One of the things about writing with as little possible between your head and your fingers is that things come out that you don’t consciously intend and that you don’t understand until much later. I believe it’s one of the parts of the process that causes some writers to say those (in my opinion kind of ridiculous) things about how they don’t so much create their writing as discover it. But everything we write means something, and it does come from some part of us that puts it all together and spits it out.
An email exchange recently brought up a concept I used in one of my short stories about drones, the concept of being dronesexual.
We—the dronesexual, the recently defined, though we only call ourselves this name to ourselves and only ever with the deepest irony—we’re never sure whether the humming is pleasure or whether it’s a form of transmission, but we also don’t really care…There are no dronesexual support groups. We don’t have conferences. There is no established discourse around who we are and what we do. No one writes about us but us, not yet.
What I said in the email was that I honestly wasn’t sure at the time where that came from or what it meant – it was merely the best word that I could find for what I was trying to talk about. Later – much later, really not until I was asked about it – I started thinking about what its actual meaning might be and what some of the implications of it potentially were.
The thing about “I Tell Thee All” is that, at least for me, it’s not really about relationships. I’m reluctant to tell anyone that their reading of anything I’ve ever written is incorrect, because I love it when stories can encompass a variety of readings that may or may not be intended by the author. If someone sees something, then for all intents and purposes it’s there. But a lot of people seem to have interpreted that story as being about romantic relationships, and when I was writing it, relationships really were not the point for me. The point was what happens to sexuality in a surveillance state. If one of the major elements of sex for us is a kind of Foucauldian self-knowledge that exists as a function and a reproduction of power, then what happens when our ways of knowing change? What happens when being known isn’t the task of human beings but of machines?
And what happens when the line between the two breaks down – or is revealed to have always been blurry?
One of the things that we often see in dystopian fiction – at least, in dystopian fiction that deals with a god-like, usually fascist state – is the idea of sex-as-resistence. Sex is presented as something unregulated and unregulateable, at least when sex is the result of the personal desires of the protagonists. It’s not uncommon in older dystopian fiction to see sex made into a kind of state-mandated “mating” solely for the purpose of social control and reproduction, but that almost always exists to contrast with the kind of revolutionary sex engaged in by the heroes (or rather, the hero and the woman who just can’t keep her hands off him, because of course it’s always a man wearing the hero-pants).
But something you see less often is a story that deals directly with power – at least state power – and the eroticism of being known.
I’ve written about this before, the erotic aspects of the Gaze, the ways in which the predatory nature of being seen drifts into the territory of possessive sexuality. There’s an intimacy in being known, and – again, to reference Foucault on a basic level – we often assume that anyone who fucks us gets to know something about us, at least when the fucking is coupled with emotional intimacy and connection. Someone really knowing us is sort of supposed to make us want to have sex with them. When someone has sex with us, they know us. This is naturally a massive oversimplification, but these are powerful ideas that underpin not only how we tend to conceive of sexuality but what kinds of sexuality we tend to identify as desirable and appropriate.
Drones have become a symbol of contemporary surveillance, a thing that’s always there and always watching and always potentially capable of doing harm. Sometimes this harm is through direct violence, and sometimes it’s merely the delivery of data to people who can use it against you. But either way, there are two aspects to the erotic power of drones, and they’re interrelated: Being known, and being controlled.
Robin James wrote a fantastic response to my post linked above, wherein she discusses the idea of droning as a process of the regulation and control of people (emphasis hers):
So, where the gaze regulates people by fixing them as objects (as, for example, Frantz Fanon argues the exclamation “Look, a Negro!” does), droning regulates people by creating the conditions that lead them to exhibit the wrong (or right) sort of profile, the sort of profile that puts you on watch lists, that disqualifies you for “discounted” credit, health insurance plans, etc…The gaze and the drone are absolutely not opposed or mutually exclusive; more often than not, they’re deeply and complexly implicated in one another. That’s why super-panoptic surveillance is above or on top of regular old visual panopticism; it’s an additional layer, not a replacement.
What I think that characterization requires me to talk about here is the kind of power exchange that we find in BDSM and other forms of kink, which get their sexual power from the eroticism of surrender and dominance, laying yourself bare to someone else and putting your body under their control, for them to give pain or pleasure or merely orders that have to be obeyed. There are many, many kinds of kink, of course, and this is another oversimplification, but I think for a lot of people, this serves as much of the underpinning. Surrendering to someone else sexually is itself incredibly erotic, and even if one isn’t truly known or truly controlled, the pretense of it is powerful.
Transferring this kind of sexual power to a state may be a bit of a stretch. But I don’t think we always explicitly identify the surveillant power of drones specifically with a state. I think that drones are both vaguer and more flexible than that, and for me the idea of droneness is something that isn’t reliant on a state for its existence. A drone itself is a manifestation of and a symbol for potentially any and all forms of surveillance, power, violence, control.
One of the things that makes a connection to BDSM (where consent and safety are held up as something like law) problematic is that this kind of sexual power is highly problematic: consent is questionable, and indeed assumed to be absent. Very few of us consent willingly to being surveilled. Very few of us actually want to be known in that way, much less controlled. But drone sexuality exists in the context of rape culture, where the lack of consent is itself eroticised. Violence is eroticised. As I wrote in the post linked above:
There’s also something darkly erotic about even the most violent kinds of death, penetrative in the most final possible way, a Gaze that figuratively dismembers becoming lethally and horrifyingly reified in exploded flesh.
The Gaze of a drone is penetrative, because all Gazes are fundamentally penetrative. Sexual violence is gendered: the aggressive performance of violence is masculine performance, and suffering the consequences of violence is constructed as a feminine act. Likewise, traditional forms of sexual power and control. Cisgendered men are powerful; women are weak and submissive. Men watch; women are available for the watching.
So drone sexuality itself is gendered through the processes attached to it. That suggests something else: that drones themselves are gendered. When I wrote my sexual drones, I tried to write them as genderless, and the attraction to them as something that transcended sexual and gender identities. But I don’t think I succeeded. My drones feel masculine to me. This probably reveals just as much about me as it does about how we construct sexuality, but either way.
So can we fetishize surveillance and its associated control? Are we doing it already?
Next week I’ll go into these questions in more depth, as well as attempt to explore the transgressiveness of drone sexuality and the ways in which it compares to other instances of sexualized technology in the stories we tell.
Sarah is probably being surveilled on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry