Queer Precarity and the Digital Epistemology of Chaos

Scrolling through my Activity Log, an option on Facebook that allows the user to access posts from past years, I recovered the following status from August 2012 (which I have slightly re-edited here to remove typos and awkward expressions):


Queers vs. Homosexuals and Austerity.

I think that crisis turned 'queer' into a much more preferable term than gay. The meaning of queerness extends far beyond the idea of ‘men having sex with men’. This term reinvented a different version of adulthood, pointing towards alternatively hedonic life skills.

Queerness is the weird and persistent ability to nurture emotion, sexuality, and self-decency while being vulnerable and weak.

It heralds the ability to be creative while being non-productive — to be sexual without sex — friendly without friends —wealthy without money.

In this universe, erotic subversion is not limited to gay yuppies dressed in leather:
it includes heterosexual or homosexual people who keep on meeting strange people, strange ideas, and strange places -- while struggling to survive.


Posted in between statements that declare ‘that mozzarella is the most overrated cheese ever’ (in English) and praising (in Greek) the poem of a blogger for ‘tenderly caressing the craving of an unfulfilled erotic desire’, the above status points to the psycho-aesthetic use of Facebook and its importance as a creative tool. Rather than being used solely as a means for ‘connecting with friends’ and ‘family’, Facebook walls operate as a micro-blog. Manifestos on queer politics mix with spontaneous expressions of taste on food and poetry, transgressing the limitations — and sometimes, the brutality — of material, geographical, and professional constraints. The date of the post, August 2012, marks almost one year after I concluded my doctoral research. During summertime, I was unemployed, living on less than £70 pounds per week (the UK jobseekers allowance). I received housing benefits (that covered only part of my rent) and lived in a housing share with five other people. At the beginning of each academic year, I worked as a paid-by-the-hour teaching assistant for a few hours per week.

In posting these ideas on Facebook, they are not ‘officially’ published, ‘paid’, or rewarded with academic status. They work in a different way. The discussion of the meaning of queerness here is a direct impulse, an emotive use of reasoning. It is not a well-designed act of professional communication. It is an exhibitionistic approach to failure — or, perhaps, a way of pronouncing the ability to tell one’s story (through ideas) against the inability to create one’s life: to have a salary, a home, a sense of adult control over life — while also enjoying the networked pleasures of interlocutors, friends, lovers, and audiences. This tense dialogue between a style of expression and a style of materiality — or perhaps, the dialogue between the experience of austerity and its digital aestheticisation — points towards some of the theoretical trends productive for an aesthetic reading of social media. These ideas were expanded, both practically and theoretically, in the series of images, ideas, and stories that framed the transformation of The Homonazi Effect into a transmedia performance. A central feature of this approach is the understanding of art as a process, a series of acts, relations, expressions, and disruptions to the flow of daily experience. This idea of art as a mix of gestures — rather than as an object or a story with a beginning, a middle and an end — is not new. Rather, it communicates with older and renowned artistic theory and practice.

Art as Process

This disruptive use of a digital multi-space — through stories, postures and interactions — is a distant echo of Michel de Certeau’s interruptive ‘tactics’ of moving (1984). Against the commercial and functional ordering of urban planning, Certeau’s notion of tactics suggested unpredictable ways of walking, remapping, and recreating social space. This view — according to which new forms of urban experience can shape a utopian creativity — also resonates with Situationist approaches to art and politics. Situationists understood aimless walks through the city — the so-called dérive — as rebellious artistic pleasure (Debord, 1956). Their avant-garde manifestos called for a theatre of interventionist aesthetics, and their urban forms of emotional navigation attacked the commercialised arrangements of bodies and images. The act of living (made up of situations) is juxtaposed with that of seeing (made up of spectacles). The exploration of psychic space counteracts the relentless organisation of historical life as an immaterial exchange of images. By drifting aimlessly, creatively, and unproductively, the creators of situations do not just consume art, but rather become art themselves. Parallel to these playful forms of flânerie, these artists and intellectuals celebrated tournement — the ironic reinterpretation of images and disruptive reuse of advertising posters, cinematic snapshots, and other popular genres of expression, from crime novels to comic strips (Debord and Wolman, 1956).

The internet has provided tools for analogous forms of creative war. In previous writings both in and out of academic contexts, I have discussed in more detail how troll-attacks have popularised disruptive, comical, and chaotic reuses of digital imagery (Papadopoulos, 2015). My collaboration with a digital troll persona was integral in deconstructing the self-presentational theatre of the gay Nazi in The Homonazi Effect. These artistic polemics can inform ways to re-experience the geographies of cyberspace. The internet, and more particularly Facebook, is often explored (and imagined) as a digital megacity, a huge and spectacular arrangement of the psychic landscape. Users express and reflect on their movements through space, whether cyber, urban, dreamy, sexual, or domestic. How to Use a Gay Nazi in Job Interviews revolves around cyber- flâneurs who archive, reinterpret, and disseminate their online and offline tactics of movement — both across spaces but also their roles within spaces. The queer unemployed academic becomes a parody of a neo-Nazi and the neo-Nazi becomes of a parody of a precarious job-seeker. Psycho-geographical endeavours bridge cityscapes with digital landscapes, troubling the distinction between digital and physical. Venice, Manchester, and Athens merge into a dystopian playground in which all discomforts are presented on screen as plots of adventure and style. Social media ‘diaries’ provide the space to counteract productive acts of self-promotion with alternative declarations about working ethics and (anti-)productivity: broke holidays become artistic production and failed job-interviews become poetic posture.


While the Situationists condemned the world of spectacle — that is, the image-based organisation of social and aesthetic experience — the artistic practice that I discuss here propagates a much more nuanced picture of the pleasure of being an image, or even the pleasure of the consuming one’s selfhood as an image. Self-observance is approached here as a psycho-material battle or source of counter-knowledge, ultimately renegotiating vulnerability and euphoria against uncertainty and defeat. Where the Situationists read spectacle as deceit and exploitation, this artistic practice declares that there can be no utopia without imagination, self-deception, and narcissism. The pleasures of the mind, the art of self-invention, and daydreaming will always stage attacks against the material and psychological misery of what is seen as ‘real’ — as well as the historically grounded readings of inequality and defeat. Strictly prescribed measurements of morality would never stop people from violating uncomfortable truths through acts, images, and fantasies. Escapism is here approached as a recurrently explosive component of the human condition, one that takes multiple forms across history and societies and readapting itself against new social and technological configurations of fantasy: temples, museums, cinemas, computers, mobile phones. No utopian thinking remains utopian by claiming to produce pleasures that are only rooted in truth and materiality. On the other hand, digital fantasy is not seen here as the ultimate instrument of radical change. The art of producing oneself as a digital image — a story told through images and words — generates a continuous dialectic, an alerted overview of pleasures and ethics, which relentlessly vacillates between skepticism and celebration, as well as hedonic and disastrous experiences of visual technologies. This direction also leads to another important debate on politics and digital communication.

The Political Aesthetics of Facebook and Social Media

A number of media scholars have shown how the digital landscape has been severely compromised by older and mainstream forms of political hegemonies (McChesney, 2013; Curran et al, 2012; Fuchs, 2014). They discuss how social and moral constraints of the traditional media — such as oligopolies, commercialism, conformism, celebrity culture, and class disparities — have re-emerged and dominated cyberspace. These debates present Facebook as a laboratory of exploitation: a digital corporate giant that makes profit by selling its users’ data. This practice violates users’ rights of privacy. The material produced on Facebook is seen as free labour, where the consumers produce content for free as a so-called prosumer. Profit is made through these consumerist-producers but not for them.

How To Use Gay Nazis in Job Interviews aims to expand the terms of this debate. While the right for privacy is crucial, another important human right is also often overlooked: the right to self-exposure, or in other words, the right to protect one’s desire to meet with strange people, do strange things, and present oneself in strange ways — in public — and still survive. This desire for expression is not only destined for a private circle of friends, or even friends of friends, but for unknown crowds of random people encountered online and offline. The point here is to be able to be publicly and euphorically weird and still defend one’s right to be erotic, employable, and human. Queer struggle heralds the demand to be simultaneously ridiculed and proud.

The critique of free labour tends to overlook the tremendous pleasure of self-transformation, which is at work in the digital fields of self-presentation and interaction, and in the multifarious relationship between creativity and subjectivity. The pleasure of creating one’s image is a key ingredient in modern and experimental forms citizenship, personhood, and humanity. It allows users to approach their image as a work of art, generating often disruptive and innovative public aesthetics. In addition to criticising the corporate ethos of Facebook, there is also need to celebrate and support those who violate the platform’s ‘official uses’. What is needed here is new politics of digital creativity, one that would protect those who insist on exposing innovative, shocking, and unusual versions of selfhood, while trying to survive in a highly insecure material environment. We need policies that protect citizens’ peculiar ideas of decency and creativity against the forces of corporate conformism. By dictating how a teacher, an academic, or a job seeker should appear online, these social forces increasingly colonise and canonise all aspects of everyday life. Seen in this way, queer rights or queer media can disrupt the conventional understanding of identity politics. Here comes a deeply material and psychological interpretation of sexuality and style: queerness is the propensity to defend different forms of pleasure, subjectivity, and sociality, while interacting within a highly hierarchical, unequal, and confined ecosystem that attributes professional value to specific ways of looking, being, and behaving. This perspective opens the discussion towards queerness and aesthetics.

Queer aesthetics as an art of life

The literature on queer aethetics is increasingly expansive and cannot be exhausted here. The vocabularies and styles of thinking that are highly relevant here, though, are those that expressed in Esteban Munoz’s Cruising Utopia (2009), Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure (2011), and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011). In all these works, queer experience is seen as an assemblage of political, emotive, and representational battles. The politics of sexuality pertain to ways of disrupting the experience of presentness, the dominant meanings of utopia, and the neoliberal configurations of success, hope and liberation. For example, Berlant described as ‘cruel optimism’ the psychological harm that comes with investing in a future that never comes, due to the crushing effects of the neoliberal condition (2011). In How to Use Gay Nazis in Job Interviews, this process is somehow reversed. The cruel present becomes the fulfilment of a euphoric optimism — or else, a celebration of defeatist hedonism. Pain turns into pleasure much as sodomism turns to orgasm. Queer sensuality becomes a mode of living. The homo-nationalistic costume of cruelty reintroduces itself as a nomadic celebration of queerness. The figure of the neo-Nazi narrator was indeed a product of the austerity age, his outfit showing us how horror can ‘pornify’ gay Facebook. The reuse of this stylistic outfit promotes an alternate way of making art out of fear. In this context, Facebook-rooted performance becomes an idiom of what Halbestram would describe as queer art failure (2011); in my own language, a failure that advertises itself as a weapon of pleasure. To put it in Munoz’s terms, these digitised acts invent a ‘surplus decorative value’ — an aesthetic disruption of a functionalist norm. The norms that are twisted, here, are those of social media communication. A digital platform officially designed to facilitate self-promotion turns against itself: advertisement of the self can now be rooted in defeat, masquerade, and manifestos of joyful pain. A digital manifesto of existential sodomism intrudes into Facebook’s positivity.  

Admittedly, this reversal is not equal to a radical politics of change. But it does stage a psycho-material attack on misery. Moments of psychic elation alleviate the harm of material degradation. A shared act of self-observance, along with its liturgy of interaction, storytelling, and exposure, transgress the emotional and social experience of shame and insecurity. These rituals of self-celebration draw on narcissistic pleasure and explode its use: by treating ruined narcissism as a means of self-support, these rituals also propose new ways of consuming the image of the ‘self’ — individually and collectively — as a publicly shared model of aesthetic mechanics. This does not only produce a finished improvisational artwork, but also proposes a continuous artwork, an open palette of creative polemics that are available for all digital users. Their quirky content does not undermine Facebook’s advertising profit-making strategies. Ridiculed or admired, the ‘transgressor’s data can still be monetised by third parties, cookies, and spying software. This micro-public laboratory of expression, however, is now filled with a new and disruptive meaning of happiness, distinct from profit, success, and career. As such, it spreads a new form of knowledge and heralds a new dialectics of failure, fun, and theatricality. Under the spell of digital exhibitionism, provocation merges with sociality and pain with euphoria. The final question would be: how can the official art world respond to this challenge?


New Media Art

This particular question is entangled with the critical debates surrounding the dynamics of ‘new media art’. This is art produced by using new, digital, media, video-game, and screen technologies, as well as their dialogues with more traditional genres and forms of art, such as theatre, cinema, literature, painting, and so on. Maria Chatzichristodoulou (2013) has explained how multiple adversarial forces are targeting this emerging aesthetic field: severe austerity-driven cuts realign with intellectual misunderstandings and omissions on behalf of renowned critical theorists. She argues, for example, that this neglect of digital practice is evident Claire Bishop’s controversial views on contemporary art movements (2006). Bishop addressed the need for participatory aesthetics that would not undermine aesthetic for the sake of ethics. According to her view, this balance is often lost with the advent of a new ‘social turn’ and the proliferation of militant participatory projects that fail on both artistic and political grounds. This approach omits a whole terrain of digital aesthetic practice: new media technologies were the domain par excellence where aesthetic pleasure was mixed with — and not replaced by — an ethos of interaction, collaboration and participation. In fact, digital contexts added a disruptive, avant-garde edge to spontaneous communicative and networking pleasures like gaming or having fun.

These experiences were open to audiences not necessarily accustomed to ethical or ‘social turn’ manifestos. Parallel to, and in contrast with, corporate forces, the history of internet technologies was also marked by distinctively innovative interplay between ethics and aesthetics. As James Curran has noted, counter-cultural enthusiasts, researchers, artists, nerds, and activists used computing as a new and explosive way of combining pleasure with freedom and art with sociality (2012: 34-60). Electric communes such as The WELL (Whole Earth Electronic Link) or Amsterdam’s Digital City preluded the openness, accessibility, and the semi-public character of contemporary social media platforms (Curan 2012: 39). Similarly, adventure games or virtual environments gave birth to aesthetically astute and highly participatory experiences that presaged contemporary new media art practitioners. When, for example, the artist Paolo Cirio uses blogs, social media, or Google Maps for cinematic storytelling, the addictiveness, joyfulness, and suspense of the stories and images are as important as the political and provocative implications of his ideological critique. 

Bishop admits that there is an entire aesthetic ‘sphere’ called ‘new media art’ that rarely overlaps with ‘mainstream art world’ (2012). She defines this mainstream universe as including commercial galleries, the Turner Prize, and Venice’s national pavilions, and she argues that these art spaces fail to embrace new digital possibilities (Bishop 2012). While there is merit to this idea, the wider institutional recognition of digital guerrillas, like the aforementioned Cirio, and the organisation of art festival A.N.D. in Manchester and Liverpool proved that it is possible to incorporate media arts into more established art forums. These are visibly interfering with the public sphere of large cities. Chatzichristodoulou stresses that new media art practice suffers from some sort of nerdy isolationism; however, she also underlines that this field has redeveloped and advanced many of the most cutting-edge gallery-based practices, movements, and principles by employing the innovative technical and psycho-social potentials of new technologies (2013:305-306).

How to Use Gay Nazis in Job Interviews aims to further this debate by turning towards the dialogue between precarity and new media. This intersection rethinks what we understand as mainstream and digital art. Facebook is now seen a mainstream tool of communication, a corporate force that tends to absorb the entire spectrum of internet-based sociality. When this cybernetic institution is used as a stage of disruptive aesthetics, the traditional distinctions between institutionalised and non-institutionalised avant-gardes blur. Critical theorists and practitioners can now expand their critique by expanding their ways of seeing, discovering, and experiencing art in the digital world and the troubled boundaries between everyday experience and artistic practice. Ironically, but not accidentally, one of the Facebook performances discussed in this article that triggered these questions was staged at the entrance of the 2014 Venice Biennale. This reveals how twisted uses of new media can indeed reorganise the space that bridges the mainstream and the underground, the physical and the digital, the artistic and the mundane. Curators’ new task is to discover new artists and new artistic pleasures, beyond the confines of the art world, by immersing themselves within the contemporary environments of hedonism, politics, and routine. What is needed now is an inventive reading of the beautifully disastrous and disastrously beautiful delights that are experienced between Facebook’s phantasmagoria and historical misery.  

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