The Face Of Sexuality: Why Do AI-Generated Sexual Orientations Matter?

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Weber is the author of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge which has been the subject of a symposium on this blog, besides also being an occasional contributor to the blog. This text is based on comments presented at the 2017 European International Studies Association Annual Conference, Barcelona, on the panel ‘The Politics and Responsibility of IR in an Age of Crisis’.

A Stanford University study by Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski that recently went viral repackages long discredited beliefs that a person’s face is scientifically readable for specific personality traits (also see this). The study claims artificial intelligence (AI) facial recognition technology can determine a person’s sexual orientation, with 16-30% greater accuracy than the human eye. The study analyzed more than 35,000 images on a US dating website of white, able-bodied, 18-40 year olds for ‘fixed’ (e.g., nose shape) and ‘transient’ facial features (e.g., grooming styles, weight, facial expressions). Researchers compared their AI-generated sexual orientations against sexual orientations researchers found from dating profiles, which researchers established ‘based on the gender of the partners that [website users] were looking for’.

LGBTQ advocacy organizations immediately labeled the study ‘junk science’. Social scientists will have little trouble understanding why. For example, the study’s sample is skewed in terms of race, age, (dis)ability, and location (online and in the US). Furthermore, the study’s coders failed to independently verify crucial information like age and the problematic category sexual orientation, which are things people regularly lie about on dating sites.

What may be less obvious to many reading the study are some of the other ways biases are created via coding errors or are written into the facial recognition algorithm. For example, the study restricts the range of sexual orientations, sexes and genders to neat yet inaccurate binaries: gay and straight, male and female, masculine and feminine. The study also mistakenly equates sexual orientation with sexual activity, even though people who have same-sex sex do not necessarily identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer. And the study treats ‘transient’ facial features as if they are natural or ‘native’ to ‘gay culture’ and ‘straight culture’, rather than understanding them as performative acts that are highly dependent upon context. In addition to naturalizing culture, this move overdetermines how ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are coded. For it fails to recognize that people who choose to go on a dating site will likely post photos of themselves that can be easily understood through sexualized stereotypes, which they may or may not perform in other on- and off-line contexts.

If there are so many problems with this study, why should any of us give it a second thought, particularly (IR) scholars, policymakers and activists? And why should this study be the focus of reflections on the politics and responsibility of International Relations in an age of crisis?

I have five answers.

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On Statues (III)

This is the third in a series of posts about statues. Because shit keeps happening. You can read the first and second posts in any order.

Thanks to Newsnight for the TL; DR version:

 

Here’s the discussion that followed:

***

One striking aspect of this conversation is the degree of anxiety about the precedent value of statue removal: as Kirsty Wark asks, ‘where do you stop?’ Donald Trump wondered the same thing in a tweet that, I suspect, he hoped would be a conversation stopper:

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Right-Wing Populism, Anti-Genderism, And Real US Americans In The Age Of Trump

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, who is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Cindy is the author, most recently, of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Power which was the subject of a symposium hosted by The Disorder of Things. 

The US satirical website The Onion recently ran a fake testimonial video featuring a remorseful Donald Trump supporter. The 2-minute clip is entitled ‘Trump Voter Feels Betrayed By President After Reading 800 Pages of Queer Feminist Theory’. The video features the character ‘Mike Bridger, Former Trump Supporter’, a middle-aged, working class, cishet white male from a small steel town in Pennsylvania. The balding Mike is shot in documentary talking-head style. Mike sits facing the camera, both so that his truthfulness can be evaluated by viewers and so that what US Americans will recognize as his iconic working-class garb is fully in view – dark tan zip-up jacket, olive-green button-down shirt open at the collar, white t-shirt visible underneath. Accompanied by slow music which sets a troubled, post-catastrophe tone, Mike tells his story.

‘I voted for Donald Trump,’ Mike tells us. ‘I voted for Trump because I thought he’d create a better America for everyone. But after reading 800 or so pages on queer feminist theory, I realize now just how much I’ve been duped.’

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Queer International Relations (V)

The fifth post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge is from Dianne Otto. You can read Cynthia’s introductory post and responses to it hereimage001

Dianne Otto holds the Francine V. McNiff Chair in Human Rights Law at Melbourne Law School and was Director of the Institute for International Law and the Humanities (IILAH) 2012-2015. Her research, in the field of public international law and human rights law, aims to meld critical legal theory with transformative practice. Dianne’s research covers a broad field including addressing gender, sexuality and race inequalities in the context of international human rights law, the UN Security Council’s peacekeeping work, the technologies of global ‘crisis governance’, threats to economic, social and cultural rights, and the transformative potential of people’s tribunals and other NGO initiatives. She is editor of the forthcoming collection, Queering International Law: Possibilities, Alliances, Complicities, Risks (Routledge 2017). Recent publications include Rethinking Peacekeeping, Gender Equality and Collective Security (co-edited with Gina Heathcote, Palgrave-Macmillan 2014); three edited volumes, Gender Issues and Human Rights (Edward Elgar Publishing, Human Rights Law Series, 2013); and ‘Feminist Approaches to International Law’ in Anne Orford and Florian Hoffman (eds), The Oxford Handbook of The Theory of International Law  (2016).


Cynthia Weber’s ‘queer intellectual curiosity’ takes the reader on a journey of discovery that uncovers the manifold ways that tropes of (homo)sexuality have helped to institute, legitimate, authorize and sustain white, western, civilized, capitalist, (neo)liberal ‘statecraft as mancraft’.[1] She sets out to reveal what happens to our understanding of international politics, and in particular its constructions of state sovereignty, when the variable of sexuality is included in mappings of its relations of power. Along the way, she makes a powerful case for the importance of conversations between queer theory and international relations theory by showing how sexuality works as a fundamental organizing principle in international politics (and, I would argue, in international law as well).

Cynthia searches for, and finds, proliferating figurations of the ‘homosexual’ in international affairs and asks what work these figures are doing, especially in relation to sexualizing sovereign subjectivities, which invest the modern state with authority and legitimacy. Drawing on a somewhat dizzying selection of queer/postmodern theoretical and methodological approaches (beautifully explicated in chapter 2), she shows how these figurations also do work beyond the state to sexualize the formal and informal ways that international relations are arranged, including in regional organizations like the European Union and global security campaigns like the ‘war on terror’.

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Queer International Relations (IV): Queer As Method

The fourth post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge is from Cyril Ghosh. You can read Cynthia’s introductory post and responses to it here.

Cyril Ghosh is Assistant Professor of Government & Politics at Wagner College and Part-Time Assistant Professor of International Affairs at the Julien J. Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, The New School. He is the author of The Politics of the American Dream: Democratic Inclusion in Contemporary American Political Culture (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013). He is currently working on a book manuscript (with Elizabeth F. Cohen): Key Concepts: Citizenship (under contract with Polity Press, UK).


Cynthia Weber has written a very compelling contribution to the study of queer international relations. In this symposium entry, I intend to identify what – to my mind – are the three biggest achievements of the book. Here, I want to specifically offer some reflections on two figures discussed by Weber: one is the neoliberal, docile, gay, homonationalist patriot – in other words, the ‘good gay’. The second is the figure of Tom Neuwirth/Conchita Wurst, whom Weber sees as a destabilizing persona that lends itself beautifully to reading sexuality and/or the queer into international relations. I will conclude the post with a few remarks on some of the questions the book raises and invites further discussions about.

But I begin with the achievements: first, the book clarifies queer IR as a method in a way that is both urgent and welcome. In doing so, it secures a solid foundation for both future and contemporary scholarship on queer IR. The specific discussions of tropes from Foucault, Sedgwick, Haraway, Butler, Barthes, and others is fascinating to me – especially as a combination of lenses that can be used to refract and pluralize analyses of contemporary IR.

For some time now, we have had a feminist IR movement within the field of IR. But, at the present time, only a handful of scholars examine tropes of sexuality. As Weber correctly identifies, this is because IR scholars and Queer Studies scholars rarely converse with each other. And, in doing so, they leave unexplored much fertile ground of inquiry.

Discourses surrounding despised sexualities of various kinds present themselves in international affairs. In fact, they are ubiquitous. Thus, as Jasbir Puar, Lily Ling, Anna Agathangelou, and others have shown, ‘political’ rivals are routinely presented/depicted using imagery and language predicated on despised sexualities. These depictions can range from the figure of a highly sexualized violent rapist to emasculation (and defeat?) through anal penetration. Analyses of these tropes obviously transcend the field of IR (I am thinking here of Edward Said or Jack Shaheen), but they remain particularly relevant for it.

So, in offering a systematic and yet not reified methodological approach to queer IR, Weber has done, I think, a great service to this nascent subfield. Hers is not the final word on the subject, as she would herself acknowledge. However, the book represents a bold step forward in this line of inquiry.

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Queer International Relations (II)

The second post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge is contributed by Joan Cocks. You can read Cynthia’s introductory post and other responses to it here. joan-cocks-photo

Joan Cocks is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College, where she also founded and for many years directed the interdisciplinary Program in Critical Social Thought. She is the author of On Sovereignty and Other Political Delusions (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), Passion and Paradox: Intellectuals Confront the National Question (Princeton University Press, 2002), and The Oppositional Imagination: Feminism, Critique and Political Theory (Routledge, 1989 and 2013). She has published articles on feminism, Marxism, nationalism, sovereignty, cosmopolitanism, and political violence in edited volumes, contributions to symposia and blogs, and journals such as Political Theory, Theory & Event, Political Studies, Politics and Society, Polity, New Political Science, Radical Philosophy Review, differences, Quest, Arena Journal, Social Research, Constellations, Interventions, and Socialism and Democracy. In addition to writing on the politics of disappearance and the concept of primitive accumulation, she is currently engaged in rethinking citizenship and the meaning of foreignness for a global age.


The interest of modern states in nailing down the identity of things to be subjected to their authority has been highlighted by critics from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault to James C. Scott and Zygmunt Bauman. However much the struggle for sovereign power may issue in bloodshed, social chaos, and the dissolution of existing life worlds, the desire of sovereign power for order asserts itself once that struggle has been resolved.

As these and other scholars have argued, the modern state’s quest for order is manifested in the establishment of external borders separating one nation-state from another and in an increasingly adept drive to classify the persons, social groups, and material resources that make up the domestic domain. Inversely, the territory and people the state aims to control are made to submit to representational rules that differentiate one kind of entity from another as well as practical rules governing the behavior appropriate for or towards each type of subject and thing. If sovereign power ever could become absolute, nothing in its realm would be at odds with its assigned category; nothing would stray from the limits of that category through an autonomous impulse, proclivity, or decision; nothing would consist of aspects or levels hidden from the sovereign eye; and no entity would metamorphose of its spontaneous accord into an entity of another sort.

Of course, actual life is far too profuse, energetic, unruly, labile, and multi-layered, as well as too susceptible to limits and pressures from heterogeneous sources, including the imperatives of biology and the ‘dead weight’ of history, to match the conditions for its total subjection to sovereign power listed above. But while absolute sovereign power in human affairs must therefore be counted as a delusion, the will to exert the maximum possible degree of sovereign power is very real. Moreover, far from being the sole prerogative of states, aspirations to sovereign power may be expressed by or ascribed to the abstract individual, the demos, the ethno-nation, political movements that dress up their will to sovereign power in godly garb, and even the entire human race in its relationship to other species of being. Finally, the fact that the total control of people and places on the part of any of these would-be sovereigns is phantasmic does not mean that attempts to turn fantasy into reality are phantasmic, or that those attempts have only phantasmic effects on the world.

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Clinton’s World

As part of the Canada 2020 conference, Hillary Clinton will be giving a lunch-time talk at the Ottawa Convention Center on Oct. 6. The subject of her speech is yet to be announced, but I imagine due attention to “Canada-U.S. relations in a changing world” will be given. I also imagine the event will be sold out despite high ticket prices (495 Canadian dollars per person + sales tax).  The main reason is that the former U.S. Secretary of State—former front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, former U.S. Senator, and former First Lady—is also the most likely person to succeed Barack Obama as POTUS (according to the American and British bookies at least).

By my count, this will be her fourth visit to Canada’s national capital region, and the first since 2010, when she swung by to attend important meetings in nearby Wakefield, Quebec. But where exactly is my city in Clinton’s world?

To answer this question, I turned to Hard Choices, her second memoir published earlier this year, and I read it through the lens of Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” a famous Manhattanite mappa mundi from the era when the Vietnam War was a fresh trauma and Jimmy Carter was making an unexpected splash in the Democratic presidential primaries.

steinbergnewyorker1976

 

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