Shaka McGlotten, Virtual Intimacies

Review by Kathryn Silverstein
Stony Brook University

McGlotten, Shaka (2013). Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect, and Queer Sociality Albany: SUNY Press.

[1] What is real about intimacy? What are we to make of the possibilities and failures constituted by connecting—or not—in a technophobic/philic society? Shaka McGlotten addresses these questions and more, by tracking the experiences of gay men navigating the expanse of virtually mediated intimacies around them. In analyzing public sex in chapter one of Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect, and Queer Sociality, McGlotten engages a multiplicity of voyeurs, from the on-site cruisers to the family watching To Catch a Predator. Stretched out between these gazes, intimacy is marked as a form of perversion that implicates both participants and viewers while reinforcing normative forms of sociality. At the same time, these forms of intimacy spill out over the confines of standardized relationship models, opening up a space for queer excess. McGlotten traces the conventional discourse about virtual intimacies as failed, interrogating the possibilities of failure in a manner drawing on Jack Halberstam's work in The Queer Art of Failure (2011). For McGlotten, intimacy is a force both personal and structural, this latter owing much to Lauren Berlant's work on the "intimate public sphere," while virtuality is the "promise of immanence" imbued with a sense of belonging. In the queer publics that here serve as case studies, McGlotten works through both the use of informants and autoethnography, a decision that places him in a position of vulnerability that informs his own relationship to the openness of failure. The result of these projects coming together is a book that is both imaginative and compelling, if not at times undertheorized.

[2] Virtualization, for McGlotten, represents both the mediation of online and digital culture and those forms of sex deemed nonnormative or failed, i.e., not the "real thing." When both run together, as in chapters one and four, the impropriety of sexual transgression in the eyes of society is refracted, multiplied by electronic mediation. Different forms of intimacy emerge as either weak or strong in public discourse, warning worried citizens about the consequences of sex emerging into the public sphere. McGlotten here highlights at the same time the potential in exposure, namely, the discovery that transgression is indeed possible. The historical context for the book is that of the culture wars, and the (oftentimes virtual) anxieties generated by new and developing forms of seemingly boundless sexual freedoms. These freedoms give way to an understanding that embodiment cuts through the egalitarian, open promises of cyberspace. McGlotten's chapter on the racialization of desire ("Feeling Black and Blue") traces the circulation of anxiety, paranoia, and optimism through online publics, moving away from traditional representational analyses to confront the historical connections of racial aggressions. For McGlotten, these encounters, while frequently replaying age-old stereotypes, have the potential to be transformative. This optimism is both a strength and a weakness of the book, which is at times imaginative and playful, but not fully drawn out. McGlotten justifies this optimism by drawing on a Deleuzean conception of the virtual, which he suggests leaves room for an optimism that functions through "uncaptured immanence and excess." From his invocation of queer futurity to the conception of failure as resistance, McGlotten teases out the ways in which his subjects subvert normative expectations. Some of the original concepts he builds on the framework of his optimism could, however, be developed further.

[3] McGlotten claims that carnality "can function as a creative political, even pedagogical, practice that resists and elaborates dominant narratives of intimacy" (9), and while he demonstrates this resistance chapter by chapter through an emphasis on non-normative practices, it remains unclear at times just how these practices can be generative. The latter part of "Feeling Black and Blue," for instance, articulates the expansionist politics of queer optimism. Such a move could benefit from slightly more theorizing as to what a world inflected with this optimism might look like. As it stands, however, McGlotten has carefully outlined the ways in which resistance against a heteronormative teleology functions to create new understandings of how virtuality mediates intimacy. He combines an auto/ethnographic approach with close reading and reflection, tracking practices and discourses with a poetic sensibility. In drawing out the mobility and stickiness of queer affects, McGlotten's method bears some resemblance to Sara Ahmed's in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). He diverges from Ahmed in his use of autoethnography, which opens him up to vulnerability through its highly personal politics.

[4] Through careful self-scrutiny, McGlotten examines his own relationship to virtual intimacies, articulating both lasting impact and the openness of potential and becoming that he relates to optimism. In his third chapter, he combines autoethnography with an affective approach to develop a concept of "black affect," which he says "...put[s] people and worlds in movement..." (64). While methods drawing upon experience can potentially fall into the traps described by Joan Scott in her essay "The Evidence of Experience" (1991)—namely, a naturalization of difference—McGlotten skirts such problematics through an ongoing historicization of his own knowledge production. This historicization is complemented by an open-ended poesis—"Closeness, sharing. Fred said this to Felix and me with the intensity of a revelation" closes a passage from chapter one (23)—that performs queer engagement outside of a mode of critique. Ultimately, Virtual Intimacies is a much-needed addition to affect studies, and to studies of queerness in virtual spaces.


Ahmed, Sara (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge.

Berlant, Lauren (2008) The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham: Duke University Press.

Halberstam, Jack (2011) The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press.

Scott, Joan "The Evidence of Experience" (1991) Critical Inquiry 17.4: 773-97.