Cru Encarnação

It would be so easy to point out a specific behavior and declare it to be the origin of the problem, because it is more comforting to think of problems as things you can stop. It would be easier to say that we should completely cease what we’re doing, violently rip up the current state and restart the system. First question: have we agreed on the system we are rebuilding? Second question: are we all starting from the same point? Are we restarting at the same level? The answer is always no.

Claiming that there is only one distinct solution is metaphysically inadequate and, to say the least, mortifying at its core.

Post-world enmeshment

In 2017, Alok Vaid-Menon releases Femme in Public, their first book advocating for new gender notions outside of the male-female binary. In that same year, estimations point to the steepest increase of social media users ever registered (about 20%). Instagram user base increases drastically to 750 million and to one billion in the following year. 2017: new and sharp voice technology steps up its game, with Siri and Alexa at the forefront. Self-driving cars take their first passengers. “Selfie drones,” microchips for humans, and the iPhone X arrive on the market. 2017: Denmark removes transgender identities from its list of mental disorders, archeologists find the bones of a Viking in Birka who they speculate may might have been a trans person. 2017: Canada allows citizens to choose “x” for their gender marker as an alternative to “male” or “female” on official government documents. Botswana recognizes gender change as a constitutional right.

In 2018, Laboria Cuboniks releases Xenofeminist Manifesto, in which the collective evokes a politics of alienation in order to disrupt preconceptions of nature, optimistically portraying a future horizon where technology, trans and queer bodies, and intersectional feminist and working-class traditions join forces to reconstruct a more sustainable and inclusive world. In the same year, Christopher Wylie leaks information about data and privacy violations carried out by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook and highlights the tragic ways in which this covert operation had a massive influence on the 2016 US election of Donald Trump. Portugal, 2018: the gender self-determination law is approved: trans people above the age of 18 can change their name and gender marker without requiring medical intervention or approval. Chile, 2018: Sebastián Piñera signs the Gender Identity Law. Uruguay, 2018: a law is passed granting trans people the right to freely access hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgeries.

At the end of 2018, the election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s president sparks a global discussion on the harmful consequences of fake news disseminated viaWhatsApp and Facebook and the neo- propagandistic modes of expression which led to a “war over truth” and confers a whole new kind of power to the way that electoral campaigns increasingly play out online. Shoshana Zuboff releases The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

For some the TIME cover with Laverne Cox in 2014 rightly signified that same year to be a “transgender tipping point.” For others, 2004, the year Facebook was founded, was the decisive year for the newborn techno-social landscapes of the future decades. We don’t really know for sure. These moments are simply ethereal historical waves whose traces escape our glimpses. They are open-ended mysteries that defy metric quantification. Taking a subjective view, the time around 2017/2018 was not only the initial peak for both a sweeping manifestation of trans bodies’ existence outside of the US and a moment where past science fictions became real, but also the knot that ties these two things together from a beginning.

90s cyber feminism and artist collective VNS Matrix foreshadowed the new millennium and the immensely important role the internet would play in supporting future subcultures and subversive movements. The internet became the symbol of the new millennium. Ever since, it has belonged to trans bodies in the same way that trans bodies that live today have also been highly shaped by internet culture. The place for the wrecked, the forgotten, the abandoned, the weird bodily assemblages printed negatively on society’s canvas. The place for bodies that surpass semantic barriers, the place where these bodies achieve their full potential by becoming immaterial and escaping from the haunted imprint of gendered significations on the flesh. An anarchic exchange of knowledge, an endless polysemy, infinite possibilities of communication—perhaps a dream of communism.

This has been the home of trans bodies, the soil for the seeds of trans language and remains to be so: whenever someone in the trans community says they will “share something” it is common sense that they will use Instagram to post it; likewise, the word “non-binary” was invented by teenagers on Tumblr. There is such a profound interconnectedness between contemporary trans bodies and the internet that for someone neither witness to early Internet culture nor in the trans community, meaning might get mixed up and obscured amongst these “new things.” In the last years of the 2010s (inaugurated by the launch of Instagram) it has become difficult to distinguish between steps towards trans liberation, technological advancements, and a really threatening and scary evolution of capitalist apparatuses of control on the world’s tissue. For many, it’s all the same thing. It’s not. And every step, every change is simultaneously so many things: some are in the interest of the people, while others are designed to serve corporations and money.

A myriad of technological innovations, revolutionary moments, and other advancements have arrived, and with them the ever-wider and more shameless demonstration of Othered corporealities of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people. Queer bodies do have a very strong but almost incomprehensible connection to so many (positive and negative) consequences of the accelerating world that unfolds under the observing and exploitative eye of capitalism. And when I say they have a connection I don’t declare a causal relation from one to the other, but its historical coexistence and, therefore, the existing belief that they do.

This is not to say that their historical appearance is not concomitant. But historical appearance is neither existence, per se, nor is it historical existence.

Coming out as a trans person in this moment of history is going to get you the answer: “all these new things and trends”; “these new ideas”; and even in some “leftist” circles, “this is all capitalism forcing its obsession with the ‘I’ on you.” The list goes on: “these new strategies,” “more identity politics,” “this way of fighting won’t get you anywhere,” “this is the reason why right-wing movements are rising,”. “these new things are products of the occurrences that we are not able to process yet.” In short, the new face of capitalism.

The uncontrollable wave of trans people becoming more visible to the public is as feared as the uncanny dimension of social media and other technological advancements. It is unfairly thrown in together with capitalism’s evolution. Everything is thrown to the box of “the new bad things” by right-wing as well as left-wing minds. Because, ultimately, all change is thrown into the same box.

The dead, the evil, the uncanny

A historical look at the reception of new technologies shows that the way social media has been perceived is highly reminiscent of the reception that electricity, photography, and film experienced at the time of their commercialization: fear, demonization, the belief in the complete and utter corruption of a future generation which would become permanently disadvantaged as a result. What seems in evidence here is a collision between the material and the immaterial that creates new epistemologies and understandings of flesh, subjects, perception, places, time, and space, and stimulates the production of notions of evil and death. New technologies have always unleashed strong expressions of human fear and curiosity about the uncanny.

In 1803, at the dawn of the age of electricity, Giovanni Aldini performed grotesque experiments with human corpses and limbs in which he applied electric current to dead bodies, causing it to convulse violently, and open and shut its mouth and eyes. Through this he sought to explore the material nature of electricity acting on human flesh. Aldini’s experiments would later become one of the main inspirations for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

During one of the first film screenings ever held, some audience members  were possessed by the urge to leave the room, screaming in fear that they were about to be run over by the seemingly real train approaching them/the camera in Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. This odd and frightening experience of the new materialities of the moving image was further explored in the medium’s first forays into the horror genre, such as Nosferatu, Dracula, or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

In another example, photography became a concrete example of a “medium” in the sense of a connector passing between the living and the dead. The divine and mystical fascination with photography quickly became as prominent as its scientific use. Spirit photography sought to bring back the image of dead people by means of the camera and the photographic plate. The new “media” of photography was also a “medium” used in séances conducted between the material and the immaterial realms. A juxtaposition of the real with the unreal—the living person with their dead relative.

The possibility of doubling a person’s appearance was thought to be uncanny - it created a ghost-like figure that would be perceived, yet unsettlingly intangible. The visual replication of something as absolute and essential as an individual person generated an ontological crisis.

The Pepper’s Ghost illusion, popularized as a performance technique by John Henry Pepper in 1862, is another example of how the mechanisms of photography have been directly used to simulate ghostly appearances and how they stay symbolically connected with the uncanny.

The mysterious spectral qualities of both the reproducible static image and the moving image lie in their split existence as capturers of divine appearance and as a mechanism of manipulation and deception—in other words, magic.

Although we may live in an era of historical abundance when it comes to new technologies and visual input, we have inherited their semiotic associations from the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite our incessant craving for (new) technology, we seem to as yet be incapable of emancipating  ourselves from the fear of it.

“What does a ghost look like? A ghost puts the nature of human senses, vision especially, in crisis”

A whole avalanche of new things carry the same conundrums, mysteries, and cognitive difficulties and resulting fears that we observed in connection with the above phenomena. Not only trans people, for example, but also the puzzling new way of experiencing life through social media. Sometimes both things simultaneously.

Trans people have existed and continue to exist on the internet, and they amalgamate even further on social media. They escape, on the one hand, a specific oppressive structure that tends to impose upon them even  stronger forms of structural segregation and disadvantage and, on the other, the material conditions imposed upon gender.

Social media possesses a vast and much more sophisticated range of informational spread, which makes it possible for trans people to navigate and have access to basic needs as the result of a different type of currency: attention. Be it rents, medical care, mental support, or friends and community (all of which are generally less accessible to trans people), social media enables alternative pathways to achieve the meeting of these basic needs.

While for so many people social media simply provides them with an extra avenue for the creation of an externalized archive of themselves, for others it is a mode of survival. For many people, sharing an Instagram story is so much more than a cry for attention or a temporary dopamine kick. It is a strategy of survival.

For many trans people, it is social media that pays for surgeries, that spreads awareness about episodes of violence and harassment, that provides job opportunities, and that creates community and mutual care, friendships and family, all of which work on personalized economies of attention.

Trans people have successfully created many new means with which to meet basic needs through social media and alternative economies of attention, in some cases even creating ecologies of attention and the redistribution of knowledge, wealth, and other resources.

The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma (2020) portrays the operating techniques of surveillance and cognitive capitalism and the consequences of its effects on the mental health of social media users. The people interviewed (many of them creators of the very surveillance apparatuses that capitalize on attention) advocate for a complete withdrawal from social media. Documentaries like this perpetuate the idea that there will be an one-size-fits-all solution for the complex issues caused by the exploitative systems that operate under surveillance capitalism. It also perpetuates the idea that there are good and bad ways to act, when in fact the idea of an absolute way to act responsibly is a myth. There is survival and there is redistribution of wealth. The idea of disruption through detachment is an old idea that predates the established decentralized modes of neo-liberal oppression and real Foucauldian pastoral power – when even the most intimate areas are open to surveillance.

Everyone would benefit if discussions were instead being held about manipulation, hacking, and the repurposing of these platforms, rather than ones which try to pretend they don’t or shouldn’t exist.

Ignoring or trying to end platforms that have partially become networks for survival through ecologies of attention (even if these are accompanied by problematic consequences) is not only messianically declaring what should be right for everyone, but also imbuing them with the same fearmongering narrative centered around cognitive transformation that have always occurred during the integration of new technologies into society. It creates estrangement from its users and from the platform itself; it constructs the uncanny and the dangerous, ordered negatively in relation to the world of material resources and monetary currency.

The history of humanity is a history of constant cognitive shifts. The history of ideas is a constant and unceasing cognitive shift. Philosophy is a chain of traumatic cognitive shifts that enable change and at least the possibility of fighting for justice.

However, we still regress to the late 19th century/early 20th century fears of uncanny visual abundance and reproducibility, and of the people who actively participate in its realization. There is more behind it, including survival. There is a cognitive transformation few risk to endure.

The soul’s peeling

Trans people who to a certain extent rely on attention to survive do know that as the world currently stands, being dependent on attention has a strong effect on one’s mental health. They know that they’re being surveilled and that their information is being sold to corporations. They know about the mental assault inflicted by social media and of a perverse digital existence that relies on constant screams for attention, and that the meeting of basic needs should be a state responsibility.

They also know that the need to cultivate attention as an alternative currency opens up one’s most intimate aspects to public dissection and that—just like a photograph ensnares a part of its subject on film, peeling back the soul like a dry onion—the attention needed from social media exposes them to the approval of the ones who have the power to keep them alive. We know that a very dangerous game of seduction is at play.

They also know that in many instances such as this they could be talking about so many things but are in fact talking about themselves. And that has nothing to do with a voluntary and self-centered obsession of the “I”. It has merely to do with survival. And while the onion is being peeled, it also solidifies the shape of its own caricature. We are thirsty for your attention and our dried throat has become the costume in which you want to see us dressed.

Social media is the new corporeal extension. It ends up being more important than our physical bodies in the same way that one’s passport matters more than one’s physicality at the moment of the border. And most of their users know that. The idea of abandoning these attention economies is irresponsible towards people who have been forced to use them as a means of survival, despite enduring the mental burden of an identity shattering across endless digital spaces. These are the uncanny ones because they have chosen to insist on the disruption of the nature of human senses and cognitive comfort.

It really would be so much easier to point at a behavior or a group of people and declare it to be the origin of the problem—because it really is more comforting to think of problems as things you can simply stop.

Photo Courtesy of the artist

Cru Encarnação (they/them or he/him) is a performance artist, writer, and translator born in Lisbon and based in Berlin. They studied philosophy and comparative literature at the Freie Universität Berlin.

Among other venues and events, they have performed at ACUD MACHT NEU, Horse&Pony, nGbK, diffrakt., transmediale 2019 & 2021, Low Text, Hopscotch Reading Room, Zwitschermaschine Gallerie, and MUTEK 2020. They have been published by the collectives Bridge (Berlin) and FALTA (Açores, Portugal) and streamed at Ma3azef or Radio Caso.

In his works he seeks to create open-ended brainstorms that platform the cognitive-motorical and chemical-physical expansion of socially constructed meaning. His dissociative and fictional modus operandi discloses a fragile yet vicious reality.