Connectivity of Touching:
Ali Na and Mindy Seu discuss the computer mouse as vulva

April 27, 2021

The computer mouse connects us. It is part of a living circulation: the click is the action, the mouse is the vehicle, and the person is the driver. Cupped in your palm, the mouse offers a way to access desire with the click of a single finger. This is, by definition, fetish, which etymologically revolves around tangibility. Here, we have tangibility in two forms: as an object of touch as well as the ability to enact change.

In our phallocentric techno-history, we jack in. The predecessor of the computer mouse was the lightpen, originating from a tool of violence, the lightgun. The shift to the computer mouse created “a new way to think,” as described by its inventor Douglas Engelbart. While yonic metaphors in computing have also existed through the “box” and the “bug”, the computer mouse as vulva eliminated the possibility of penetrability. As Ali Na writes, “Instead of jacking in, the vulva mouse clicks in.”

On March 15, 2021, I had a conversation with Ali Na to expand on these topics in her paper, “The fetish of the click: a small history of the computer mouse as vulva.” Ali Na, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Film and Media at Queen’s University. Mindy Seu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Design at Rutgers University.

Mindy Seu: The click is a means of accessing desire, shaped by slacktivism or consumerism or Bruno Latour’s “myth of immediacy” (Bruno Latour 2013). Can you discuss this more from the lens of fetish theory and how the click becomes material?

Ali Na: Materiality is so important when thinking through the click. This is a bodily activity that we’re doing all the time with our fingers. It’s haptic and there’s bounce-back. And of course, there is the physical mining of materials that are used in the hardware. People are not using a computer mouse to get their desire, but the object of the computer mouse enables this click. That click perpetrates this unfulfilled desire, always delayed, always deferred. That felt very much like a fetish object to me.

MS: Fetish, in your paper, is introduced through its etymological origins as noted by William Pietz. In his definition, fetish revolves around tangibility, in terms of both materiality and the ability to enact change. Do you see it in another way?

AN: Colloquially, we talk about fetish objects as sex objects. I wanted to lean into that. I wanted the computer mouse to become a sexy object. The object itself is imbued with power, which produces the sort of magical effect that gives you your desire.

MS: This transition from dominance to sensuality is also seen in the evolution of the object. The predecessor of the mouse was the lightpen, which in turn originated from the hypermasculine tool of violence, the light gun. This then shifted away from phallic dominance towards “the sensuous enjoyment of touch” of the yonic mouse. Why did this shift in form occur?

AN: I initially didn’t intend to write those histories. I wrote them because I was shocked that there was no humanities literature on the genealogy of the mouse. And that actually was so productive, because I started to learn a concrete sense of what I had already intuited. The pen, the phallic pen, the gun — all of these are about pointing or shooting to create the image. And even though the mouse has the cursor function, the mouse is a touch-based object.

MS: Right, you cradle it and glide it.

“...the more you use the computer mouse, the more your body is capable of sensing touch around it.”

AN: Using the computer mouse actually enhances your capacity to have touch and to touch space. There were these ergonomic studies that show that the more you use the computer mouse, the more your body is capable of sensing touch around it. For me, that was this radical shift.

I did have a professor in undergrad who used a joystick instead of a computer mouse. This was actually where the thoughts first came into my head. It was so phallic. It’s such a different movement. When you think about the affordances of the computer mouse, you actually have a much broader range of movement and more clickable items.

MS: When you’re using a light pen, you’re interacting with the same plane that you’re pointing at. Whereas with a computer mouse, you’re moving on the Z-axis while you’re seeing it reflected on the X- and Y-axis. It does change the actual depth that you’re experiencing.

AN: Right, you’re functioning in multiple spatial arenas.

MS: Yonic metaphors have long been integrated with computing. For example, earlier names also connote the vulva and its parts, like “box” and “bug”. Sadie Plant writes, “Disks are sucked into the dark recesses of welcoming vaginal slits, console cowboys jack into cyberspace, and virtual sex has been defined as ‘teledildonics,’ a prosthetic extension of male membership.” (Sadie Plant 1997, 181). Why is it worthwhile to claim the computer mouse as vulva? And how is this impacted when this vulva-like hardware is not attached to a vaginal canal, or something similar?

AN: I was so happy to make the comparison to a vulva that had no vagina, because it eliminated the possibility of penetrability. It removed this hole that could be “jacked” into. This was so deeply powerful, given that so much of the phallocentric technological moments are about jacking in or plugging in. And so, by removing that capacity, it could be about the vulva.

“[The computer mouse] reifies the feminist connectivity of touching.”

MS: I loved your quote, “Instead of jacking in, the vulva mouse clicks in.” In our cultural context, we assume the vulva is passive. You switch this so it’s no longer a passive receptacle but rather something that can be activated and used to direct desire.

As the computer mouse fades into obsolescence with the rise of touchpads and touchscreens, how might, as Wendy Chun describes, this “so-called obsolescent media remain in users’ bodies” (Wendy Chun 2016, xi)?

AN: I got pushback in the publication process because people thought no one cared about the computer mouse anymore. Well, I’m trying to tell you what to care about the computer mouse! The break between the light pen and the computer mouse is a break in kind. They are different objects that function completely differently. However the break between the computer mouse and the touchpad is a difference in degree. It’s simply about taking the same modalities and reinscribing them on a flat surface. Some things are lost, but that motion that we have all come to know and use intuitively through the computer mouse still remains. The obsolescence stays in our body due to habit.

MS: As Engelbart describes it, the tool creates “a new way to think.” And the touchpad reifies this “feminist connectivity of touching,” (p.230) like the mouse, especially with their pressure sensitivity.

AN: Yes, the computer mouse was built as our bodies move more than many other devices. If we can illuminate the bridge a little bit more, we can maintain this technofeminist view of the touchpad.

MS: What does the computer mouse see?

AN: I’m less interested in the vision component, as much as I am in the experience of embodiment. I would want to move away from the analogy of the animal. It would be really tempting to look at the computer mouse and imagine how a field mouse appears and sees. But it would miss the point of what the computer mouse does.

MS: It almost seems like the question should be reframed as, “What does the computer vulva feel?”