Cruise Control

Grindr is an app men can put on their phones to find other men to have sex with. But it automates the work that once made a subversive and politically potent world.

Last Thanksgiving, more men logged on to Grindr, the largest “all-male, location-based social network in the world,” than on any other day of the year. Somehow, Grindr managed to tout this fact without mentioning stuffing. On its official blog, the makers of the app suggested a few possible holiday uses for Grindr: You could “find out where your crew is and dance off that gravy,” or, more strangely, you could “ask your neighbors on Grindr” to pick up a forgotten ingredient from the grocery store. No reminders were given to use protection, nor was there even an acknowledgment that Grindr is overwhelmingly used for hooking up for sex.

Grindr is an app you can put on your smartphone to find guys to fuck. It uses GPS-enabled smartphones to triangulate a potential mate’s location in real time, without requiring any eye contact. Since launching in 2009, it has claimed the title of largest gay social network from other contenders, mostly thanks to word of mouth, though it has enjoyed more than a few breathless trend articles. Joel Simkhai, Grindr’s youthfully handsome CEO, is as virginal as his company’s PR. In interviews, he demurs when pressed and insists that all his app wants is to help men find out who nearby is gay. This self-neutering is partly explained by Grindr’s need to conform to the decency guidelines of Apple’s walled garden. The user agreement for Grindr stipulates that no “offensive or pornographic” materials be included in a profile; violation leads to profiles being disabled.

But Grindr’s media celibacy, however, doesn’t stop the app from publicly identifying as a gay concern or from participating in gay politics as popularly understood. In a move that must have caught Chris Hughes’s eye, New York users were greeted with the telephone number of the state legislator for their GPS coordinates when they logged on early last June and were urged to place calls in support of marriage equality. (Other platforms for user-generated content, such as Tumblr, have made similar efforts to push political action, encouraging the idea that brand identification can also be a sort of de facto political subjectivity.) After a few decades of gay politics’ rightward-glancing sanitization — from closing the bathhouses to the current focus on children’s bullying — this development should not surprise anyone. With Grindr we see the conjunction of a gay political identity with a discursive rejection of the very aspect of gayness that is both most definitive and which the app mobilizes for profit: sex.

This development is not Grindr’s own innovation, and it is far from the only company profiting in this way. Grindr’s politics — actually, the very possibility of the app’s existence — are simply an instance of what is contradictory about gay identity right now, which adopts the finished product of something which was a historical and personal process as if it were either a transhistorical given or a function of individual acts. Divorced from the material intercourse of men that produced it in society, an identity that once was treated in some circles as a civilization ender is now anodyne enough to be admitted to the priesthood or downloaded from the App store.

Reactions to the advent of Grindr tend to marvel at the network’s breadth and, um, penetration. It has more than 3 million users in 192 countries, with 280,000 logged-on members daily, according to the company’s press kit. Some earnestly refer to its revolutionary potential, echoing a slogan of the app’s website: “Join the Grindr Revolution.” A typical response goes something like this; with Grindr, “there is actually nowhere that gay men can’t look for dick.”

But this has always been the case. The term for it is cruising, and men looking to have sex with other men have practiced it for years, in more places than an Android can now go. Eye contact with a stranger on a street could lead to a momentary lark in an empty warehouse nearby, or it could bring the destabilizing blow of love that veers a life off its straight course. Subtle gestures, if met and returned, unlocked access to a kind of parallel world that was as much in the interstices of the straight world as its very fabric. The shared signals and sexual activities which allowed men to slip out from their prescribed conduct as bourgeois male subjects were the practical basis of the gay world, which eventually crystallized itself into an identity as the outward-facing project of men from this lifeworld. That these activities now depend on lines of objective-C and Foxconn dormitories for their performance underlines the connection between the class basis of the forms that the older gay world and identity embodied, and the changes that this world and identity have undergone.

Grindr, for better or worse, is now the type of site where gay identification takes place, allowing different generations, classes, races, and orientations to fix one another with the erotic gaze, whereas before this would have taken place in the public privacy where other similarly interested men could be found. In an earlier age, something like Grindr would have been a godsend for, say, AIDS activists seeking to disseminate information about safe sex. Perhaps Simkhai believes in the image of his users as responsible liberal subjects, who are rich enough in cultural capital (they’re using Grindr, after all) to know better than to endanger themselves. But Grindr’s silence on the matter, something which used to equal death, has been generally met with more silence. This is a further sign of a break with an earlier period when unsafe sexual practices were treated as existential threats. Perhaps now, with gay identity divorced from its mixed-class origins, poor gays dying doesn’t pose as much of a threat — after all, are the poor really gay?


What do you mean when you identify as gay? You mean, ultimately, that you engage in a particular set of sexual activities. Previously, these activities were to be found outside the home and the workplace — as George Chauncey perceptively puts it, privacy was only to be found in public — because these spaces were the domain of the heterosexual family headed by a productive worker. One could even argue that these spaces relied on the exclusion of the homo: Suppressing the sexual aspect of social domination of men by men at work, and the social aspect of the sexual domination of women by men in the home. But the sexual activities performed elsewhere were also necessarily social, and the public emergence of the gay identity as a particular sexual subjectivity required the prior identification of some sort of community by its members. This was accomplished on the basis of the public sex cultures that had already been made at the piers and ruined factories by men let loose from industrial employment, as had men let loose from the Army after both World Wars formed similar but particular cultures before them, as had men let loose in the defunct arcades of 19th century Paris and men let loose from peasant village life in the 18th century.

Samuel Delany, the pioneering science-fiction writer, discusses in his memoir The Motion of Light in Water the importance of getting a glimpse of such cultures at the piers on the west side of Manhattan, back when that was still possible.

Whether male or female, working- or middle-class, the first direct sense of political power comes from the apprehension of massed bodies. That I’d felt it and was frightened by it means that others had felt it too. The myth said that we, as isolated perverts, were only beings of desire, manifestations of the subject (yes, gone awry, turned from its true object, but, for all that, even more purely subjective).

But what this experience said was that there was a population — not of individual homosexuals, some of whom now and then encountered, or that those those encounters could be human and fulfilling in their way — not of hundreds, not of thousands, but rather of millions of gay men, and that history had, actively and already, created for us whole galleries of institutions, good and bad, to accommodate our sex.

That lifeworld is no longer. We no longer have a gay para-city of “known” street corners, bathrooms, and bushes where one can reliably seek out sexual community. A staggering number of the men who created that world are dead from disease, and the spaces where men could come together — the ruined factory cities — have been swept up in the name of real-estate values. The privatized remnants of this vibrant sex culture, as much as they exist, only do so in those spaces that once described the gay identity through exclusion — the home and the workplace. So how, without the apprehension of massed bodies that was its basis, does the gay identity still enjoy so much political power?

By providing a glimpse of the total collective of men cruising on the internet, Grindr would seem to amass the bodies Delaney speaks of, as well as obviate the need for such actual walks on the wild side. Grindr, which relieves you of most of the affective labor of cruising, with its risks and inefficiencies — mastering the elaborate signals, locating potential recipients but not eyeing the wrong guy, walking a body vulnerable to attack or arrest on the street — makes sense only once the old world that labor produced no longer exists. This is well within the familiar neoliberal practice of revolutionizing production processes by externalizing risk onto more precarious workers elsewhere. Though it provides a platform for the sex which constitutes the gay identity, Grindr is not a simple replacement for the older lifeworld of cruising. Much as Facebook transforms everyday sociality into a product and a mode of production, Grindr and other apps like it subsume sexuality as a social productive process.

The mutations in the political identity of the gay subject are an index of what has been retained and what has been lost. If the simple reassembly of 2.3 million men on Grindr’s network, after they had been scattered from their shared haunts, isn’t enough to retain the revolutionary aspect that gay identity once held, then it must be because more was happening than the bare presence of massed bodies.

In Carlos Motta and Joshua Lubin-Levy’s Petite Mort, a collection of maps charting the lost spaces in New York where contributors had a public sexual encounter, Motta relays an anecdote of Edmund White’s early years in what could be called pre-gay New York. The only time White felt a sense of belonging to a gay community, he says, was when he was cruising on the streets.

He also told me something really interesting: He said that after leaving a cruising spot in the West Village or Times Square, for example, the building could have burned down behind him and he wouldn’t have turned around to see if anyone survived. He would go cruise, have sex in that space, but the minute he left he would no longer belong or feel responsible.

Here we see the extreme ephemerality of a community that exists only in the moments its members are in the process of working at it. White’s apparent callousness highlights the link Motta makes between petite mort — in French idiom, an orgasm — and social death, the loss of a previously vital component of a society’s self-reproduction: une petite mort sociale. Public gay sex, for Motta, is linked with social death because it threatens to unravel the good male citizen’s identity: There is “risk, trespassing, breaking or resisting the law,” all things a proper bourgeois subject would not do. For Petite Mort’s drawings of the sexual encounters it assembles, almost all the contributing artists chose to represent a space devoid of bodies. A socially dead body is rendered socially illegible, becomes unrepresentable, disappears. The gay community was constituted by these public gay orgasms — little social deaths — that extinguished the bourgeois male subject whose integrity depended on suppressing them through a series of differentiations from what it was not: a faggot, a woman, brown, poor, a prostitute. Willfully quitting this subject, in a process sometimes known as self-abolition, freed men to join and create a second city. What’s more, it demonstrated the practical possibility of self-abolition as a revolutionary tactic, as men created lives and communities which were minute-by-minute refutations of the dominant order that tried to suppress their existence.

Unlike Motta and Lubin-Levy’s sexualized spaces without bodies, Grindr delivers sexualized torsos tiled in the no-space of a smartphone screen: bodies without spaces, pure grid and no mass, frictionless, smooth erotic pulses. In an interesting dialectical twist, it is precisely Grindr’s GPS capability that brings these bodies into nonspatial contact, just as the cruising spots in Petite Mort only become visible as sexualized places where bodies would go to disappear. The governing ideal of each collection is that which may not show itself.

If fixed gay identity is a clot of the past affective labor spilled at gay haunts, then the problems of fixed and variable capital are relevant to understanding it and might go some way toward explaining how a “normal” gay identity has been recruited recently to ratify the bourgeois arrangement of bodies in spaces. It also helps explain why gay identity enjoys much broader purchase than ever before even as its intensity wanes. Simkhai’s thoughts on the matter are especially revealing. In a Guardian interview he says

We wanted [a name] that was masculine but was not about pride flags. Was not about…

A politicised idea of gayness?

Yes! And was fun! And was in a way — not about being gay. I’m gay; I am a proud gay man. It’s not that we have any issues, right? But Grindr’s not about gay rights, or gay anything. It’s about finding guys. Being among your peers. Socialising. Being part of your community. It’s not about: ‘We’re here, we’re queer.’

And he’s sort of right. A search on Grindr’s website for “sex” brings only results in which it’s part of the phrase same-sex marriage  (It also comes up once in talking about a suicide). Protection yields one result, in reference to federal antidiscrimination statutes. Condom yields nothing. So there are certain gay rights Grindr is interested in. And this contradicts his disavowal of “gay anything” — so what? Simkhai’s company is a symptom of the contradictions in the late gay subject. As the dominant order relies less on its suppression and more on its incorporation, the liberatory force of self-abolition is blunted.

Marx saw the proletariat’s self-abolition as a class — not its takeover of state power — as the herald of the coming revolution. To practice self-abolition but still remain to bring a new world into existence is the lesson gay revolutionaries have to offer us today. Their experience involved the very real and above all practical demand to deal with a self-abolished subject in the actual course of life, thereby proving the possibility of self-abolition as a revolutionary tactic. Crucially, it was a tactic that one could not practice alone: The collective world-building inherent in cruising was at once the moment of the bourgeois subject’s dissolution and its (partial) overcoming. But the death of this world has meant the nearly complete recoupling of the gay subject with the bourgeois once again. To adequately hold that outcome with an assessment of the revolutionary gains some fought and died for, we must take stock of what was incomplete in the sexual revolution and what was impossible.

Grindr, at best perhaps, may help us do that. It was not its transformation of the hanky code to Objective-C that cleared the streets of the second city gay men built; it was the broader assault on and enclosure of public cultures produced in common, characteristic of the larger neoliberal moment in which these cultures found themselves zoned for redevelopment. The ambivalent achievement of Grindr, then, is to have come after the conversion of the older archipelagos of homoerotic intensity into something like resort islands and to have provided instead a space (or maybe, a utopian no-place) where men can again come together in sexual community.

Simkhai is right to insist on the nonsexual benefits a sexual community can enjoy, but it is symptomatic that he cannot pronounce what is central to his project of helping men “view and instantly connect with cool, fun guys.” That is: sex, obviously, and it is telling of both his place in the social mechanism of sexual identification and that identity itself that this is missing. Though, following the history of loose men and ruined social formations that seems to be the genealogy of the gay figure, perhaps the imminent collapse of the social factory will provide the new ruins in which Grindr’s users can play.