Ecologies of Sex, Sensation, and Slow Death

There are many things lost in the naming of a death as a “gay youth suicide.”
I want to focus on two aspects of this naming: one, what is contained in the category of sexuality and two, what kinds of normative temporal assumptions are produced through the “event” of suicide. As a faculty member of Rutgers University, where the most spectacular of the suicides to date occurred, that of Tyler Clementi, I cannot help but want to provide better context for the local circumstances of his death. All three students (Clementi, Ravi, and Wei) involved in the sex surveillance leading up to the suicide were living on Busch campus in Piscataway, New Jersey, already codified as the science/engineer/pre-med “geek” campus (some might say sissies, in fact). Busch is also racially demarcated as the “Asian” campus, an identity rarely disaggregated from geek on college US campuses. Clementi’s suicide has thus occasioned a vicious anti-Asian backlash replete with overdetermined notions of “Asian homophobia” and predictable calls to “go back to where you came from.” Commenting on the biases of the criminal justice system against those of non-normative race, ethnicity, and citizenship, a press release from a Rutgers University organization called “Queering the Air” notes that Garden State Equality (a statewide New Jersey LGBT advocacy group) and Campus Pride (a national group for LGBT students) have demanded the most severe consequences for Ravi and Wei, prosecution for hate crimes, maximum jail time, expulsion without disciplinary hearing, noting that “18,000 people endorse an online group seeking even more serious charges — manslaughter. (“Justice Not Vengeance in Clementi Suicide,” Queering the Air, 10/19/10)
It seems imperative, then, that the racial implications of two “model minority” students from a wealthy New Jersey suburb targeting an effete young queer white man be considered beyond convenient cultural narratives of the so-called inherent or intensified homophobia within (often racialized) immigrant communities as compared to more accepting white populations. Is it possible to see all three students involved as more alike — all geeks, in fact — than different? Instead of rehashing that old “gaybashers are secretly closet cases” canard, perhaps there is a reason to destabilize the alignments of “alikeness” and “difference” away from a singular, predictable axis through “sexuality.” A letter recently circulated by Queering the Air claims that Clementi’s death is the second suicide by an LGBTQ student since March and that four of the last seven suicides at Rutgers were related to sexuality. What then, is meant here by “related to sexuality?” I am prompted by new media scholar Amit Rai’s reformulation of sexuality as an “ecology of sensations”[1]See Amit Rai’s Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage (Duke University Press, 2009) for further elaboration of this concept.
— as affect instead of identity — that transcends the designations of straight and gay and can further help to disaggregate them from their racialized histories.
Missing from the debate about Clementi’s suicide is a discussion about the proclivities of young people to see the “choice” of internet surveillance as a mandatory regulatory part not only of their subject formations, but of their daily bodily habits and affective tendencies.  For these youth “cyberstalking” is an integral part of what it means to become a neoliberal (sexual) subject. Think of the ubiquity of sexting, and applications like Grinder, Manhunt, and of productions like DIY porn, and cellphone mass circulation of images, technologies that create simultaneous sensations of exposure (the whole world is watching) and alienation (no one understands). These bodily technological practices constitute new relations between public and private that we have yet to really acknowledge, much less comprehend. Legal discourse itself is clear that “invasion of privacy” remains uncharted territory for jurisprudence in relation to the internet. But more significantly, to reiterate Rai’s “ecologies of sensation,” the use of these technologies impel new affective tendencies of bodies, new forms of attention, intention, distraction, practice and repetition. What might easily be overdetermined as the difference between “gay” and “straight” could otherwise be thought of more generously through the quotidian and banal activities of self sexual elaboration through internet technologies — emergent habituations, corporeal comportment, and an array of diverse switchpoints of bodily capacity.
If signification and representation — what things mean — are no longer the only primary realm of the political, then bodily processes — how things feel — must be irreducibly central to any notion of the political. Clementi’s own participation in the testimonial spaces of the chat room to detail his roommate’s invasion into his “privacy” and his use of FaceBook for the explanatory “suicide note” are not minor details: they reflect precisely the shared continuities with his perpetrators through ecologies of sensation.  Accusations of “homophobia” and “gay bullying” and even the references to “cyberbullying” do not do justice to the complex uptake of digital technologies in this story.
The apparently sudden spate of queer suicides is also obviously at odds with the claims of purported progress by the gay and lesbian rights movement. As noted by Tavia Nyong’o, Dan Savage’s sanctimonious statement “it gets better” is a mandate to fold oneself into urban, neoliberal gay enclaves, a form of liberal handholding and upward-mobility that discordantly echoes the now discredited “pull yourself up from the bootstraps” immigrant motto. (The aspirational symbolism of Clementi’s transit from Central New Jersey to the George Washington Bridge that connects Northern New Jersey to upper Manhattan is painfully apparent.)  Part of the outrage and upset generated by these deaths is precisely afforded through a fundamental belief that things are indeed supposed to be better, especially for a particular class of white gay men. As I argue in my op-ed in the Guardian, this amounts to a reinstatement of white racial privilege that was lost with being gay. Savage has also mastered, if we follow Sarah Lochlain Jain on the “politics of sympathy,”[2]Sarah Lochlann Jain, Injury: The Politics of Product Design and Safety Law in the United States, Princeton University Press, 2006: 24.
the technique of converting his injury into cultural capital, not only through affective productions of blame, guilt, and suffering, but also, I will add, through affective productions of triumph, transgression, and success.

The subject of redress and grievance functions here as a recapacitation of a debilitated body. To make my second and related point, then, I want to shift the registers of this conversation about “queer suicide” from one about the pathologization (abjection, expulsion) versus normativization (acceptance, tolerance, legalization) of sexual identity, to questions of bodily capacity, debility, disability, precarity and populations. This is not at all to dismiss these queer suicides as simply privileged forms of death, but to ask what kinds of “slow deaths” — to cite Lauren Berlant’s term  — have been on-going that a suicide might represent an exit or escape from. It is also to “slow” the act of suicide down — to offer a concomitant yet different temporality of relating to living and dying. Berlant moves us away from an event or the event of trauma or catastrophe, proposing that “slow death occupies the temporalities of the endemic.”[3]Lauren Berlant, “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency)” Critical Inquiry 33, No 4, Summer 2007: 756.
Slow death occurs not within the timescale of the epidemic nor the crisis, not of the event of the suicide or the death, rather “…a zone of temporality…of ongoingness, getting by, and living on, where the structural inequalities are dispersed, the pacing of their experience intermittent, often in phenomena not prone to capture by a consciousness organized by archives of memorable impact.”[4]Ibid, p. 759. In this non-linear temporality, for it starts and stops, returns, redoubles and leaps ahead, Berlant is not “defining a group of individuals merely afflicted with the same ailment, [rather] slow death describes populations marked out for wearing out.”[5]Ibid, p. 760-761, footnote 20. Understanding slow death as a force across multiple temporalities is precisely the kind of reorientation of concepts like sexuality called for in Rai’s ecology of sensation.
If as Berlant argues, “Health itself can then be seen as a side effect of successful normativity”[6]Ibid, p. 765.
(emphasis mine), it seems to me that in order to honor the complexity of these suicides we must place them within the broader context of neoliberal demands upon the body as well as what are constituted as neoliberal “opportunities” for the body.  In my current book project, Debility/Capacity, I examine these heightened demands for bodily capacity and exceptionalized debility. Capacity and debility are on the one hand, seeming opposites generated by increasingly demanding neoliberal formulations of health, agency, and choice — what I call a “liberal eugenics” of lifestyle programming — that produces population aggregates as well as the technologies of bioinformatics and biopolitics. Those “folded” into life are seen as more capacious or on the side of capacity, while those “targeted for death,” or living out “slow death,” are figured as debility, whether that is racialized, sexualized, or in terms of disease or disability. Such an analysis reposes the questions of which bodies are made to pay for “progress”? Which debilitated bodies can be reinvigorated by a neoliberal discourse, and which cannot be? In this regard, Savage’s project refigures queers, along with other “bodies” heretofore construed as excessive/erroneous, as capacity, ensuring that queerness operates as a machine of capacity. Even though poststructuralist queer theory most apparently works through registers of negativity and increasingly negative affect, through critical reading practices primarily deconstructive in their effects, such a figuration of queer theory has emerged from a homeostatic framework: queer theory is already then also a machine of capacity in and after the cybernetic turn.
Our current politics are continually reproducing the exceptionalism of human bodies and the aggrieved agential subject, politics typically enacted through wounded attachments.[7]See Wendy Brown, “Wounded Attachments,” Political Theory, vol 21., no. 3, 1993: 390-410..
Without minimizing the tragedy of these recent deaths, dialogue about ecologies of sensation and slow death might open us up to a range of connections.  For instance, how do queer girls commit suicide?  What of the slow deaths of teenage girls through anorexia, bulimia, and numerous sexual assaults they endure as punishment for the transgressing of proper femininity and alas, even for conforming to it? What is the political and cultural fallout of re-centering the white gay male as ur-queer subject? How would our political landscape transform if it actively de-centered the sustained reproduction and proliferation of the grieving subject, opening instead towards an affective politics, attentive to ecologies of sensation and switchpoints of bodily capacities, to habituations and un-habituations, to tendencies, multiple temporalities, and becomings?
This piece is excerpted from a keynote lecture delivered by Jasbir Puar at the Affective Tendencies conference, October 8, 2010, at Rutgers University. The longer version of this lecture is part of Puar’s book project titled Affective Politics: States of Debility and Capacity.  See also her op-ed “In the Wake of It Gets Better” in the Guardian (11/16/10).
Photo illustration by jeff safi.


1 See Amit Rai’s Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage (Duke University Press, 2009) for further elaboration of this concept.
2 Sarah Lochlann Jain, Injury: The Politics of Product Design and Safety Law in the United States, Princeton University Press, 2006: 24.
3 Lauren Berlant, “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency)” Critical Inquiry 33, No 4, Summer 2007: 756.
4 Ibid, p. 759.
5 Ibid, p. 760-761, footnote 20.
6 Ibid, p. 765.
7 See Wendy Brown, “Wounded Attachments,” Political Theory, vol 21., no. 3, 1993: 390-410..

jasbir puar