I wrote the following brief essay in August 2017, in response to a call for short provocations about… something. I don’t remember what, but it was rejected, and then there was never anywhere else to put it, so I thought I’d put it here.
It is at this point of exhaustion, when we have become frozen spectators in a world in which images appear as ready-mades, that we can see both that there is no guarantee that we will be human and that it is human to forget oneself. (Claire Colebrook 2014, 13)
The dating app appears as a dematerialisation of desire, reconstituted in the consumption of the static image. The presentation of images for selection produces the commodification of those images, while the spectral notion that there may be a person who resembles those images is secondary to the virtual experience of seeking itself. In her 2014 book, Death of the Posthuman, Claire Colebrook begins by addressing the anxieties that have grown around the (geological) concept of the Anthropocene. This leads her discussion, inevitably, to the extinction of humanity, and the spectrality of the post-Anthropocene, in which, as she states, we can imagine the possibility of readable images, or traces, of humanity, without bodies to read them (24). Here, I use the proposition Colebrook suggests, and consider it in relation to the use of dating apps, with a view to the suspicion that they train us to narrow the formation of desire from a dynamism of material experience to the consumption of curated static images.
There is no production of the self, including gender, sexuality or desire prior to the material stimulus of the body by the world, and therefore the “desiring self” emerges from the perception of the desired subject (Colebrook 2014, 18). Sexual attraction and desire is difficult to identify and define. Psychoanalytic theory, psychological, biological sciences, sociological and behavioural studies have all tried, as have numerous disciplines in the humanities, including philosophy, gender and cultural studies, and despite the numerous frameworks and categorisations of attraction that have been developed, the only real consensus lies in difference and unpredictability. The constitution of attraction, however, is expected to be predicated on a physical or material encounter, and a relational response to the way another body moves, looks, gestures, smells, speaks and so on.
In virtual space, then, the production of attraction is complicated and redirected by the media through which an encounter is made possible, and sexual desire, and related sexuality and sexual identity is informed by the idiosyncratic affordances of that media (Saraswati 2013). If the object of desire, is a series of images without a body, and only possesses materiality in reference to the imagination of the desiring self, then the production of the desiring self is one that produces a desire for images, not the material complexities of desiring bodies. The reduction of sexuality to the image flattens the potentialities for material diversity in experiences of attraction. It provides a forum through which to self-define but only through a visual code – a semiotics of a pre-determined category of the self. Attraction and seduction become secondary to presentation, and the ability to brand oneself according to ever narrowing and ever more discrete subcategories of sexuality (i.e. soft butch, stone femme, hard femme, boi, etc.) and little room is left for the possibility of re-examination or flexibility once those terms, and that “ready-made” image, has been applied to the self and clearly defined (Colebrook 2014, 13).
Western thought has been dominated by various approaches to the visual field (Colebrook 2014). Tracing a genealogy of thought through sight counterbalances the contemporary accusations that images, rather than language, are reconfiguring our plastic minds with inattention. However, the paradox of the eye – where sight produces both the ability to read, and hence engage in complex, grammatical and linguistic thought, as well as the capacity to be distracted by fleeting images – can succumb here to the attention paid to other senses by feminist philosophies of bodily difference, particularly that of Luce Irigaray, as well as in reference to more recent approaches to gender, sexuality and the feminine experience in networked media (Plant, 1998; Colman, 2014).
Desire, and specifically, the feminine experience of desire, for Irigaray, is resistant to the structure of language and by extension, the visual field (1977). The exclusion of visual appearance as the primary location of desire is central to the sensing of feminine, lesbian sexuality, which is produced by constant contact. Skin and touch, lips, are the primary location of desire. Therefore, it is not simply a matter of whether the visual imagination can be re-evaluated in relation to the falsehood of “reality,” but rather, whether desiring images, after bodies, can be complicated by the experience of other senses in virtual space. The possibility of lips speaking together needs to be accounted for in the communicative potentialities of the (matrixical) virtual space.
Therefore, this constitutes a provocation: can we think sexuality outside of identity categories? Can the primacy of sight be resisted in virtual space, and is it possible to constitute desire in these terms?
Colebrook, Claire. 2014. The Death of the Posthuman. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press.
Colman, Felicity. 2014. “Digital Feminicity: Predication and Measurement, Materialist Informatics and Images.” Artnodes: e-Journal on Art, Science and Technology (14): 7-17.
Irigaray, Luce. 1977. This Sex Which Is Not One. translated by Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. 1985. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Plant, Sadie. 1998. Coming Across the Future. In Virtual Futures: Cyberotics, Technology and Post-human Pragmatism, edited by Joan Broadhurst Dixon & Eric J. Cassidy, 39-47. London: Routledge.
Saraswati, L. Ayu. 2013. “Wikisexuality: Rethinking sexuality in cyberspace.” Sexualities 16 (5/6), 587-603.