Political Economies of Exposure: Modulating Bodies inMedia and Marriage
What happens whenqueer and trans bodies go mainstream? These days, the non-conforming bodyseemingly is everywhere (music videos, magazines, advertisements, publicdebates, movies, TV shows), distributed through information networks thatreveal intimacies and corporealities such that we maybe can no longer measurethe distance between a body and its image. How do shifts in the form andcontent of mainstream media impact marginalized or subcultural mediaproduction? When HBO series feature homo sex and trans characters, what is thecountering of counter-culture? This essay is a quick sketch, some half-formedideas (impulses really) through which I want to suggest some ways of thinkingthrough the political economies of mediating queer and trans bodies in thehopes of thinking about a register or agenda other than representational politics.
When we broadcastand mediate, part of what we wrestle with is an impression that queer people,queer movements, and queer media are moving from a fringe into the mainstream –mainstream of politics, mainstream of mass media, mainstream of daily life. Ofcourse first we want to note how that movement is uneven – not all forms ofmedia or levels of politics or government organizations are equally open toqueer participation or queer issues. Likewise, not all queers are as likely tobe traveling into these mainstreams. Daily life for queer trans people, forexample, is filled with dangers that make such movement risky, if not oftenimpossible. Likewise, queer people of color might find that jobs and housingare formations of daily life that police their queer bodies very differentlythan white queer bodies.
That said, how doquestions of money play out in conversations about queer bodies and politics? Part of the notion seems to be that money, or at least greater quantities of it,are found in that mainstream. Perhaps we also encounter an idea that travelinto the mainstream requires money: we ride on money out of margins and intothe mainstream of life. So gay rights movements need money and what it can buyto advance political agendas that mainstream everyday queer life. Queer medianeeds money to reach a broader, mainstream audience.
How issues aboutmoney shoot through conversations about queer media and queer organizing is notunique, but draws from larger debates often framed in terms of “selling out” –an accusation that references both getting money and getting mainstream. SoI’d say that ideas of what sometimes would be called dirty money or blood moneyorganize some conversations about queer media in recent years, and I want a bitto throw that framework into question. That’s why I want to think in terms ofpolitical economies, or the networks of global capitalism through which ourlocal queer mediations disperse. Because first of all I’d say that dirty moneyimplies the existence of clean money, and I’d argue that money (which I’mthinking of specifically within capitalism) is always dirty and only bloodmoney. Now Marxists might argue that the history of capitalism is one ofbloodshed, from the expulsion of peasantry from communal lands so they could beprivatized, to the violent extraction of surplus value from laboring bodies, tocontemporary forms of imperialist war. But even if we aren’t some kind ofMarxist we might agree that money is a form and reminder of violence, in wars againstIraq motivated in part by oil profits or in the violence of systemic povertyand homelessness in U.S. cities.
And I would notjust say that there is no clean money, but also that fringe, DIY or mainstream,there is no being outside money, or outside capitalism. Today in the U.S. weare as saturated in capitalism as we are soaked in blood. Again I draw some ofthese insights from Marxist scholars who argue that global capitalism absorbsall of culture into it – which is not to say this happens evenly, or that itwipes everything else out, but we can think at least that a life in which onespent no money would be impossible to survive. So I actually want to suggestthat thinking in terms of independent versus corporate (or fringe versusmainstream) is not totally useful. Capitalism operates through selection andincorporation, not through exclusion as the term “marginalized” might imply. Agood example is that we know that legal (mainstream) economies depend upon underground(marginal) economies; the work performed most often by extremely poorimmigrants and people of color such as childcare makes others available forparticipation in official economic activity. So I’d rather say wehave a field of capitalism, an uneven terrain in which there are concentratedpockets of wealth and resources, vast expanses of poverty, a constant movementof money, and new and unfamiliar sources of value
But this doesn’tmean I want to suspend all questions of money and movement, questions such as: From where is the money that funds queer media coming? Where does money takequeer media? To what places does the money queer media generates travel? I do,however, want to give up on the idea that money can just start and endsomewhere politically sound (somewhere outside capitalism). I also want torecognize that money’s movement is often a violent opening up of channels ornetworks that no one person directs or controls (we cannot just will what wewant to happen with our media or money).
The notion ofselling out often implies not only where you wind up, but also an inappropriateabandonment of the place from which you came. The idea of moving in and out ofproper spaces attaches in an odd way to queer issues because of course there isa long understanding of a proper place for queer bodies, an idea talked aboutin terms of “the closet.” So I move here as an opportunity to think ofanother word hanging out in the title of this piece, “exposure.” In bothimplicit and explicit ways, debates about queer representation and queer mediahave been organized by the construct of the closet, a structuring principle forwhich the term “visibility” serves as shorthand. Early queer media wasdiscussed as a move out of the closet and into visibility, something mirroredat individual and political levels. And of course many theorists have writtenquestioning the efficacy of the closet rubric, asking how much that distinctionbetween inside/outside really holds. Does an individual step out of a closetonce and stay there? How do differences of gender presentation and questionsof passing change the experience or status of “outness”? How much does theidea of gay visibility depend upon forms of white racial invisibility, suchthat carrying markers of race complicates queer visibility – both in terms ofthe individual and in terms of the whitefacing of gay rights movements and muchmainstream gay media? So the closet is a limited rubric, and I also think thatthe concept of visibility is limited. Visibility often suggests a permanentstate, as if we leave one closet once and step into the light of day, for theentire world to see. The range of individual experiences, the vicissitudes ofpolitical climates, and the contradictory possibilities in differentgeopolitical regions all suggest that the line between the seen and not seen isvariable and shifty.
Following someearly debates about visibility, we had some debates in the 1990s over content,or negative versus positive images of gays. In terms of media and activism, I’mthinking here of, for example, protests about apparently homophobic content in Silenceof the Lambs. These debates in some waystook for granted queer presence in the media, and wrestled over the meaning andcontent of images of queers. Or course, as it turned out, those deemed “goodimages” often lined up with mainstream in terms of a white racial identity,signs of wealth, normatively-abled bodies, and non-trans maleness. So familiarforms of power materialized in terms of control over the content of gayrepresentation.
If these are thedebates we inherit, I want to suggest some alternative ways to proceed. Ratherthan visibility, I thought the word “exposure” could be interesting, and I’mthinking of it in photographic terms – the exposure setting of the camera. AndI’m thinking of shutter speed, the duration of time that light is allowed toaccumulate on a camera’s sensor, measured in fractions of a second. So less apermanent visibility, but rather a trace left behind, controlled by andattached to speed. In this sense, we can remember that what becomes visible ofqueers or gay politics is but a frozen moment, removed from a context of muchdynamism, movement and contestation that takes place outside the capture of thelens. I also can’t help but think of exposure in terms of exposed to danger, andhealth risks, so exposure as meaning a suspended moment of light, but alsoexposure in terms of certain vulnerabilities laid bare. I want to think inways that recognize connections between these two meanings of exposure. Whenthe movie Boys Don’t Cry came out, forexample, it was celebrated as making violence against (some white) trans peoplevisible. We could also say it exposed trans people – concentrating attention ontheir bodies and sexualities, which carries with it all sorts of risks. Today,post 9-11, some of those risks of exposure materialize as transgender bodiesbeing marked as security threats.
Like those arguingover content in the 1990s, we too might take for granted the mediation of queerbodies, but I’d like to suspend for a bit questions of good versus badrepresentation. Rather, I want to think something about what queer media ormediations of queer bodies does – what might images of queers do, wherever weline up on their valuation? This carries us to the idea of “modulation,” forwhich I could substitute organizing, regulating, controlling, or managing; theseare not exactly synonyms, but words that round out some of what I mean bymodulation, and draw out my interest in thinking about the media not in termsof content, but in terms of affect and force. I connect the idea of modulationto bodies because I want us not to think about subjectivities, identities, andideologies so much, but rather to focus on the material queer body and alsoqueer bodies as in groupings of queers – the queer body politic, or population.
Now, having bledthe margins into the mainstream, having obliterated the distinction betweeninside and outside the closet, having put aside judgment calls about good andbad, I want to pause for a moment around a specific exposure of queer bodies:recent media work on the issue of gay marriage. I’d like to suggest that wenot treat the political explosion around gay marriage as separate from themedia explosion. This is to emphasize something somewhat obvious – media likenewspapers and TV did not simply report on this issue, but the issue itself wasborn within a shifting political-media matrix outside of which “gay marriage”does not exist.
If we do look tothe content of both mainstream news coverage of gay marriage as well as themedia produced by organizations such as Lambda Legal Defense and EducationFund, what we find may not be very surprising – a presentation of gay subjectswho are overwhelmingly white and upper-middle class, and of courseheteronormative. These gay spokespeople claim no interest in eroding morals ordestroying social norms, but profess faith in U.S. institutions and desires tostrengthen the state of marriage. So while gays gained “visibility,” it was ofcourse a very particular kind of gay. One piece of Lamda literature aboutmarriage stated:
Gay people are very much likeeveryone else. They grow up, fall in love, form families and have children. They mow their lawns, shop for groceries and worry about makingends meet. They want good schools for their children, and security for theirfamilies as a whole.
This racialized and classedrepresentation is significant, but I want to suggest that the meaning of theseimages is not the only register at which their power operates. I want to thinkabout how images like this one and others generated by politics and mediaorganize and mobilize energy, attention and resources. While marriage mayserve an ideological function (instating proper gendered roles, norms of sexualreproduction, and economic relationships in families), marriage today perhapsmost powerfully operates to arrange bodies and populations in relation toresources such as social and economic entitlements. When welfare advocates,for example, speak of marriage as a coercive institution, they help usunderstand the point is not that gay marriage would give a spouse access tohealth coverage, but that in order to get health coverage, we must submit tothe state regulation of sexual relationships. Similarly, I want to think aboutthis media/political moment not in ideological terms, but in terms of how itfunctions – for example, how it strengthens restrictions on immigrant movementwithin the U.S., reinforcing an institution that denies social and economicentitlements to “undocumented” residents. In other words, how does it organizeundocumented bodies such that they have no access to the life-chances thatmedical care provides? This is what I mean when I say I want to think aboutwhat the media/politics matrix does, and I realize this is a prettyunsophisticated foray into that question, but it’s something I’m only startingto figure out how to explore.
I don’t mean tosuggest a grand conspiracy between media conglomerates and the U.S. government;I understand that within both those conglomerations there is great variabilityand inconsistency as well as unpredictable capacities for effecting changes. But I think another part of what I want to figure out is how media organizesand directs our energies of attention for politics. Here, even the idea ofexposure might be too slow a word, inadequate to capture the speed at whichinformation and capital travel today. In what some call the information age,or the internet age, we are trained in multi-tasking, which we can think of asa development of our capacities to pay attention within an increasingly speeded-upinformation landscape. So we can surf the internet; work several programs onour computers simultaneously, jumping between Word and Excel and QuickBooks;toggle with call waiting on our cell phones while engaging in “face-to-face”interactions; work during what we used to call leisure time from handheldwireless devices; and navigate hundreds of TV channels, possibly watching morethan one program at a time. So I want to set last Spring’s gay marriage momentin that context of our attention for instantaneous digital turnover. In March2004, I was invited to talk at Sarah Lawrence College on a panel about George Bushand the gays, and it seemed to me both obvious and necessary that I would goand talk about the political limits of gay marriage. Six months later, inSeptember 2004, writing about gay marriage feels almost passé. (Whatever didhappen with those marriages in San Francisco? Where did the federal bandebates wind up?) This isn’t to say that marriage doesn’t matter, or the effectsof that moment don’t linger (our eyes still fuzzy from flashbulb light), butour attentions have been cultivated elsewhere. In what some describe as aperpetual present, the speed of politics and the speed of media informationpull us constantly forward.
But of course,politics moves at multiple speeds, and we are also in a timescape of slowpolitics. If the speed of real-time digital media is near-instantaneous, wemight think also of the speed at which depleted uranium released by the U.S. Armyin Iraq deteriorates. Here, a more specific sense of my second meaning ofexposure: with a half-life of 4.5 billion years, the uranium in missiles usedby the U.S. will be exposing populations to radiation long after collectivememory of gay marriage has been obliterated. I bring this up to remind us notthat we have to figure out how to connect queer politics to other politics, butto remember that these politics or issues are always linked within a terrain ofcapital flows – even if the speed of exposure doesn’t always make thatapparent. So one task might be figuring out how to follow those links and howto mediate through them. Because of course we know the moment in which gaymarriage exploded, other explosions on other continents were taking place, and thetiming of the appearance of this sudden domestic crisis in the midst of a warand an election year was no coincidence. The organization of our attentiontowards marriage debates drew attention away from the slow radioactive leaks inIraq, just as activist attention towards the war in Iraq has meant divertingresources from “identity” issues like feminism and trans politics. In thecontext, then, of rapidly changing politics and overwhelming information flows,perhaps we might begin thinking of queer media as perverse uses of our energyand capacity for multi-tasking, as we insist upon working simultaneously atmultiple junctures between blood money, oil wars, art production, TV coverage, marriagedebates, health insurance, immigration policies, and the security state.
Thispaper draws from a presentation on a panel discussion at the Center for Lesbianand Gay Studies at the City University of New York. Thank you Lisa Hendersonand Paisley Currah for the invitation to participate in that event.
 I use theterm “queer” as a vague and probably inadequate catch-all for varioussexualities defined against heteronormativity; I use terms like trans and gaywhen they offer some suggestive specificity.