Conference Agenda

RN23_06: Theorizing materialism and the human in sexuality
Thursday, 22/Aug/2019:
2:00pm - 3:30pm

Session Chair: Diane Richardson, Newcastle University
Location: BS.3.24
Manchester Metropolitan University Building: Business School, Third Floor, North Atrium Oxford Road


Queer Materialism: Approaches from New and Historical Materialisms

Mathias Klitgård

University of Stavanger, Norway

The contributions made from the new materialist or posthuman turn in the cultural and social sciences have led to a reinvigorated debate on the position and construction of the human as the privileged site of knowledge creation, ethics and politics. When paired with the denormativising promise of queer theory and its insistence on the importance of sexuality, body and desire, a number of significant insights have been introduced to critical theory and activism more broadly.

A common (and often appropriate) critique of queer theory and new materialisms alike is their historical inabilities to account for the way capitalist exploitation and domination shape the possibility of a critical politics of sexuality, body and desire. As such, they become complicit with imperial capitalism in the era of homonormativity and queer niche consumption and production. In this light, how can a revisiting of new and historical materialist theory revitalize queer theory? What are the preliminary steps we must take to understand the relations between these three overlapping sets of literature?

In this paper, I aim to understand the ‘claim to matter’ inherent in both new and historical materialisms and to use it to inform a revitalised queer (materialist) theory. A diffractive reading with historical materialism, it is my claim, works as an antidote to the (potential) liberal infatuations in the field. Through a close examination of key theoretical texts, I explore the conditions for a meaningful cross-pollination between queer theory, new materialisms and historical materialism as fundamental to the critical project of 'queer materialism'.

Mapping Affective Capacities: Gender and Sexuality in Relationship and Sex Counselling Practices

Marjo Kolehmainen

Tampere University, Finland

Drawing on fieldwork on relationship enhancement seminars in Finland, this presentation examines how gendered and sexualized power relations are (re)produced in therapeutic practices. It applies the Deleuzian idea of affective capacities to the analysis of gender and sexuality, understanding gender and sexuality as about ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’. This kind of framework builds upon the new materialist ontology, where the focus is on what bodies and things do – rather than what they are. The analysis of different event-assemblages shows how gendering and sexualizing happen through diminishing and augmenting bodies’ capacities to affect and be affected. In this way, the focus of analysis becomes not only what bodies can do, but what they are made to do. The presentation concludes that the very relations that diminish some capacities may increase other capacities, which is central to the dynamics through which gender and sexuality work in and on bodies.

New Materialist Feminist Perspectives on Sex Robots

Tanja Kubes

TU Munich, Germany

The construction of sex robots offers a great potential for reducing stereotypes and promoting diversity. For people to sexually interact with robots, traditional dualisms have to be dissolved. Thus, the strict separation of man and machine needs to give way to a view accepting the latter at least to some degree as an equal vis-à-vis. Current trends in sex-robotics, however, do not explore these rich possibilities. Instead, hetero-normative ideas of male hegemony are mirrored in the design of both hardware and software. While the robots’ anatomy exaggerates pornographic fantasies of hyper-femininity, the built-in AI is programmed to let the robot act as an ever-ready, obedient servant. Sex with such a robot runs danger of becoming a solitary, unilateral act. A strong strand of feminist critique starts right here and argues from an ontological perspective that, due to the lack of intentionality of the machine, sex with robots is not possible at all. Sex-robots for them only translate a centuries long history of exploitation and oppression into a new medium. I will show that this line of argument is short-sighted and neglects the (also feminist) potential that lies in the development of 'intelligent' machines. In the long run, we might even come to redefining our entanglements with the non-human in the sense of an all-encompassing, ethical “epistem-ontological” approach that overcomes the inherent (and outdated!) anthropocentrism of modernity to open up new spheres of post-humanist encounters, relationships and sexualities.

Artificial Intimacy: Making the Human / Making the Robotic

Mark Benjamin Bibbert

University of Kassel, Germany

The desire to create the perfect sexual partner has preoccupied western culture for quite some time, as seen in the myth of Pygmalion. Nowadays we develop sexbots: mechanical skeletons embedded in ‘flesh’ made of thermoplastic elastomer (TPE). Smart sensors register touch, microphones hear voices, speakers emit audio. The lips move when audio plays and the eyes blink. The development of these sexbots is based on the engineering of modern sex dolls. In the design, use and coverage of these artifacts, knowledge of what is human, of gender, of intimacy, and of consent is negotiated. In my paper, I present findings from sexbot-human encounters drawn from demonstrations of this technology. Drawing on Wally Smith (2009) and Lucy Suchman (2011) these demonstrations can be understood as theatres of use, situations in which multiple frames overlap. The analysis of sexbot demonstrations shows which interpretative frames of sexuality are projected onto the sexbots.

Smith, Wally (2009): Theatre of Use: A Frame Analysis of Information Technology Demonstrations. In: Social Studies of Science 39/3 Page: 449–480

Suchman, Lucy (2011): Subject objects. In: Feminist Theory 12/2 Page: 119–145