The Production of Normativity
I am sitting at the table, facing my computer, writing the first draft of the paper you are now reading. This paper is published in the Bartlett’s Prospectives Journal at University College London (UCL). UCL sets the disciplinary boundary within which this paper is enclosed. My body, my fingers to be specific, follow a certain trajectory on the keyboard, writing in between the lines that the University has produced. The University, in return, examines and performs edits on the paper that I am writing.
As in the case above, the integration of my body into a disciplinary institution produces marks on the former, accompanied by certain aesthetic qualities. From the posture my body has taken to write this paper, to the format of this paper, my body is mechanically reproducing words; the journal is an encoded mechanical reproduction of an assembly of papers. The integration of machines as tools for exerting power on bodies, and the Body, which power itself manufactures, emerged in the first industrial revolution (Figure 1). Such integration has grown in intensity as industry and the system it produces become ever larger and more sophisticated. More bodies need to be compressed into the Body so that they can easily be placed under surveillance and control. Emerging from Foucauldian excavation, the shift from disciplinary power to biopower marks the first major expansion of power’s mechanism.
Before landing in the UK to start my studies at UCL, I first had to take a tuberculosis medical exam to obtain a student visa. Then, upon landing in the UK, I was required to register with a general practitioner to access health care. The registration form requested categorical information such as gender, ethnicity, and exercise status. The form sought this information in order for my body to be “legible”, in the eyes of the system, to become part of the Species-Body invented by biopower itself: the population.
“According to Foucault, the disciplinary mechanisms of the body and the regulatory mechanisms of the population constitute the modern incarnation of power relations, labeled as biopower.” Categorising bodies based on biopower’s concept of “the population” produces a normative effect on these very bodies. Under disciplinary power, institutions are concerned with micro behaviours of the bodies held within their boundaries. Under biopower, bodies are no longer unregulated beyond disciplinary institutions’ doors. Medical experts manage how individuals live their lives, and compare them to the overall wellness of the population. The population’s fate hinges on birth and death rates; procreation depends on the nuclear family (Figure 2). The nuclear family becomes the model image that bodies are moulded upon and into.
Despite disciplinary power and biopower’s different aesthetic consequences, as the factory man (Figure 1) and the nuclear family man (Figure 2) suggest, they are not mutually exclusive but reinforcing means of control. Biopower, a cogent consequence of disciplinary power, is born in a colonial context to protect claims of inheritance and racial superiority of the bourgeoisie families. Its logic is then instrumentalised to ensure the continued insertion of eligible bodies into the machine. For example, the 1890 census taker of the United States, Herman Hollerith, invented the mechanical manipulation of data and consequently founded the predecessor of IBM in 1911. Disciplinary power and biopower both serve as mechanisms for the increasing integration of the Body and machine.
This paper departs from an analysis of the forces that my body is subjected to. These forces are a product and reflection of the system which we – all bodies – coinhabit. Bodies are actively conditioned into the Body. The conditioning process has evolved over time, in episodes, each episode having its own aesthetic consequences. The self-analytical process of writing this paper follows Descartes’ method in Meditations, which famously creates a psychic doubling of “I” as an object of analysis to extend to the universal foundation of knowledge. This paper, importantly, makes no universal claims. Instead, it uses the experience of “I” – and its extension – to narrate machine’s absorption of bodies, in order to illustrate how diverse bodies are situated within a hegemonic system and to celebrate these diverse bodies’ resistances towards being moulded into the Species-Body.
Developed as a means of constructing and portraying knowledge through design praxis, the wearable device “Contiguity”, designed in unison with this paper, follows a comparable introspective process by bonding the wearer to a host of queer bodies populating the queer dating network, Grindr. In the eyes of systems of power, queer bodies are “weird” because of their oblique positioning in relation to the Species-Body. Queer bodies’ refusal to be – and become – straight marks a first episode of resistance.
The Rise of Antinormativity
Of Resistance: The Deviated Queer Bodies
My desire for men is my subjectivity’s departure point of deviation. When I was fifteen, my own awareness of my queer sexuality led me to study abroad – a response to China’s heavily disciplinarian post-secondary education. Five years later, on a trip back to visit my family, the receptionist at the public notary office (a government agency in China) looked at my date of birth, then straight into my eyes, and said: “You are getting married too late.” My queer body failed – and fails – to reproduce the straight lines set out by and for the nuclear family. When I had the opportunity to leave, I did.
The German origin of the word “queer” is “quer”, meaning “oblique” or “perverse”. Quer specifies the spatial and temporal relationships of queer bodies to the world. In this sense, queerness is always relational – the presence of a normative background makes queer bodies appear oblique (Figure 3). In turn, queerness resists normative effects in its ephemeral nature and rhizomatic organisation. It enchants bodies based on local relationships without superimposed logic or structure, therefore resisting both disciplinary power and biopower’s monopolistic claim on the future:
“The future is only the stuff for some kids. Racialized kids, queer kids, are not the sovereign princes of futurity… This monolithic figure of the child that is indeed always already white… It is important not to hand over futurity to normative white reproductive futurity.”
Queerness means a continued investment into alternatives to a white and heteronormative future. It opens different definitions of what kind of life is worth living. Bodies gather based on desires instead of class. This mode of relating allows queerness to form a counterforce to the Species-Body fabricated by biopower. In the world of art, queerness conceptually establishes the counterforce that disrupts the Western canon of beauty in the form of the weird, making room for a multiplicity of beings through aesthetic means.
From April 1950 to February 1951, Jean Dubuffet initiated a relentless attack on a traditional Western genre of beauty – the female nude. The genre of the Western female nude is composed of clear-cut contours and a pink tone that mimics northern European skin. From The Birth of Venus (Figure 4) to Olympia (Figure 5), the subject of representation shifted from a goddess to a prostitute. Yet, the continuity of monolithic beauty has remained intact. Images of beauty emit a normative effect on beauty standards set for the population. As the West attempted to move past the horrors of WWII, the genre of the female nude collapsed, its representation of the Body becoming less relevant. During this period, Dubuffet produced a collection of thirty oil paintings and seventy drawings called “Ladies’ Bodies”. These bodies form a collective, a collective-like queerness, that challenges the Species-Body aesthetically.
As part of this collection, The Tree of Fluids (Figure 6) presents a flattened female nude lying bare in front of its viewer. Different from its predecessors, this female nude is not represented as gentle but as monstrous. The pink that mimics a northern European skin tone can still be found, but shades of orange, red, even hints of purple, activate a violent deconstruction of ideal skin. In addition, the texture of sand mixed with paint creates a sense of flow that recalls erupting bodily fluids; the normative female nude run over by a car, leaving the figure flat on the ground, fluids splashing out from its reproductive – and sexualised – parts, spilling all over its body.
In relation to the Western canon of beauty, Dubuffet’s representation of female bodies is weird because of its radical opposition to what can be accounted as normatively beautiful. It challenges the normative notion of beauty similar to queerness’s challenge to heteronormativity’s monopoly of the future. Given queerness’s promises to open futures, capital has unsurprisingly attempted to valorise – and indeed capitalise on – queerness itself by inventing new means of control; one of its means is the queer dating network Grindr. Here, Grindr as a site marks a mutational response from power, attempting to force and secure a productive insertion of queer bodies into the machine, undermining their inherent resistance.
Antinormative is Profitable: My Abstracted Body
Of Control: We the Corporations
Grindr profiles demonstrate the depth to which “societies of control” have penetrated social relations. Deleuze first coined the term “societies of control” in 1992 to describe the shift away from a disciplinary society – a shift enabled by informational technology. An example of informational technology, Grindr pioneered the integration of geolocation into dating apps. Upon opening Grindr, profiles are presented in a grid layout, each profile occupying the same amount of virtual real estate on screen. This equalising effect is further reflected in profiles’ statistics that divide bodies into body types and categories. Body types, for example, are listed as: no response, average, large, muscular, slim, stocky, and toned (Figure 8). These body types are then divided further into categories called tribes (Figure 9). Each tribe reflects a male archetype, which can be used as a search term on porn search engines. These categories serve as entry points for bodies to access standardised desires:
“… the beefcake ﬂexing as if a cover model for Men’s Fitness; the bear doing his best Paul Bunyan impersonation; the twink posing like a supermodel; the tough guise appropriating hip hop gestures and styles; the jock/bro making certain to display his allegiance to whatever sports team; the boy-next-door, often admittedly an ‘average guy,’ devoid of any specifically gay cultural signifiers, fueling heteroerotic fantasies – all obviously borrowed, banal, willful reversions to types …”
This conscious construction of digital selves based on existing stereotypes erases the historical struggles of minorities and flattens them into purely aesthetic products. Racial bias and misogyny are deeply rooted in and, in turn, emerge from the development of these stereotypes. The problematic, ocular-centric construction of desires based on visual appearances and socio-cultural connotations relies heavily on the advertising industry. It defines our relationship with products and specifies our role as consumers. Through the lenses of these types, one can only measure the success or failure of their bodies by how they compare to ideal imagery – the Body reproduces sameness through serial repetition as if they were Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (Figure 10). In essence, virtual cruising and shopping now have ever more similarities. Hoping to stand out from an endless grid of men (it is only “Unlimited” if you pay $19.99 a month), one must promote one’s body as “the body” of each category – what is my brand? For a connection to be made, continuous window shopping and constant comparison is required, mirroring behaviour in a shopping mall – what bodies are available; how does one calculate pleasure based on other listed statistics?
An obsession with personal brands and statistical comparisons brings the Body’s mode of being ever closer to corporations. The thinking “I” has increasing similarities with the calculating AI. Adopted in the late nineteenth century, the Fourteenth Amendment gives people in the United States fundamental human rights. However, it also gives corporations the status of being (a) human. Under the neoliberal regime, the Constitution has realised its full consequences. Can we still tell the difference between corporations and ourselves? As we the corporation, are we willing to trade our imperfect profile pictures with a singular image that perfectly conforms to an ideal type?
Pertinently, the artist Lucy McRae explores the aesthetic potential of radical conformity, for example in her work Biometric Mirror. Beauty brands are deploying increasingly algorithmic services to offer customers personal advice. McRae’s mirror provides viewers with analyses of their characters solely based on their faces. In return, the algorithm calculates a mathematically perfect version of a present face and returns it to its viewer. McRae pushes the concept of beauty advice services to its extreme to explore the aesthetic consequences of a body conforming to algorithmic perfection (Figure 11). The ideal representation is embedded in – and constructed from – a biased dataset that (re)affirms traditional beauty standards. These biases are presented as objective claims of truth by the virtue of their allegiance with “science”. However, compared to the imperfections of human bodies, the personalised ideal representation slips easily into the uncanny valley. Weirdness resides in the gap between bodies in their flesh and their unattainable virtual representation. For the expediency of pleasure, we turn away from the weird and become fungible modules, ready to be exchanged in the neoliberal marketplace of human capital. In this impasse of the present, what and where is the next frontier of resistance to corporations’ valorisation of queerness’ open futures?
Under and Out of Control
From the invention of the disciplinary society to the formation of biopower, then to the creation of societies of control, each shift and mutation of power is enabled by – and creates – new means of measuring the Body. The panopticon established the absence or presence of bodies through spatial typology and abstract hierarchy. Statisticians compile aggregate population data to theorise on general trends of wellness, in order to ensure stability of power. Today, with the aid of ubiquitous computing and artificial intelligence, the resolution of the Body and the potential for data extraction is brought to unprecedented levels, placing it under even more comprehensive control.
Wearables are a form of threshold, where the forces of power that seek to exercise control over bodies meet weird flesh. On the surface of the skin, wearables attempt to materialise the intentions of their creators. Nevertheless, where the Body may not, diverse bodies possess the disposition to resist these forces. Tailoring wearables to distinctive bodies requires the creation of detailed and unique mappings.
A Creaform HandyScan 700 Scanner is deployed to obtain the map for Contiguity’s intervention. The scanner relies on scanning targets placed randomly on a body (Figure 12). The random pattern generates reference points for the scanner to register and construct local relationships. After the targets are placed, each scanning session takes around 20 minutes. During a scanning session, the body has to stay still, otherwise its movements would register new, or duplicate, parts due to changes in the local relationships of the scanning targets (Figures 13–16).
The process of mapping diverse bodies into one virtual body is an objective method invented by power structures to exercise control; however, the duration of the scanning session made space for my subjected, yet subjective, will to resist its mapping. While lasers brushed against the surface of my skin, with my arms opened, eyes closed, I tried to keep my mind and my body as still as possible. As the scanning progressed, my arms became heavier and slowly dropped in the presence of gravity. My virtual body looked increasingly unfamiliar in the eyes of the scanner. Eventually, unfamiliarity turned into monstrosity – the body growing more and more limbs, the surface of the chest starting to peel off the neck to accommodate changes in breathing (Figures 13–15). This monstrous body lacks legibility for power to operate upon. Parts must be restitched together in post-production to return the virtual body to a state of familiarity. During the editing process, my personal, subjective assumptions about my own body manifested in its representation (Figure 16). The gap between the physical and the virtual was my body’s unconscious attempt to escape the order imposed from above, despite my voluntary submission to the scanner. My body was constantly adjusting to its surrounding forces and internal processes, leveraging its flexibility and adaptability to disrupt the power’s process of mapping.
Developed in conjunction with this paper, Contiguity is a wearable device that absorbs the closest 500 Grindr profiles and transforms them into haptic feedback (Figure 17). Each air chamber of Contiguity corresponds to one of the body type categories. As users around the wearer go online and offline, Contiguity creates weird and unpredictable haptic sensations for the wearer. In contrast to Contiguity’s haptic mapping of surrounding profiles, Grindr’s grid layout and categorisations compress users’ bodies into virtual avatars of the Species-Body. The compression makes bodies legible in the eyes of the machine. Contiguity aims to disrupt the logic of compression with the weird flesh. The flesh is weird in form, made out of silicone skin with inflatable thermoplastic polyurethane backings, and in its communication with surrounding users’ bodies.
Contiguity is weird in its form because it is designed to transgress erogenous zones of the Body (Figure 18). The neck spills into the chest, and the chest spills into the upper abdomen (Figure 19). The transgressed boundaries make Contiguity’s touch oblique to biopower’s mapping of the Body, therefore challenging its monopolistic claim on pleasure. Who decides how we should be touched and what is seen as pleasurable? Contiguity’s conscious failure to approximate flesh amplifies its queering of the Body. Silicone is a popular material for the production of life-like masks, but the application of melted paint, food colouring and sand between silicone layers disrupt the visual field, creating monstrous bodies, much like in the aforementioned Dubuffet painting. Consequently, Contiguity recasts the representations of bodies and their definitions of intimacy, replacing a self-preserving definition with a world-building one.
The gap between the flesh and its (virtual) representation is another instigator of weirdness. Compressed bits and bytes of data drawn from surrounding queer bodies are translated into haptic feedback, a sensation of “heartbeats” cast onto the surface of a wearer’s skin. The neoliberal Grindr “meat market” is no longer experienced through discrete encounters, each Body an abstracted, idealised visual product, but is collectively subsumed into pulsing heartbeats Contiguity impress onto the skin. The collective allows us to reexamine our individualistic experiences of consumer desires. In the same way that biopower fabricates the Species-Body to exercise control, Contiguity assembles this new collective to create a sense of togetherness – being together without erasing differences. This togetherness has the power to form new political bodies, to become a counterforce that confronts the violence and crisis brought about by the normative Body.
Of Bodies and Togetherness
The legibility of the Body is the normative force, the weird flesh is the departure point of antinormativity. The open futures of antinormativity reside in the gaps between the Body as an ideal representation and diverse bodies in their flesh. Disciplinary power launched the ambitious project of integrating bodies into the machine for the former’s obedience and the latter’s efficiency. The factory man was the perfect man. Following the invention of biopower, the heteronormative couple projected the ideal imagery of the Body. The perfect couple bears the social labour of carrying and raising children, extending the patriarchal lineage, and ensuring the conservation of class and order. To justify imposing control on desires, biopower invented the Species-Body of the population with the aid of statistics to maximise the productivity of bodies. Queerness challenges the Body that biopower has produced in the gaps between imposed desire and the desires of the flesh. Resistance stems from the flesh and spreads across social fields, opening up alternative futures that power structures have yet to come to regulate. In response, biopower mutates with the aid of information technology into societies of control. New categories of representations are invented so that queer bodies can be more productive to the economy. Here, Grindr valorises queerness through the use of body types. These types serve as ideal imagery that queer bodies are measured against – the more conformed one is to the Body and its representation, the more productive you are to the economy. New measuring instruments will always be invented to penetrate the bodies deeper, to open new markets of consumption.
As Deleuze advises us, “there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons”. Contiguity demonstrates that a platform that seeks to partition and exercise control can be appropriated, subverted to build connections that escape the latest means of control. With the current global energy crisis, the all-encompassing system is showing its shortcomings in dealing with the even larger climate crisis. The current system is built to maximise (personal) interests, and can be exercised by an entity as small as a body aiming to fulfil its pleasure – as in the case of Grindr – or as large as a nation state aiming to profit from natural resources. Local disruptions can have undesirable global impacts since technology is deployed with a purpose of exclusion rather than inclusion. Forging a sense of togetherness is the first step to shifting our current technological and aesthetic development towards pluralistic and resilient futures.
 VW. Cisney, N. Morar, “Introduction: Why Biopower? Why now?” Biopower: Foucault and Beyond (The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 3.
 VW. Cisney, N. Morar, “Introduction: Why Biopower? Why now?” Biopower: Foucault and Beyond (The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 5.
 M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge (Penguin Books, 1998).
 I. Hacking, “Biopower and the Avalanche of Printed Numbers.”, VW. Cisney, N. Morar, ed., Biopower: Foucault and Beyond (The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 76.
 L. Bersani, “Ardent Masturbation.”, Thoughts and Things (The University of Chicago Press, 2015).
 Google’s English Dictionary [Internet], Oxford: Oxford Languages. https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/ (Accessed 02 Aug. 2021).
 S. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology (Duke University Press, 2006), 161.
 JE. Munoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. (New York University Press, 2009), 65–82.
 Ibid, 95.
 S. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology (Duke University Press, 2006), 46.
 J. Nairne, Jean Dubuffet – Brutal Beauty (Barbican Art Gallery, 2021).
 G. Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”. October, Vol.59 (1992) http://www.jstor.org/stable/778828 (Accessed 02 Aug. 2021) 3–4.
 T. Roach, Screen Love: Queer Intimacies in the Grindr Era (State University of New York Press, 2021), 88.
 Ibid, 18.
 L. McRae, Biometric Mirror (2019) https://www.lucymcrae.net/biometric-mirror- (Accessed 02 Aug. 2021).
 M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Penguin Classics, 2020).
 I. Hacking, “Biopower and the Avalanche of Printed Numbers.”, VW. Cisney, N. Morar, ed., Biopower: Foucault and Beyond (The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 73.
 G. Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”. October, Vol.59 (1992) http://www.jstor.org/stable/778828 (Accessed 02 Aug. 2021), 4.