Summer Research Dispatch: Juliana Friend on Sutura

21 Aug, 2019

Summer Research Dispatch: Juliana Friend on Sutura

Each year, the Berkeley Center for New Media is thrilled to offer summer research awards to support our graduates in their cutting edge work. Below, Juliana Friend describes how she used the funds for fieldwork on digital privacy in Senegal.

With support from a BCNM summer research grant, I was able to conduct follow-up fieldwork in Senegal to complete my dissertation research. This fieldwork traced shifting notions of digital privacy and publicity as they shape and are shaped by Wolof ethical regimes of sutura “discretion,” on the one hand, and by the aspirations and life chances of sexually marginalized groups on the other.

The Wolof ethical value of sutura – glossed as discretion or modesty – has long predicated both one’s honor and one’s legible gender identity on one’s ability to correctly manage the boundary between public and private. Queer subjects like gay men are seen as lacking sutura, accused of making sexuality public through their very embodied presence in public space. Conversely, those who violate sutura through acts construed as indecent exposure are seen as failing to fulfill either masculine or feminine expectations and are in this sense queer. My thesis traces modes of transgressive embodied communication across interfaces of actual and virtual life.

With new media forms and situated social practices of media use, come moments of unusually explicit discussion of the boundaries of the "private." My summer fieldwork affirmed that it is often those who occupy queer positions in sutura’s regime of gendered honor who test and stretch the contours of privacy in the digital age.

I conducted follow-up fieldwork with Senegalese who test the limits of sutura, including pornographic film actresses and gay men employed by NGOs to conduct HIV/AIDS prevention activism via dating websites and social media. To keep a pulse on construals of communicative-embodied transgression, I also attended meetings of religious groups called daayira that focused on topics of pornography, digital media, and discretion. Rather than a outright denunciation, these meetings enunciated subtle ethical engagements with definitions of privacy and questions of digitally mediated bodies.

This fieldwork weaves its way among groups and institutions that the boundary-focused principles of sutura would separate into neat categories of honorable/dishonorable, legibly and illegibly gendered. My summer’s ethnographic journey traced material and technological ties between them. Notably, institutions of care within both NGO and religious spaces intervene to help these “key populations;” however, these modes of care were equally focused on containing unruly bodies and unruly practices of embodied signification.

I will draw upon these experiences to organize my dissertation around three key figures of sexual-communicative dissidence, each of whose status in public discourse resonates with both historical ethical frameworks of sutura and contemporary NGO infrastructures of healthcare. The construction of these three archetypes reflects modes of boundary-making amid anxieties about digital flux. I will explore the interanimation between these archetypes and the lived experience of Senegalese people whose life chances are shaped by but exceed these categories. Their experiences with (in)discretion tell broader stories about the relationship between sexuality, care, and digitally mediated interaction.