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(SEX/NET)work
Essay : pornography, internet, market
Saturday, May 26, 2001 02:54 GMT

Published in: New York Arts Vol 7 No 4, April 2002, and featured in "Fictive Net Porn", an exhibition about pornography curated by fictive.net (www.fictive.net).

The thrill of the online peephole

Few people are unaware that the Internet, once manfully dubbed by a forgotten US presidential candidate with the even more forgotten moniker, “Information Superhighway” has so far become less a highway than a vast collection of flashing backstreets where sex and phony bonhomie are the primary trade. “Sex” is the most frequent search term on the Internet , and searchers can be gratified by an estimated 15 million pages of hot sex graciously provided by an industry that rakes in an estimated $1.1 billion dollars a year. It’s thought that 8-15% of all Internet users regularly use their connections for sex .

What strikes me, since that number certainly includes people you and I know very well, and probably includes you and me, is the inadequacy of what is said about it. Are all these millions of people weak-willed loners with collapsed morality? Are they all, to cite the frequently used language of pathology, “addicts”, perhaps lured into dependence by the wiles of unprincipled hi-tech pimps? Or are they simply taking advantage of the pragmatics of Internet porn – complete privacy (they hope!) and massive choice?

Such accounts of the phenomenon always seem to fall short of its magnitude. They merely picture Internet voyeurs as “empty” subjects just waiting to be filled with lasciviousness. These millions of otherwise dutiful and productive citizens are, when it comes to explanations of their relationship to pornography, completely without definition – except that of the total absence of the moral strength that would be a barrier to the entreaties of marketers and their all-too-easily available goods. When we would not seek to understand the success of Titanic or the Harry Potter books purely in terms of the inability of subjects to resist them, why do we do so with Internet pornography?

I think the answer lies in the fact that such explanations have become caught up in pornography’s own self-presentation (“Hot cyberbabes want YOU!”): that it is equivalent to sex itself, a surrogate that usefully side-steps all the painful inefficiencies of sex in the real world. In this naturalised view, human beings seem to have evolved with a craving for digital visions of sex (just as they crave sex itself) – and suddenly (at long last) the marketplace has fulfilled this desire (Just another miracle from Capitalism Inc)! Just as with other natural cravings, individuals must be expected to regulate this one with the higher structures of culture and morality. (A different model is applied to other cultural productions – we are not assumed to have a natural craving for films about historical disasters or books about magical little boys – and here appetite is discussed in terms of “taste” rather than “need”.)

But this is to greatly reduce the complexity – and the interest – of the situation. It is to exclude the erotics of the Internet itself, and to turn the technology simply into a delivery system. How can one imagine – to take a historical perspective – that the appeal of the hand-cranked Nickelodeons that ran rife in New York from 1904 and that showed to individual viewers films with titles like “Peeping Jimmy”, “French High Kickers” or “The Soubrettes’ Picnic” (aside from their more family-orientated fare) had nothing to do with the thrill of technology? In the middle of a city whose modern grandeur was discerned by outsiders in the complexity of its layers of illusion, that was still the capital of the nascent movie industry – how could being in New York City itself have played no role in the titillation of Jimmy and his peeping? From today’s standpoint, the “content” of Nickelodeon’s peephole fantasies seems silly and bland, but the libidinal draw of technology and metropolis is still easy to understand. I would suggest that such contextual elements must be inserted back into our understanding of Internet pornography if the relationship between 21st century Jimmys and their digital high kickers is going to have any meaning. Rather than assuming that people are just passively “invaded” by Internet porn, let us ask what they might actively be seeking in it .

The erotics of technology

The web provides us with what is perhaps the twentieth century’s third major reconfiguration of visuality (one which is, two years after that century’s end, still very much in its infancy). After a couple of thousand days of Internet time, the scale of what one can see already approximates more closely than anything we have experienced before to infinity. In addition to the millions of photographs and videos on the web, PetCams and WeatherCams, cams on the empty bedrooms of (Attractive? NAKED?) female students, cams on the top of the Empire State Building and cams trained on African watering holes all seem to promise one the secret power of the master spy whose informers are everywhere. More significantly perhaps, the possibility that webcams offer of one’s own decorporealised image, or “avatar”, working, eating and sleeping (and possibly much more) in cyberspace and interacting with other avatars free of any constraints of space, race, class etc answers the fantasy of a parallel self that is unbounded by the laws (and the moral order) of this world. These new horizons of the visual are stupendous, and far in advance of the abilities of any mass entertainment form to truly exploit them. As with Nickelodeon and indeed with video, pornography has stepped in as the entertainment vehicle to spearhead the early development of the technology.

But I would argue that this is not simply because in the absence of a wholesome cultural diet people will naturally revert to burgers and Coke. It is rather that sex is the great “hidden” of modern societies, and pornography thus stages in the most dramatic way possible the ability of the new technology to “make seen”. No amount of pictures of people’s dogs and picnics and grandmothers will on its own ever bring home the heady and sickening power of the emerging specular technologies of the Internet. It is only in the triumphant uncovering of that-which-must-not-be-seen that this power can be displayed. The wry cliché that pornographers always lead the way in technology does not just refer to the fact that pornography is a big business with money to spend on software (there are other big businesses with even more disposable cash). It points to a deeper truth: that pornography is about technology, as much as it is about sex.

There is a scene in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1982) when the main character starts to passionately kiss the television screen as Debbie Harry’s lips dance across it. The screen responds to him, becomes organic, sucks him into its embrace. As the film becomes more surreal, he becomes part of the technology himself, playing videocassettes by inserting them into his own stomach. These scenes are only some of the earliest of Cronenberg’s treatments of the desire for bodily union with technology, a theme still dominant in his Crash (1997) and Existenz (1999). What is apparent from these images, however, is that in the desire for sex with machines the image of the sexualised figure (woman) is only a decoy. She is only a lever for another, much more potent and secret relationship – rather like the woman whom two straight men sleep with in order to gesture towards an impossible sexual intimacy with each other. Internet porn, similarly, is not just about losers who can’t get enough and so turn on their computer to find pictures of women; it is in great part about the dream of being conjoined with technology itself.

What is the motive of this dream? On the first level it must be about the desire for the closing of the gap between the body itself and the dispersed organs of sight, hearing and information processing that have become as essential to it as those it already possesses. This is the dream of the cyborg, of perfect integration of mind and computer. But does it not also have to do with the desire to comprehend that which is sublime and mercurial? On the one hand technology emerges with the glistening eroticism of the future, and cries out to be possessed (as the Apple Mac ad said, evoking a different kind of possession, “Yum!”). On the other, it obstinately resists our attempts to contain it, impose meaning on it. In the case of the Internet, we cannot even touch the thing or draw a picture of it. Its scale goes beyond anything we can hold in our heads, and its future applications and its ramifications for society are completely unknowable (not a day goes past without the newspapers asking more searching questions as to the meaning of the technology we have created). It’s almost as if sexual union with the Internet is the only means available of answering its erotic call and properly internalising its amazing, unimaginable possibilities. Web pornography is the bed on which the Internet and its devotees lie wrapt in erotic intercourse, the desire for understanding momentarily, ecstatically abandoned.

The draw of the Market

But the Internet is not only about technology. It is also an image of the system from which it has emerged: a portrait of the global marketplace itself, a giant installation piece that is the closest representation we have of the sublime dimensions of capitalism. The thing launched itself upon popular consciousness as the final stage in the process of the perfection of capitalism, bringing critical efficiencies to the U.S. economy that would forever liberate it from the conventional algebra of inflation, growth and unemployment, and defeating the greed of big business in the name of the unassuming, man-on-the-street billionaire. As the Internet is Hausmannised, with curiosity shops and ramshackle cottages torn down for the building of grand boulevards and temples of commerce, the identity between cyberspace and marketplace becomes increasingly perfect – and surfing becomes like a theme-park tour of the mind of the market. “Roll up! Roll up! Experience the thrill of capital as it speeds around the world! Feel within yourself the collapse of New York, Frankfurt and Tokyo into one place! Comprehend – as you never could in your local shopping mall – how vast are the possibilities that the market offers!” But this relationship of the highly abstract entity of the contemporary market to the emotional space of one’s own interiority (“Feel within yourself!”) is one that is consistently mediated - through advertising and the rest of the carnival of consumer imagery – by desire; and here pornography makes another entrée.

Consumer capitalism is not just a neutral zone within which individuals transact. It is also a meaning system so comprehensive that it has become almost impossible to imagine oneself into the mind of someone outside it. Outside the market – or “the Market” – meaning itself breaks down; so that we can think of it as playing a similar role to God in a religious system, sustaining the universe and guaranteeing its meaning. And like other comprehensive meaning systems – state-sponsored Communism, pre-modern Catholicism, etc – this one does not have only a cerebral relationship with its followers, based on their intellectual assent to its tenets. It grabs them “lower down”, inspiring them and seducing them with its own scale and grandeur, and structuring their most personal and libidinal aspirations of the self. Like religion, in fact, it owes its success to the fact that its enormous power and proportions are made available to the individual in a private way for the fulfillment of their personal aspirations. This happens less through a codified theology than through its religious art: an irrational, emotional representational system (advertising) that derives its persuasiveness from ubiquity and mesmeric repitition. The key structuring device to this system is one common to the art traditions of many other other great metaphysical systems: the anthropomorphisation of an abstract desire (of beliver for God, or in this case for the Market) into the desire of lover for beloved.

The desire that an advertisement tries to create in you for a BMW 523i or a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo shoes is not simply that. It is, more specifically, a desire for the self-become-whole for which these images of the Market are mere symbols, and it thus has as its ultimate object the sublime unity of the Market itself. The car or the shoes act as the religious icons that bring the unseen godhead into proximity and substance, and the idea of possessing them is the idea of possessing a small part of that godhead. In creating a libidinal attraction between consumer and car or silk tie, therefore, the millions of images generated by the $40 billion marketing industry go far beyond their ostensible objective; they act in concert to give shape to the more metaphysical state that is the consumer’s libidinal attraction for the meaning system – the Market – itself.

Most advertising images are sexual images of one sort or another. The reason they are not called pornography – even though many of them are recycled on porn sites – is that the metaphorical nature of the desire for the “beloved” is clear. This is didactic sexual imagery that seeks to teach you about an abstract kind of love (for Calvin Klein clothes or IBM ThinkPads) and always tries to prevent you from remaining at the first level (simple lust). In popular wisdom, pornography, because it does not carry any of this kind of didacticism is categorised as anti-social – there is no message beyond the onanistic one and no social productivity can result. However, this formulation ignores the second-level focus of consumerist images: the Market itself. Desire for the Market does not depend on the desire for a specific consumer item, or even on the social practice of consuming. Pornography is that subcategory of consumerist images that is free of quotidian didacticism and allows the unmediated contemplation of desire for the Beloved.

In this vision, pornography is simply the pure extreme of the consumerist symbolic, one that provides a forum for more closely imagining the Market’s fundamental promise of becoming-whole than is easily possible through the wearying process of earning, saving and acquisition. The availability on the Internet of images of any kind of man, woman, child or animal for sexual contemplation is the fulfillment of the Market’s pledge to help every individual, in all their imperfections and weaknesses. Seen like this, the typical lover of Internet porn is not that person who has fallen outside the redeeming mythologies of society. Instead, he or she is likely to belong to those categories most affected by the emotional promise and the aspirational zeal of consumerism.

Holding onto reality

But this acceptance of the scintillating realm of Internet imagery as the zone in which one will play out one’s own drama of becoming-whole forces one into an uncomfortable relationship with the real. Marx was only the first of many to speak of the way in which capitalism’s universe of signs creates a self-contained meaning system from which “reality” is gradually flushed out (“all that is solid melts into air”). The Internet presents itself as a perfect image of this, a self-contained “cyber” reality which is sufficient unto itself, at the entrance to which you leave your real self in order to enter a realm of pure symbolism. As the real becomes a more insignificant part of experience, as you sink in among a million whispering JPEGs, as the symbolic takes over to such an extent that you wonder if it ever really existed, your own reality is called into question. At this point a retreat to the body becomes necessary to convince yourself of it. Sartre wrote once about how he would smoke as he read because the visceral process of inhaling and exhaling smoke made it possible for him to believe in the reality of ideas entering his body. Similarly I am sure that the bordellos that existed around every port were not simply a way for sailors to relieve the “needs” that had accumulated during months at sea, but also a way for them to feel in their bodies the insubstantial reality of arrival in a foreign place. Pornography sites function as the bordellos of the Internet, a reassurance within the matrix of the symbolic of the “reality” of one’s own libido. The ironic twist of this – that one is thereby further uprooting oneself from the real in order to convince oneself it still exists – is hardly the point.

Morality and pornography

Who knows where all this leads? Does it play itself out for most of the web’s 72 million “virtual voyeurs” as a kind of sci-fi tragedy in which the final frontier of their primordial reality – their libido – is at last conquered by technology, and even the spontaneous autonomous act of sex with another human being is finally denied them as the only thing that gets them off is the system? Or does the patent irreality of cyberspace convince them finally of that which they formerly doubted – the reality of real life – and coax them towards a Hollywood ending of monogamous sexual health? Or – perhaps more plausibly – as the erotic appeal of the Internet shrinks to the levels of that of other networks – highways or electricity, for instance – will most of those people forget the rush they felt when they first tried to come to terms with its fantastic promise?

Whichever fate awaits the majority of digital Jimmys, I think it is necessary in considering Internet porn to admit the continuities that exist between it and the erotic promise held out to consumers by technology and the market. Otherwise one is stuck in the banal position of questioning the morality of individuals (72 million of them) without acknowledging the entirely normal, even conservative, nature of their behaviour in the context of the capitalist symbolic. As a system capitalism is particularly adept at fostering intense mass demonstrations of libidinal behaviour (the adoration for movie stars or the wearing of Nike trainers) but abdicating all responsibility for other, similar demonstrations which arise out of precisely the same logic. In the first case it is the glory of good products and good marketing; in the second it is the scourge of weak individuals. In actual fact, the market exists in great part because of the intense libidinal attachment it cultivates in consumers, and it cannot be selective in which parts of that attachment it will acknowledge as its own creation.