Intimacy and Unexpected Technologies – Suzanne Fraser

Suzanne Fraser interviewed by Jennifer Power.

Jennifer Power (JP): Can you tell me a bit about your work as it relates to themes of technology and intimacy?

Suzanne Fraser (SF): Over the years I’ve been intensely interested in the relationship between selves, bodies, technologies and society. My early studies in Women’s Studies and then Gender Studies brought up time and again knotty questions about how we should understand individuals, subjectivity, power and structures, and prompted me repeatedly to interrogate taken-for-granted binaries such as nature/culture, self/other, purity/pollution and masculinity/femininity. Part of that process of interrogation involved rethinking go-to objections to social developments such as the rise of cosmetic surgery in the 1980s and 1990s (the subject of my PhD thesis). At that time it wasn’t uncommon for feminists to criticise cosmetic surgery as an unnatural intervention into women’s bodies. While perhaps an understandable reaction, I perceived it to be self-defeating in that discourses of nature were also part of the logics delimiting women’s choices. When Donna Haraway pointed out that technological innovation, and its influence on daily life, was not something we could simply stop or abandon, and instead must think through more carefully, I found this extremely productive. She rejected simplistic and potentially counterproductive assumptions about pure, pre-technological bodies, and in a moment of hyperbole appreciated by many feminists, declared she would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.

All that might seem a long way from the question I’m answering here, but for me it isn’t. Technologies are part of who we are: they can help shape our lives including our forms of intimacy. That said, how this relationship works is also worthy of close consideration. As Bruno Latour has noted, technologies aren’t just passive, neutral tools that can be deployed to fulfil our goals. Nor are they governing devices that dictate use and outcomes. Instead they create what he calls ‘affordances’—opportunities and tendencies. I observed this at work in the uses to which cosmetic surgery procedures were put, and the discourses that circulated through them. Later, when I started to work on other issues such as sexuality, blood-borne virus prevention and drug use, similar dynamics also became clear to me. In all these contexts I see similar issues in play relating to technology and intimacy. Contemporary life offers an array of technological means of reaching for and enjoying intimacy. Those means are also routinely deployed for ends that would seem not to have been intended or predicted by the makers, and which might diminish intimacy, at least for some. In the process, the very terms of the engagement come to be redefined—the nature of intimacy, for example, is no doubt undergoing change in response to the advent of social media, particularly under pandemic-related quarantine conditions. So, for me, the multidirectional, unpredictable, yet not entirely unmoored relationship between technology and intimacy forms a thread that runs through all my work.

JP: When we recently spoke about this topic you gave the example of the work you have done that involved designing a ‘fitpack’ for couples. You used the term (I think) ‘unexpected technologies of intimacy’. Can you describe that example here?

[Note. A fitpack is a small container that holds a supply of clean hypodermic syringes, swabs and a container for safe disposal of syringes]

SF: The work my colleagues and I have done looking at drug use-related technologies might offer resources for thinking about intimacy and technology. Two pieces of work come to mind as especially relevant here. One discusses the use of the overdose-reversal medication naloxone within an intimate relationship to afford care for a person with a terminal illness. In the other, the safe injecting fitpack is the focus, with the design of the fitpack understood as materialising a particular approach to intimacy. While conventional fitpacks are designed for individuals, explicitly materialising the responsibility of the individual in preventing the transmission of blood-borne viruses, a new model developed by our research team was designed around couples who inject together, acknowledging their intimate relationships, easing equipment management, and supporting discussions about transmission prevention.

JP: Are there any questions relating to technology and intimacy or technology and sexuality do you find yourself thinking or wondering about?

SF: Perhaps because my own working life has been so affected by COVID-19 recently, and remote working relationships have become my primary way of engaging with other people, I’ve found myself thinking about the affordances of Zoom and other electronic meeting technologies. It might be that we rarely think of workplace interactions as forms of intimacy, but in an odd way, perhaps because Zoom has put my colleagues’ faces and voices right in front of me, I feel a particular kind of social intimacy has emerged, at least from my perspective. It might be I’m alone in this perception, but if not, I have wondered how it might shape workplace relationships and even decision-making and outcomes. More broadly, if such meeting styles continue after quarantine, I’ve wondered whether it will have an impact on the capacity for people living with disabilities to participate more easily in public life and at least some occupations, and whether that will afford new social intimacies among people who otherwise rarely engage with each other, and even over time reshape industries, policies and institutions. And of course, while I’ve just used the word ‘disability’, this is a heavily freighted and contested word. Certainly, if electronic meetings and working from home were normalised as a result of the pandemic, a wholly different landscape of so-called disability might emerge. Some people previously excluded from face-to-face meetings by mobility or other issues, for example, might be newly able to participate fully. In turn, greater clarity around the sources of exclusion—institutional, social or political rather than individual—might be afforded.

To turn to a very different subject and context, I don’t suppose any of us will quickly forget the terrible and shocking intimacy in which we became enfolded when footage of the killing of George Floyd in the US emerged as a result of smartphone camera technology. While such cameras have been used to create and circulate painful and denigrating images, they have also been used to share images of desperate urgency and importance, images that may change society and governance in positive ways. Rendering the treatment of George Floyd right into our hands, homes and thoughts via a device that may for many be our most intimate possession, with the voices of those begging for his life right in our ears, was an agonising production of intimacy that I hope changes our world forever.

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Professor Suzanne Fraser is Director of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) at La Trobe University. She is also visiting Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Social Research in Health at the University of New South Wales. Suzanne’s PhD is in Gender Studies, and her research focuses on the body, gender, health and the self. Suzanne is the author of a number of books on the body and health in society and culture. Her most recent book is entitled Habits: Remaking addiction, co-authored with David Moore and Helen Keane, and her previous works cover a range of topics including cosmetic surgery, methadone maintenance treatment, the politics of hepatitis C and the politics of addiction.

Over the last few years, Suzanne’s research has focused on two Australian Research Council-funded studies, one exploring injecting practices and harm reduction needs among men who inject performance and image enhancing drugs, and the other investigating impediments to the uptake and diffusion in Australia of take-home naloxone, the opioid overdose medication known to save lives. Professor Fraser’s recent work has focused in part on technologies associated with injecting drug use. In this interview she talks about the ways in which technologies that respond to opioid overdose or support safer injecting can offer a resource for thinking about how ‘objects’ and ‘technologies’ are implicated in the shaping of human intimacy.

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