Sometimes it’s well past midnight and I am looking for distractions from the paper I am or ought to be writing. I wonder if it’s safe to go out for a walk. I wonder if I have the energy or enthusiasm to actually change my clothes and head out for that walk, safe or not. Often, I choose to loiter online instead. I might stop at an article on the #MeToo avalanche or the fascist regimes in the world, of which there are far too many. I might post a social media update or a picture and then click on yet another link and wander off in some direction. I might begin a conversation with a friend. Sometime I might have multiple chat windows open with friends loitering with me. I might also stop at a pornographic site or a sex chat site and wander in there, choosing to leave or stay at the click of my mouse. As I loiter, I could well be sipping a cup of adrak chai (ginger tea) or a glass of wine.
I don’t have to plan or dress for my nocturnal loitering on the Internet or demonstrate purpose, but does this make the space of the Internet a utopian world where any woman might loiter?
In this series of short interventions, I think about possibilities for pleasure in loitering online and reflect on the ways in which the narratives around digital streets seem increasingly tipped towards its dangers much like the discourses of safety on city streets. I argue that the Internet is just as much a space for fun, and explore the conditions of possibility that might allow us all to partake of this fun.
Narratives of Danger
When I first began to think about loitering online, I hunted around for reading material and was delighted to find someone had used our work on loitering to actually talk about online spaces. Wendy Chun and Sarah Friedland in their 2015 essay ‘Habits of Leaking’, engage with our work on loitering and the politics of streets in Mumbai to point out that the same metaphors of lurking danger that infuse the streets are part of online narratives. They point out that any kind of stepping out of boundaries, especially in ways that suggest sexual subjectivity bring the possibility of slut shaming. The moral underlying these narratives of harm brought upon by the stupidity of the self is: be careful because “Once It’s There, It’s There to Stay” (p.3). The corollary to being exposed as a slut, a consenting spectacle, is the revocation of all protection and privacy. To challenge this disabling situation, Chun and Friedland focus on the “inherent promiscuity of new media” and the impossibility of bubbles of privacy, drawing on our work to claim the right to loiter online.
How can we begin to intervene in this space, that more and more mimics city streets, to reject the demands that we curtail our own activities and yet be able to choose safety when we want to? Are risk and safety mutually incompatible? What does it mean to choose to risk online, as I have earlier argued for the right to risk on city streets?
The increasingly cyborg like nature of our online interactions, the haptic, often emotional link to our devices brings to the fore the central question of the body itself. The questions of slut shaming raised by Chun and Friedland remind us of the cost to reputation but what is the nature of the potential embodied harm posed in online public spaces? Many women and other marginal gender identities are trolled online with threats of physical violence, including rape and murder, offline.
How then might we understand the dynamics of the embodied self when there is a rape that takes place online? In 2005, Julien Dibbel wrote an article titled ‘A Rape in Cyberspace’ recounting a situation in a multi-user dungeon in which one character forced two other characters to perform sexual acts against their will. Dibell raises concerns about the relationship between these technologies and the question of embodiment in our understanding of the self.
Would a court of law recognise that a rape has taken place? What is the harm that one might say has been done, if indeed we are engaging with the question of harm. If a court doesn’t recognise it, does it exist? As Dibbel puts it: “The actors in the drama were university students for the most part, and they sat rather undramatically before their computer screens the entire time, their only actions a spidery flitting of fingers across standard QWERTY keyboards. No bodies touched. Whatever physical interaction occurred consisted of a mingling of electronic signals sent from sites spread out between New York City and Sydney, Australia.”
One line of thinking on online spaces and cyborgs suggests that online environments demonstrate post-modern, fragmented subjectivities that challenge the Cartesian mind-body divide and so the self that is present online is a part of the real self, no less so because it is not embodied in the way the real self is or because it might change its avatars at will. However, another line of reasoning would point out that however real this self might be experienced, it is nonetheless a disembodied self. Yet this self that is created may be disembodied but nonetheless is an intellectual self, defined both by the physical and the verbal. It is precisely the case that in these spaces the physical is rendered for the moment irrelevant and therefore virtual action, in this case the rape, is only all too real.
How do we think about bodies in online space? One of the exciting things about the disembodied self is that it can be refashioned at will without pain and without temporal lag. How do we begin to understand both violence as in this case but also concomitantly the pleasures, for surely just as city streets are sites of intense and textured fun, so also various online spaces including multi-user domains are also sites where individuals seek a variety of pleasures both embodied and disembodied? Even as we reflect on the vulnerability of the non-cis, non-heterosexual, non-male avatar, can we also imagine the possibilities that these spaces create for being whom you want to be, or being other than you might be for that moment in time?
In her essay ‘Throwing Like a Girl’, philosopher Iris Marion Young engages with the work of Merleau-Ponty to suggest that the body and its location is deeply relevant to our understanding of space. He gives the lived body an ontological status that many other philosophers do not, tending to privilege the mind or consciousness. Merleau-Ponty focuses on the transcendence of the lived body. Using this line of argument, Young points out that the female body is conditioned often in ways that do not allow the body to move out of its immanence. Girls and women, she argues, are often trained to see themselves as objects in space transforming their capacity to occupy subjecthood. This affects in a material way their capacities, transforming the inherent “I can” to an “I cannot” existing then in what she calls an ‘inhibited intentionality’ (p.36).
Interestingly in online public spaces as well, despite the lack of a material body, women learn to operate within ‘safe’ boundaries negotiating the Lakshman rekhas of what they might do, and where they might be seen, and performances they might be part of. How can we think about transforming this “I cannot” into the instinctive “I can”?
The question of creating conditions of possibility is a good moment to talk about infrastructure. In our research on city public spaces, one of the things women seemed to ubiquitously want is well-lit streets. Other demands included reasonable well-maintained public transport that runs 24/7, clean accessible public toilets, and large green parks. One of our central arguments in Why Loiter was that in order to access public space as citizens, what women needed was not conditional safety but the right to take risks. However, we qualified this by arguing that these referred to chosen risks not those thrust upon us by lack of infrastructure. In order that we might have real public spaces to hang out in, instead of malls, we argued that the city administration needed to provide infrastructure that allow different groups of people to loiter.
In online spaces then, how do we understand the possibility of public infrastructure that would see an exodus from the big blue Facebook and Twitter malls to a public space that offers the kind of infrastructure that builds on citizenship rather than consumption? Is such an infrastructure possible and how might we go about creating it? What is the Internet equivalent of a clean well-lit public toilet that is open 24/7?
Judith Garber in an essay written at the turn of the century titled, ‘Not Named or Identified’: Politics and the Search for Anonymity in the City’, in relation to the quest for space in Los Angles by gay and lesbian populations, argues that while anonymity brings access, it effectively stymies the possibility of political action. She argues that anonymity can take us so far and no further.
Anonymity brings access, it brings a measure of visibility (oddly enough) to those on the margins but some might argue that like our various negotiations to slip into city public spaces unnoticed, our efforts to maintain anonymity online have the effect of blunting our political effectiveness, rendering us perhaps forever on the margins. Having said this, are we ready at all to discard anonymity given the illicit pleasures it often brings as well as the possibility of some engagement?
In 2014-15, Emma Sulkowicz a Columbia University art major reported being raped and received nothing that resembled justice either from the campus authorities or the New York Police Department. In response, she bore witness to her plight with a performance-art piece that consists of carrying a dorm-room mattress with her whenever she’s on campus, wherever she’s going. But this takes place not just in Columbia University but online too.
So also with several other movements – Pinjra Tod, Girls at Dhabas, Blank Noise, even the Why Loiter movement. To be visible for the politics we claim on the streets we must increasingly perform these in online spaces via photographs, updates, tweetchats and the like. We perform resistance for an audience larger than the ones who witness the material protest.
The space of resistance is one where women and other marginal citizens seek to breach the implicit and explicit boundaries of normative behaviour. Arguably, online feminist resistance in India became widely visible with Nisha Susan’s Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women. That night in February 2009, now one decade ago, I was online as Susan set up the Facebook page seeking to challenge the actions and ideologies of the Sri Ram Sene, a right-wing organisation that had attacked women having lunch at a pub in Mangalore. As the number of people who joined the group grew, many of whom were my friends, we began parallel conversations on the phone, in chat windows of various kinds, thrilled to bits to be connected in this new technology-facilitated act of protest. This social media group was trolled and later hacked into and had to be shut down. However, it was followed by an irreverent campaign called the Pink Chaddi Campaign that invited women to send pink underwear to the Sri Ram Sene as a Valentine’s Day gift.
Online protests, especially those that are seen are part of a pleasure economy are often cast as suspect. In addition, any claim to space, either city public spaces or digital publics, have been critiqued as part of neoliberal economies where women of a certain class stake claim to spaces in ways that are linked to the act of consumption rather than a radical politics.
I would argue that women’s individual desires in so far as they reflect a collective desire to access public space for work or pleasure and in so far as they reflect larger social restrictions that prevent women from accessing public space, are not in fact personal wishes but rather are a political claim. Women in this context then are claiming the right to the public as citizens, as a collective.
The neoliberal desire is not one that claims public space, the neoliberal desire is to escape from the messiness of the public. The discourse of neoliberalism plays out in cities though the ways in which the desirable street is premised on the ideal of emptiness. The neoliberal city is a modern city, but one based on the idea of interim space rather than place – people move from one place to another but they commute through ‘space’. The interim zone becomes a space of placelessness. To claim the public then in arbitrary, messy and oppositional ways, whether on the streets or online is to challenge the neoliberal impulse which is located in the creation of order. To create place, to stake claim, thwarts the desires for the sanitised neoliberal city and is a politics.
One of the reasons I loiter both in city public spaces and online is because it’s my idea of fun. Sometimes I loiter at night on city streets because it’s extra thrilling. Online, I wander into porn and sex chat rooms because I’m feeling voyeuristic or frisky. These might be seen as risky activities by some, and as super vanilla by others who tread paths that lead down darker alleys. The point here is that everyone should be able to explore our idea of fun, engaging the levels of risk that give us a buzz, in the quest for excitement and adventure as we navigate the labyrinths of both city spaces and online spaces. Everyone should be able to do this without being compelled to assume risks not of our making. The right to fun is a serious and radical claim whether on the streets or online.
Photo credit: (CC BY-SA 2.0)