus or of the virus in culture. However, I was interested in understanding if a video or viral advertising, for example, wouldn’t need to avoid the repetition of previous patterns in order to function (ideas that have already been considered). It seems to me that, in order to achieve the proposition of replication, it’s important do encrypt: “change the code”.

    On the other hand, it is the political dimension of the text and of the Queer Technologies project that gives a radical force to the proposition, expanding the discussion towards economical fields, areas of the use of technology and even of social relations. Such posture is urgent and critical in the search for an escape from the growing sophistication of control devices.

  2. I’m having trouble understanding the quote: “A queer viral politics is one way to expand queerness into the realm of the nonhuman”. – If nonhuman what is it then?

    You claim that everything has seemingly gone viral, so the virus is to be understood as the compatible – the mainstream? You claim that Queer Technologies uses the virus as as anti-capitalist tactic, and being that QT is a critical project, that would mean the concept of the virus is used in another way that the normal? There are different ways of understanding and using viral techniques – the normal mainstream way and the critical rebellious way. I don’t know if that really is a question – I’m just trying to follow your way of thought.

  3. I find your approach to the in/compatible theme to be both obvious and puzzling (which I guess is adequate). My question concerns if you are considering what we might call the different physiological or sensory aspects of the virus and viral strategies and how to discern between them? As you point out, one significant feature of the virus is mutation. Another one, then, might be permeation or penetration which obviously has do to with how virus enter bodies and systems. I came to think of this via Steve Goodman’s considerations on “audio virology” and “the contagiousness of vibrational events” (Goodman, 2010). The effectiveness of a sonic viral phenomenon (from infrasounds to muzak) would then clearly be related to its way of entering our perceptual system through various sensory receptors – the cochlear system, skin, etc. – and to its subsequent resonating within the body. Goodman connects this to a general “politics of frequencies” which allows him to both address a number of discourses on noise, silencing, and controlling, and to link digital algorithms with the physical, bodily impact of sound. And I simply wondered if one can detect other such politics or similar conceptions in relation to different types of viruses and their inherent physicality or (im)material spectrum which might open up new perspectives for critical discussion?