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A big thank you to the National Council on Public History for featuring my digital history project "The Semiotics of Sex: A History of Queer Identity Politics" this week. Thanks especially to the History@Work editors for working with me on this blog post!
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Select images above to view the model with an audience & side-by-side comparisons to historical photos.
Double-click to activate the interactive model; click and drag to rotate;
click the arrow on the right side for more navigation tools.
"The past did not happen in 2D and that it cannot be effectively studied or taught as a series of disconnected static images that, for the most part, represent incomplete remains." – Donald H. Sanders, "Why Do Virtual Heritage?"
Did you know that this year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first queer political protest in the world? Surprisingly, most people do not. What would you say if I offered you the chance to relive that historic moment – when, in 1867, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs took to the stage of the Grand Hall of the Odeon Theater in Munich to protest anti-sodomy laws in front of the five-hundred-member Association of German Jurists? He did so on the basis of a new, communal, queer political identity of which he alone had conceived. He was eventually shouted down, but his efforts inspired generations of queer activists – a lineage that can be traced to the modern LGBT rights movement.
As I previously proposed, virtual heritage makes available that which no longer exists or that which is not easily accessible for all. Three-dimensional modeling recreates spaces in which history was lived, enacted, and experienced. Exploring such recreations is a means of engaging our senses. Visualizing history helps us attach imperfection, emotion and memory to events, contrary to claiming "objectivities" and reciting "facts." This particular representation of the Odeon can help us, as public historians, to humanize and celebrate Ulrichs' activism, and to offer an alternative perspective to the narratives absent in history textbooks and our popular historical imagination.
Contrary to the idea that "virtual environments cause disembodiment, disorientation, discomfort, and social alienation" (Champion, 109), digital surrogates like the one I have created of the Odeon help us to both contextualize the spaces in which historic events took place and attempt to situate ourselves in the roles of the historical actors we study. Through a process of emulation, or approximation of lived experience, we can empathize with our historical subjects – thus improving our historiographies.
Rather than idolizing and, thus, objectifying the past – its significance and historical figures – how may we re-enact, bear witness to, and interpret it as human observers-cum-subjects? This project draws on disjointed fragments of information – synthesizing them into something that is not simply consumable (such as a text or tome), but something that is dynamic and interactive. To be clear, this project is not digital for the sake of being digital; "being impressed by technology is not the same as being inspired by it" (Champion, 109). Rather, this model reveals a version of the Grand Hall that no longer exists (having been bombed and reconstructed a level lower as a courtyard). Indeed, we may conceive of three-dimensional modeling (and other kinds of virtual heritage) as a form of preservation. We are creating large-scale digital records of our past. This project does not reveal historical information so much as it elucidates it. I started out with different pieces of a puzzle; SketchUp allowed me to put them together.
Still, we must be wary of accessibility issues that extend beyond breadth of circulation; the digital divide (issues of class and age that make technology a privilege, not the everyperson's tool), disability and learning style (future expansion of this project that keeps it from remaining exclusively visual), as well as questions of copyright, ownership, privatization and commercialization (of space, history and memory). Problems might arise from using a tool like SketchUp to draw from photographs, then upload the completed product to the 3D Warehouse – where anyone might access and even download it. Is that a wonderful, open source, informational free-for-all or a new frontier for plagiarism?
As we seek to envision the future of sexual identity politics in Hong Kong and abroad, we must evaluate the interplay of space, "modernity," economics and the law in shaping our perspectives. Hong Kong's urban landscapes continue to transform in parallel with its sociopolitical topography. We must (re)conceptualize space as neither purely physical nor impermeable. At this potent political moment – fraught with both expectancy and uncertainty – we exist not just in a state of liminal temporality but liminal acculturation.
First, note that cohabitation is presently being utilized to denote "non-traditional" sexual intimacy and/or partnership. Examining the history of familial living arrangements in the last century, we know that immigration patterns and class dynamics conjured circumstances wherein multiple families shared single tenement rooms. In "A Fading Tongzhi Heterotopia," Travis SK Kong explores how gay men (now all over sixty years of age) negotiated their home lives, bearing in mind that "from 1842 to 1990 (the year when homosexuality was decriminalized), there was no legal homosexual space in Hong Kong" (900). In doing so, he blurs the lines between the parallel binaries of publicity/privacy, heterosexuality/homosexuality. Indeed, the interconnectedness of the four concepts may defy conventional expectation. The heterosexual family unit's private domain versus cruising at public toilets; or the public performance of a heterosexual lifestyle versus the private same-sex relationships one keeps hidden?
Following the 1980 MacLennan Incicent, "deviant sexual conduct" was no longer just a "legal issue," but an identity (905). The proliferation of "sites exclusively for tongzhi consumption" (e.g., bars, bathhouses, boutiques, and bookshops) post-1991 helped replace "the citizen-pervert" with "the good consumer citizen," while solidifying a "positive cultural sense of belonging for tongzhi" (908). Today, an online community of tongzhi may exercise their hybrid knowledge of Western "gay and lesbian studies [and] queer theories [...] and their Chinese cultural and literary heritage" (303) – as noted by Terri He in "Online Tongzhi?." The contrast between tongzhi experiences just over half a century ago and those today are stark, delineated not just by mediums of contact or methods of anonymity but access to information and means of self-definition. Both the public and private spaces have been intruded upon by capitalism and technology, and transformed from the inside out. As such, we are left to envision how this process interconnects with transnational flows of neocolonialist interests and glocalization.
cover international examples of queer politics throughout time (yes, very ambitious), it only features European and American events. I would be lying if I said I did not have a role in contributing to this problem.
Mayer makes the excellent observation that the bulk of our knowledge production and the systems within which it takes place are dominated by a small collection of specialists (or even hobbyists) that have the time and interest to actively seek out crowdsourcing projects. (I only superficially toyed with this issue back in October.) However, Mayer makes it very clear that the core agenda of this work – to democratize the exchange of information (facts and/or ideas) – is undermined by its own process, be it the (pseudo-)privatization of the platforms through which we contribute or the very nature of "niche knowledge" and the sorts of people it attracts.
I would, however, like to present an alternative argument on the very real ways in which crowdsourcing continues to support the dominant (meta)narrative. Consider queer historiography. The field was originated in tandem with LGBT activism and grassroots archival work in the community continues to grow. The preservation of our own legacy is essential to building unity and maintaining institutional memory; our records practically provide a roadmap to effective (and ineffective) political organizing – where we were, where we are going, etc. Now, consider sites like Equaldex and OutHistory.org. Who do these sites attract? It is highly unlikely that the contributors (at least most of them) are cishets.
Yet, within our community itself, knowledge of and engagement with our histories is very stratified. To put it bluntly, there's a pantload of gay white men out there – writing our histories and having histories written about them. Though OutHistory.org has made an effort to create separate transgender, African American, Native American, Latinx American, and Asian American LGBTQ history timelines, they all remain empty. Is this anyone's fault in particular? Maybe it is the biases that compose the historical record itself, the gaps in our own narratives, the internalization of that voicelessness by QTPOC or the valorization of the white (hu)man. Maybe it is all of these things.
Bearing these issues in mind, I decided to contribute some small points of interest that I came across in my independent study work on tongzhi ("LGBT") activism in Hong Kong. What I liked about re-adding to this Euro/Americentric project is that it felt reparative – like I was breaking into the monolith. What I did not like was that it also felt insignificant – trying to edit something to which I once had complete access, through the backend. I will probably not be notified of any updates (if there are any). I do not know how my contributions will be assessed by "the powers that be." However, the process is opaque by necessity; the "free-for-all" method really only works as an ideal, not as a reality. (For some inexplicable reason, I am reminded of the PublikFacebook™ experiment from two years ago.)
This project was opened to the public because that is what OutHistory.org and other grassroots initiatives are (or ought to be) about. Indeed, the note at the end of the timeline declares: "Our aim is to create a thorough representation of queer history that pays attention to the many conversations about what sexuality has meant in various communities across time." Everyone is invited to participate, and citations are, of course, required.
For my final project in Digital History, I will be using 3D modeling software (SketchUp) to reconstruct the Grand Hall of the Odeon Theater in Munich – the site of the first public political protest for "gay" rights. Using drawings, descriptions, and photos (taken at the beginning, middle, and end of the last century), I will extrapolate how the Hall might have appeared to Ulrichs in 1867 as he made his speech. The Odeon was bombed during World War II in an air raid and, as such, both the interior and exterior restorations differ very much from Urichs' time. In attempting to capture this site's former aesthetic, I hope to humanize (perhaps even dramatize) this important moment in queer history for my audience. The tangibility of space is an important and engaging aspect of history that I would like to explore through this project. "Setting the scene" by replicating the Grand Hall allows us to experience history in new, poignant ways.
SketchUp bills itself as "modeling for everyone" – easy to use and versatile. The software has already left its mark on the relatively nascent field of virtual heritage; after some research, I found several projects in which cultural heritage sites are being recreated/reconstructed using SketchUp:
But what differentiates three-dimensional modeling from printed, two-dimensional pictures? The dynamicism of the tools we use to convey complex ideas and arguments is a prevalent theme in the digital humanities. This tool can bring research to new audiences by allowing them to engage with history in new and meaningful ways. We are capable of exploring sites to which we might not otherwise have access – thereby democratizing the physicality/intangibility of the spaces we occupy and to which we form an emotional attachment (if not conjuring questions of "reality" and "presence," as well as the privatization of the tools we use to conduct such exploration). We can also broaden the scope of historic interpretation by appealing to cross sections of learners: those who might benefit most from reading the descriptive text that accompanies the reconstruction (e.g., as above), or from visualizing the space in three dimensions while interacting with the model (e.g., rotatation, zooming). In expanding this project, I might consider other avenues of making my reconstruction more accessible and meaningful; perhaps a booming Ulrichs voiceover that narrates the events of that day, making the audience feel as though they are witnessing the historic moment; perhaps a (miniature) 3D printout that people can touch and examine "in-person."
Queer history needs to be explored with digital tools for three reasons: (1) popularization, (2) canonization, and (3) reconstruction. Narratives of queer politics have long been neglected by our collective historical imagination. Public history is first and foremost an act of publicizing underrepresented histories (making them readily available and understandable for the layperson); it is not simply the interpretation of that which is already well-known and well-documented. Digital tools are crucial in disseminating this "new" information by offering a variety of learning methods that are not restricted to a single location (e.g., a physical exhibit or historic site). As public history seeks to extricate itself from academia (theories and paradigms that are often revealed to be meaningless pretension), it must also disrupt the historical "canon" – a hegemonic intellectual falsehood that gatekeeps our sense of validity by encouraging adaptation and assimilation rather than proclamation and testimony. In parallel, digital humanities scholars have had to contend with similar issues at the foundational level. If both fields unite to address these problems, we may be better able to both popularize and radicalize our histories. Even within queer history itself, we find mis/underrepresentations of POC, trans people, women, the poor and working class. These issues can be exacerbated by a dearth of primary source material. Digital tools can empower us to document our own histories and disrupt dominant narratives within our own communities, while accounting for the losses that our histories have suffered. Even in the case of a nineteenth-century "white" European man like Ulrichs (and other queers of his time), censorship and time have both played a role in diminishing the historical record. It is my hope that this project can reconstruct some of it.
Creating a model of the Grand Hall opens up my research to new methods of analysis by allowing me to depart from prevailing paradigms in traditional historiography that claim "objective truths" and "concrete facts." The concept of a singular, impartial history is an institutionalized myth born of racism, classism, (cis-hetero)sexism, etc. We can humanize important events by engaging site-specific history, by infusing history with pathos – an appeal to emotion, to empathy. As such, my intended audience is the LGBT community, because my primary concern is with demonstrating history as a mechanism of self-empowerment. Peripherally, my audience is also cishets (especially the phobes) because, pragmatically speaking, their education (rather than their spectatorship and animosity) benefits us.