Queering the Metaverse- a talk by Dr Jacqueline Ristola

Centre member Dr Jacqueline Ristola, in the Department of Film and Television, gave a fascinating talk called ‘Queering the Metaverse’ for the Friday Lunchtime talks at the PM Studio.

Beginning with the statement ‘the metaverse does not exist’, Jacqueline navigated through the trajectory of the metaverse. Continuous live connection and interactivity is promised by corporations who are trying quickly to stay ahead of the game. Facebook, rebranded as Meta, Microsoft, Roblox, Fornite are all contenders in this hyped-up race. Even Match Group have plans to introduce metaverse features into Tinder and OkCupid. Jacqueline asks ‘Is it all just hype?’

Jacqueline became interested in the metaverse through her research in animation and corporations like Warner Brothers. Animation is ‘imbricated in the logics of the virtual space’. Avatars are essential to the metaverse; infinitely customisable with smooth and simplified aesthetics for quicker load time. For me, the avatars seem to be part of the aesthetics of the digital age as written about by Byung-Chul Han in Saving Beauty. Created from the desire for frictionless, the metaverse is a pursuit for the elimination of any resistance. Smoothness is collecting as much data as possible while maintaining a society of positivity. The smooth becomes the signature of the present time. Jacqueline pointed out that much of the focus around diversity is on individual customisation, particularly the user experience in isolation and therefore not as much attention is given to space and interactivity.

Jacqueline shared an incredibly thoughtful position to respond to some of the problems she identified, using queer phenomenology as a tool to enable us to speak about the metaverse in a more conducive way to our desires. Sara Ahmeds’ writing on orientations share how certain orientations and spaces pressure us to follow particular lines, which we are shaped by and then reproduce. Spaces are made available to particular bodies, and the preference for these spaces become codified through repetition. Particular oritentations are privileged over others through repetition. Jacqueline proposed that if we pay attention to animation loops that speculate on the metaverse, we can trace the loops of normative orientation that are formed by the repetition the action.

Jacqueline signalled to the potentiality for queer embodiment in the metaverse made possible when some desires deviate from the normative orientations, forging new desire lines. VR systems may enable users to cross gender and identify boundaries. Yet Jacqueline was also critical (rightfully so) of the way in which Meta’s digital world, for example, suppresses the way we can access knowledge of the body. Digital landlords were mentioned in the q&a section. I came to know digital landlords, like Jacqueline mentioned, through How to with John Wilson. A digital landlord owns virtual property on the internet, and rents out space to others. The metaverse as a space has infinite resources, so it is all ready interesting to see how users decide to occupy the space, or how the metaverse orients its users towards a reproduction of capitalist ownership.

Virtual worlds are a powerful space for self expression. Jacqueline questioned whether the metaverse, with the ability to connect to others through a cultivated identity, could provide a space to envision and test new forms of queer embodiment. I was inspired, from my own experience of finding affirmation of my gender identity in online spaces. However, as Jacqueline emphasised, the embodied capacity for joy and connection must be privileged in order to animate a truly queer desire.

Please come along to the Friday Lunchtime Talks at the Pervasive Media Studio- every Friday 1-2pm. 🙂

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