Juridical Confrontations with Digital Ecologies: the Ravi Verdict

guest post by Julian Gill-Peterson

The desire for governance– as if it were an effective opposition to the surreal intensities of contemporary political economy– are nowhere clearer than in the recent guilty verdict in the trial of former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi for having broadcast and circulated online his roommate Tyler Clementi’s sex with another man.  In the ongoing and much larger criminalization of bullying, the supposed victory for mainstream, homonormative LGBT politics in this case consists in a celebration of governance’s ability to both produce a new body that is folded into the life of the State—the gay or queer youth—and the concomitant juridical punishment of its perverse companion category, the bully.[i]  That Clementi’s parents are now set to establish a foundation in his name for promoting “personal responsibility among our youth, in both their personal and digital lives”[ii] is a piercing illustration of the logic of this desire for governance: the law is meant to tame the excesses of what kids are doing online, the Internet here congruent with adults’ anxieties over the perceived mania of risk and speed of financial capitalism.

In diagramming the implications of the confrontation of the juridical with the Real of youth internet use and its assembling with race, sexuality and nation in this verdict, I would begin by noting the spectacular failure of the law to translate the digital ecologies at play in Ravi and Clementi’s relationship.  In short, the law actually has no idea what is happening online, for the digital operates on a fundamentally different(ial) set of speeds, affects, and flows of information that continuously exceed the narrowness of legal subjectivity.  As Jasbir K. Puar notes, “[m]issing from the debate about Clementi’s suicide is a discussion about the proclivities of young people to see the ‘choice’ of Internet surveillance as a mandatory regulatory part not only of their subject formations but of their bodily habits and affective tendencies.”[iii]  In this manner, then, arrives the absurdity through misrecognition of the ninth count for which Ravi was in fact found guilty: “tampering with physical evidence” by deleting a tweet from his Twitter account.[iv]

The verdict’s affirmation of the life of the gay or queer youth through the juridical punishment of the bully also renders so perverse the model minority figuration that has stuck to Ravi’s body as to actually be unable for it to become queer.  In this way, queer childhood is coming into existence as a property of whiteness.  The logic of the criminalization of bullying, in relying on the production of a vulnerable white gay youth, makes race as a kind of queerness in childhood an impossibility.  Indeed, it is at best a form of racialized denial to embrace the technologies of juridical governance to protect gay youth on the one hand, and abet American technologies of mass incarceration on the other.  And so one of the bitter outcomes of this case is that Ravi is likely to serve out a prison sentence in the United States before then being deported.  In the same process through which a host of affective capacities accrue to the only-ever-white body of the new population of gay or queer youth, deportability as an affective capacity of race sticks to Ravi’s body in the larger constellation of technologies of American imprisonment and immigration detention.[v]

Each of these effects is a chilling rejoinder to the ease with which mainstream LGBT politics rejoiced at Ravi’s verdict.  As kids increasingly possess the privilege of knowledge in the realm of the digital, a form of knowledge that they do not require their parents to teach them, there is a larger crisis in generationality taking placing within which the normative imperative to take care of children—to govern them—is becoming slippery enough to escape the protocols of growing up.  How we choose to relate to this breakdown in the firm cut of difference between children and adults will be profoundly caught up in whether or not we continue to side with the desire for governance in the face of the increasing complexifications of kids online, in the emergent technological and affective modulations of their sexualities, races, and avatars.

[i] The language of the folding in of life and the production of the perverse other I am pulling from Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

[iii] Jasbir K. Puar, “The Cost of Getting Better,” GLQ 18, 1 (2012): 150-51.

[iv] The indictment is available online through various news services.  See, for example, http://timenewsfeed.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/042011_ravi_indict.pdf.

[v] On “deportability,” see Nicholas P. De Genova, “Migrant ‘Illegality’ and Deportability in Everyday Life, Annual Review of Anthropology, 31 (2002): 419-47.  The idea of deportability as an affective capacity was suggested to me by Patrica Ticineto Clough.


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