Sunday, September 23, 2007



Death is the only end to the odyssey of the pornographic imagination when it becomes systematic ; that is, when it becomes focused on the pleasures of transgression rather than merely pleasure itself.

- Susan Sontag, The Pornographic Imagination

Recently, the advent of the DVD has seen a curious introduction to the porn video : the bonus “behind the scenes footage”. This shows the actress, apparently just before or after the filming of the sex scene, being interviewed by the director. She is variously coquettish, flirtatious, shy, kooky – in other words, she is her natural self. The footage purports to show us the girl as she really is, away from the staging and the costumes and the moans and the siren’s gaze. But we should not mistake this for an admission that the sex scene is just theatre, that the “behind the scenes” scenes are real. The message here is, “Look – the girl is sexually charged even when she’s not acting! Even when the cameras are off her, she still wants to be fucked!"


The format of the 3D film, where two stereoscopic images are viewed in perfect synchronicity to produce an illusion of depth, feels remarkable because it transports us somewhere else, to an alternate, hyper-real world. Your stomach turns as you descend a rollercoaster. You flinch when a punch is directed towards you. You turn your head towards your armrest, where it appears that a cup of coffee has been placed. Given the intensification of the moving image which the third dimension produces, why has 3D pornography not taken off? With a bit of technology and imagination, surely one could create a sexual experience which sidesteps the inevitable impasse of the human sexual relationship?

Or perhaps the idea of of 3D pornography is a rather conservative one. Cyberspace, after all, offers us an advanced version of this phenomenon. The idea of cyberspace was conceived by William Gibson in his book Neuromancer as "a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation." Technology has turned Gibson's idea into a reality, and the term is now used quite generally to describe the Internet.

It remains an hallucination, of course. Behind the screen of your laptop there appears - quite literally, even physically - to exist another fluid and dynamic world. Social networking sites seem to offer us a place to communicate with friends and strangers. But who knows - many of these people may not exist, and even if they do, they are quite worldless. They exist to provide us with a really existing Other. Their effect is different, but their structure is like that of the analyst. They are the ego-ideal made flesh.

In an essay called "No sex please, we're posthuman," Zizek considers our problem in establishing the difference between the real world and what lies "beneath the screen" :

The uncanny feeling generated by playing with toys like tamagochi concerns the fact that we treat a virtual non-entity as an entity: we act "as if" (we believe that) there is, behind the screen, a real Self, an animal reacting to our signals, although we know well that there is nothing and nobody "behind," just the digital circuitry. However, what is even more disturbing is the implicit reflexive reversal of this insight: if there is effectively no one out there, behind the screen, what if the same goes for myself? What if the "I," my self-awareness, is also merely a superficial "screen" behind which there is only a "blind" complex neuronal circuit?

This, of course, is Lacan’s premise in his writings on the mirror stage. Early in its development, the child will identify with an image of itself – perhaps in the mirror, or from contact with its mother – whose unity jars with its motor incapacity. This image of the unified self means that the ego (the ‘I’ that Zizek refers to) is situated in what Lacan refers to as ‘a fictional direction’. We forever have an image of ourselves as being whole and complete, because this is how, corporeally, we appear to be. But we cannot tally this with the disrupted, fractured and incomplete nature of the way we feel. The unified self-as-other becomes an fictional ideal which we can never attain. If our lives were made into a film, we would choose this ego-ideal to play ourselves.

Virtual reality is a playground for our ego-ideal. When we spend time in cyberspace, we are not quite ourselves ; and when we engage in cybersex we may, as I have said before, come as close as possible to attaining the ego-ideal. The fact that cybersex is a non-bodily experience, a kind of virtual non-sex which bypasses the body, means that our perfect fantasy can be maintained. The awkward dialectic between our thoughts and our bodies is avoided. Of course, this can be dangerous, alienating oneself further and further from one’s body as one delves into the solipsistic comforts of the infobahn.

Which brings us back to porn. If our lives were made into a film, the sex scenes, as played by our ego-ideal, would probably be scenes straight out of a porn film. Developments in neural technology mean that a virtual pornography where, unlike the 3D film, one participates actively and physically in sex without actually encountering one's partner(s), may become possible.
As autonomous, constituent units, we would sally forth into a sexualised cyberspace, and stage our own sex scene, with neural transmissions providing us with a virtualised physicality. This should not be considered a particularly controversial nor a perverted concept. It is really an extension of the idea of cybersex, which many people take part in already, via Gibson's "consensual hallucination."

How might it work? And what might be its implications?

Neural implants are familiar to us via science and fiction. A device is attached to the cerebral cortex and records electrical activity in the brain. Using neuroimaging, this activity can be processed and implanted into the brain to stimulate neural networks. This has been used pathologically to restore sensory loss - a bionic eye which produces perceptions in the visual cortex - so might it not likewise be used to augment sensory / sexual impressions? Zizek quotes from Ray Kurzweil's The age of spiritual machines :

Your neural implants will provide the simulated sensory inputs of the virtual environment - and your virtual body - directly in your brain. A typical 'web site' will be a perceived virtual environment, with no external hardware required. You 'go there' by mentally selecting the site and then entering that world.

This reminds us of the Penfold Mood Organ in Philip K Dick's Do androids dream of electric sheep? whereby one can 'dial up' emotions (excitation, anxiety, depression, serenity). The combination one dials into the mood organ is regulated by subjective agency, but once a person is 'dialled up,' they are at the mercy of the Mood Organ. Could we not see neural implants in the same light?

Here lies the impasse of science. It is claimed that complete knowledge of the human genome will enable us to understand ourselves better and to re-program ourselves to eradicate our most painful disorders. But, as Zizek hints in the 'tamagochi' quote above, when we are reduced to a set of data, what can we mean by "we" and "us"? The claim that the human genome is a precise copy of ourselves (or rather, is ourselves) does not quite feel right. What is missing from the genetic information is the very thing which I claimed in my last post defines human sexuality : surface, symbolism and irreconcilable difference.

It is distance which makes cybersex exciting but rarely quite fulfilling ; it is proximity which makes physical sex threatening yet pulsatingly thrilling. Another obsession in the world of pornography is female ejaculation, or 'squirting'. This gynecological process involves a woman vigorously masturbating until, desperate and grimacing, she expels a stream of fluid (usually at the cameraman). Virtual porn, the unhappy medium to the extremes of sex and cybersex, might follow the same line - a solipsistic thud, a furious and gluttonous masturbation, a wretched, death-driven climax.


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