"Can the Digital become Excremental? - Bataille, Expenditure, and Web Pornography"
This essay was written for the da-da-Net "Trash Art" festival, and accompanies a Net-art project, MEDPORN Database, at http://gsa.rutgers.edu/maldoror/MEDPORN/index.html.
I. Category and Excess
This essay begins with a question: If the computer database and its web-equivalent, the search engine, are modern examples of encyclopedias and other category knowledge systems, in what way is it possible to have a database/search engine about bodies of excess? In other words, if what has traditionally been designated as "pornographic" in the modern world has been those bodies and actions which are outside of the order of official representation, how can one have a database or search engine of such extra-categorical elements?
The question is important, because as any visit to a pornography website will illustrate, the pornography industry on the Web makes it a point to systematically organize and represent (and thus legitimize) the bodies and activites that will be considered "sexual" or "pornographic" and thus for sale. The issue with web pornography is not that it only portrays one, white, heterosexual, middle-class ideal of sex (as with much pornography up until the late 60s); rather, the issue is that nothing escapes web pornography. It is an incredibly variant and diverse zone where every possible body and gesture is accomodated by a category and/or website dedicated to it. In other words, web pornography is not singularly but multiply hegemonic; name a sexual fetish from Krafft-Ebing's "Psychopathia Sexualis" and it's likely to have a dedicated website, if not a webring.
One of the primary issues with web pornography and the construction of sexualized bodies is this will to exhaustively categorize the sexual (most famously, into pornographic image databases). This is a political economy of pornographic bodies, and it is constituted through computer and networking technologies. Its context, of course, is the commodification of sex, or the production of a Net economy of consumer sex. But more than that, this organization and categorization of sexualized bodies is grounded in an epistemological issue: to produce a superficial heterogeneity of sexual choice through a set of constructed, categorical pleasures and bodies.
As Linda Williams shows in her book "Hard Core", pornography is not separate from its history as a medium, as a phantasmic embodiment in different technologies. Histories of photography and various proto-cinematic devices of the 19th century often mention the concurrent underlying eroticism which accompanied such technological developments (for example, in obscene photo-postcards or the voyeuristic nudes of Edward Muybridge's 19th-century motion studies). Part of this has to do with the ways in which these new technologies enabled new forms of vision, and along with the technically-assisted gaze of the apparatus comes the conjunction of knowledge and pleasure under the sign of the visible (to see the hidden parts, to see what is normally hidden to the naked eye). Here the "machines of the visible" both distance the viewer from "natural" vision but also form a prosthesis or supplement to natural vision, suggesting the existence of a proposed (visual) truth which was always there but not present without the aid of technology. As Williams suggests, what begins in early motion studies finds its more extreme manifestation in contemporary hard core, where a distinct type of body is produced - one that is fetishized and fragmented, one that is rendered visible as technology (the video or computer image), one that strives to make the tactility of mediation as direct as possible.
This historical combination of pornography and technology - evident in web pornography - thus brings up the possibility of excess in relation to categorical order. In "Data Trash", Arthur Kroker refers to data trash as that which is remaindered by the virtual economy of the Net as not-adaptable. Data trash is not that which cannot be encoded (implying a preservation of humanism), and data trash is not that which is defined as not-technology (implying that there ever was a neat separation between the categories of the natural and technological). Rather, data trash is a fully technical term that applies to a technological modality in which everything is defined through an epistemology of information. It is on these issues - epistemology and the immersion in information - that we can begin thinking the data trash of pornography.
II. Bataille and the Body's Limit
I would like to offer one approach to begin thinking about "data trash," suggested by the work of Georges Bataille, and then go on to briefly comment on some expressions of Bataille's notion of expenditure in contemporary pornography websites and services on the Web.
First, I want to suggest that Bataille's concern with modes of "unproductive expenditure" - an anti-philosophy he variously called "heterology" or "scatology" - has to do primarily with the embodiments of epistemological modes of organization. That is, Bataille's emphasis on that which is radically heterogeneous and radically other, is an inquiry into a political economy of the body and its particular modes of organizating the body.
In the famous essay "The Notion of Expenditure" Bataille performs a reversal of traditional political economy's emphasis on production, accumulation, and scarcity, and suggests that the field of political economy - as a general movement - may also be approached from the perspective of surplus, excess, and expenditure. In such a system, one would look not to the modes whereby a coherent epistemology is founded, but rather one looks to those elements "sacrificed," marginalized, excluded, or expended so that a coherent epistemology may form (Bataille's primary examples include an analysis of the erotic and sexual perversion in the West, ritual sacrifice in ancient Aztec culture, North American Indian potlatch ceremonies, and comments on flowers, jewels, excrement, poetry, festivals, war, religious cults, and laughter).
What is of concern here is not the act of exclusion itself, but rather the modes of the types of designations taking place in modern epistemologies, whereby certain elements are set at a distance from the formation of those epistemological systems and in this process are articulated as "excess." The important point here is not marginalization in itself, but rather the instrumental uses of the designation of excess, otherness, and the marginal, in the name of an organizational logic, or a political economy, grounded on the values of production, utility, and regulation.
By contrast, a general economic analysis, or an analysis based on excess, would look not at those elements which are of direct use for a political economy, but would rather look at those elements which that political economy cannot use. Bataille is suggesting here that the social is intimately tied to those elements which is cannot directly, productively assimilate, and which it must designate as excess or as radically other. Futher than that, however, Bataille attempts to show how the social is in fact founded upon this exclusionary or excremental process. Put crudely, Bataille's political economy attempts to analyze how society "deals with its shit."
This view of a political economy of excess - where what counts are those elements in excess of a given epistemological infrastructure - allows Bataille to account for heterogeneous matter in all forms, primary among them a certain version of the object, "base material," or "formless" body. This is the second point I want to highlight in Bataille's work: That, when a political economy or organizational logic of the body is considered from the perspective of excess, what becomes important are those points of instability or slippage, wherein some aspect or characteristic of the body is designated as excessive, unnecessary, superfluous. This portion of excess is an example of what Bataille termed the "formless": a slippage internal to normative and regulatory political economies. The term "formless" itself performs this action: formless defines a state of the loss of all definition.
Bataille's emphasis on these elements of formlessness constantly emphasize the ways in which the social and individual body is an element "irreducible" to the social and anthropological workings of political economy and the "homogeneous" social body. A cursory look at Bataille's theoretical and erotic writings makes this clear: bodies are affectively opened, erotogenic zones frantically wander, passion becomes indistinct from the body's baser elements, and bodily fluids - semen, excrement, urine, saliva, and blood - run throughout many of the texts.
From this I want to suggest that Bataille consistently maintains the value of the uneasiness or dissatisfaction towards the body without assuming its ontological status; it is always located in a social and cultural site where taboos, transgressions, and the attraction/repulsion around the sacred constitute the social framework. Bataille's body constantly reiterates itself as a dynamic, troublesome, and disturbingly corporeal element not outside of those normative social and historical apparatuses which variously encode the body. The privileged site of base materialism for Bataille is the erotic body, since it is here that the boundary-making processes of bodily production are revealed and dramatically delineated.
Erotic bodies in Bataille's work never simply become fluidities of affect; they are constantly put into a tension-filled state by the cultural-diagrammatic languages of anatomical corporeality. Gendered bodies are subjected to an anatomico-discursive rearrangement, hovering somewhere between Surrealist fantasy and erotic dismemberment. Such instances include the displacement of the eye into a urinating vagina ("Story of the Eye"), the uncanny monstrousness of the toe or mouth ("The Big Toe" and "Mouth"), an orgasmic urge to defecate ("W.-C."), an eye opening at the top of the skull to gaze into the sun ("The Pineal Eye"), an intersection of delirious illness and eroticism ("The Blue of Noon"), and the anus as a vertiginously transformed, radiant darkness ("The Solar Anus").
The language of Bataille's bodies-in-eroticism is not that of pure discursive articulation, but another discursive economy gesturing tears, semen, and the vertigo of anatomical illegibility in desire. Eroticism for Bataille is a primary example of a communication so full that bodies are impelled to tensively reveal their limits and their socio-physiological delineations. These bodies never relinquish their specificity, their being marked by gender and sexuality; rather, they strategically re-embody their own contingencies. The important move here is how Bataille takes a normative, restricted economy of the body (which I am here aligning with the intersection of the pornographic and the "anatomically-correct"), and, through a strategic embodiment of that economy, turns the normative into the marginal, the regulated into the excessive, and thereby shows the contingent character of the hegemony, in the West, of the sexualized body.
III. Digitized Pornography
The Web embodies, in its use, one of the fundamental paradoxes of media technologies: it facilitates communication and/or transactions while also articulating an interface or buffer between two points. In other words, it connects, but it also distances. This tension of presence/mediation is the most evident - and the most accepted - in the innumerable pornography and sex websites currently on the Web. The most direct, explicit, visceral imagery of genitalia, bodily fluids, and penetration is presented through a medium that is all about distance, downloading, and pixellation. This tension is heightened in live video streams of sex shows or one-on-one encounters (usually using either Java or RealVideo), where live images of pornographic bodies never completely escape their contingency as data, or as pixels on a monitor. And yet thousands of Web-users are members of these websites, and we might guess that hardly, if ever, are these more theoretical questions brought up in the face of a high-resolution RealVideo stream of anal penetration. But it is precisely at these moments that, in the spirit of the abject, the grotesque, the "base material," we might begin to ask how sexualized bodies are being constructed by the pornography industry, through new technologies such as the Web.
Web pornography is not simply about the random generation of hyper-obscene imagery; in fact, it constitutes one of the most organized and technically sophisticated sectors of web entertainment, accomodating huge, updated databases, secure servers, numerous economic transactions, and up-to-date web design and programming. Central to web pornography is the ability to produce and serve any desire no matter how perverse, no matter how taboo (from bestiality, to pedophilia, to S/M practices, to pregnant moms, to scatology websites). This ability is largely dependant on the construction of a flexible epistemology of sexualization.
As a general example, most web pornography sites include the standard image database, as well as links to partner-sites specializing in tastes not covered therein. Between these two models (a database of image-categories and a set of categorical links to other sites), web pornography gives the effect of being a totalizing discourse on sexuality, covering every possibility. But this epistemology - we might also call it a political economy of sexualized bodies - is only possible because it is built upon a hierarchical, asymmetrical norm: that of the "average" heterosexual, male consumer. This is clear not only from the implied viewer in a majority of web pornography sites, but it is also clear in the epistemological structure of the database categories - "standard" categories such as "hardcore," "softcore," "couples," or "oral" are supplemented by such categories of diversity as "ethnic," "gay/lesbian," and "bizarre." The web pornography industry would certainly be the last to make moralizing judgements about the content it presents, but given that, it still assumes the hetero-normative morals which plagued late 19th century sexologists - but only as a tool for an efficient mode of archiving material.
In other words, the web pornography industry makes use of a Western, modern, moralizing paradigm inherited from turn-of-the-century sexology and psycho-pathology (where the perspective is that of the white, heterosexual, male), but only as a technical means (a means to practically organizing large amounts of pornographic material). This specifically technical use of a moral economy means two things: first, it means that bodies and actions are sexualized according to a hierarchy of pleasures (from the central norm of heterosexuality to the marginalized but accomodated perversions of different fetishes), and secondly, it means that the conservative morality associated with that mode of organization (where everything is based on its divergence from a heterosexual norm) is invisible but immanent to the organization of pornographic material. The resultant picture is that of a seemingly permissive, diverse, and liberatory pornography-entertainment industry, that is really about the great levelling effects of a technology of mediation (the Web), and the flexible accomodation of media consumerism. Again, what makes this illusion of web pornography possible is that, in its very epistemological modes, in the very practical ways in which it designates sexual types and categories of pleasures, it implicitly asserts a hierarchical, moralizing, hetero-normative economy of sexualized bodies. Web pornography attempts to separate the moralizing of sexual perversions from the epistemologies which generated them, and in doing so it can offer a ready-made, categorical diversity while also attempting to equate all tastes as objects of consumption
If this is the case with current web pornography, we might take up Bataille's theories concerning excess and expenditure, and begin to inquire into those points where this political economy of sexualized bodies begins to slip out-of-category. Three brief suggestions:
(a) The surgical logic of pornography: A current fad in web pornography websites is the "dildo-cam." As its name suggests, this is the high-tech insertion of a miniature camera inside a dildo, and the result is streaming video of any imaginable orifice that a dildo can be inserted into. This is the pornographic equivalent of the surgical endoscope, in which surgeons insert a miniature camera (swallowed by the patient) into the patient's esophagus and/or stomach, as well as, in other cases, into the patient's rectum (for examinations of the gastro-intestinal tract). If the history of pornography in the modern world has always been about the unveiling of the maximum visibility, the logical extension of this logic of pornography (a will to visibility) would be the bio-medical interior of the human body. Here one travels from simple full-nudity shots (as in 19th century pornographic postcards) to close-ups of penetration and/or genetalia (from early 20th century "stag films" through video), to a view inside the objectified, sexualized body (the camera inserted inside the body, penetrating the body itself). Thus one strategy is to explore this boundary-crossing between the pornographic and the medical, discourses which, historically, have always been stridently separate, even polar opposites.
(b) The surveillance of the voyeur: Another popular category in web pornography is the "voyeur cam" or "spy cam," usually placed either in semi-public spaces (restrooms, college dorms, dressing rooms) or in such ingenious places as the toilet bowl. The obvious attraction here is for the voyeur to supposedly catch amateur, non-rehearsed, sexualized moments in secret. However, when considering the technological apparatus involved in such services, what is actually happening is a condensation of the surveillance/security system and voyeurism. Voyeurism, in its form described by sexologists, was mostly an opportunistic, fleeting, and furtive observation of some sexual act. By contrast, the mode of surveillance of most modern institutions (from prisons to shopping centers) involves a constant, increasingly public, often un-watched monitoring of a given space. The pornographic spy cams fall somewhere between these two modes, on the one hand offering so-called "real amateur action," but on the other hand sexualizing the everyday through continuous monitoring, and in turn objectifying the voyeuristic viewer through rehearsed actions and offering a service isolating the satisfaction of the customer. The point here would be to highlight the tensions between voyeurism (private, ephemeral) and suveillance (public, continuous) as modes of seeing and representing bodies.
(c) Bandwidth: Aside from these slippages within the categorization of web pornography, there is also another element, not specific to web pornography itself, which is also influential. When watching a live stream of video, or a Java applet playing a pre-recorded video, what one most often sees is not an exact, real-life mimesis of bodies and actions, but rather a fragmented, pixellated, and disjunctive rhythm of bodies and actions that collectively make up a given sexual act. In other words, the very limitations of the Web itself (the inconsistencies of streaming video, the undependable image-quality of Web-encoded video, the broken sound of audio and video, the inexorably long download times, etc.) contribute to an internal fragmentation of what would normally be a very smooth, stereotypical, predictable video clip of a sexual act. Despite the efforts of the web pornography industry to stay abreast of technical developments, such technical limitations have not gone away. This seems to suggest, then, that a majority of regular web pornography consumers either accept or try to ignore these limitations and inconsistencies, and do the required "filling in" themselves, which would not only imply a certain type of sexual conditioning, but also a new mode of viewing habits towards a set of commonly understood sexual acts and positions.
If this is the general situation, digital and Web-based pornography would no longer require the elaboration of its narrative premises, but neither would it simply do without them, in an act of "getting to the good parts." Rather, this assumption of pornographic codes would not only form the necessary "filling in" activity in erotic fantasy, but with the increasing prevalence of "live," amateur/do-it-yourself, and even interactive services, narrative/gestural codes are grafted onto the interactive subject's own scenario. Here, with live sex shows using live video feeds and live chat lines, the safe distance of anxious bodily contact also makes possible the mediated intimacy of computer-mediated communication. What makes the example of web pornography interesting, is that its failed or excessively mediated mimetic performativity - with its physio-geographical displacement, relatively low resolution, low color scale, imperfectly synched sound, and a movement of bodies by turns jittery then fluid - all this is still recognized and processed as the body-referent being literally transmitted through fiber optic line to the computer.
From the perspective of general economy, or economies of excess, what the example of web pornography brings up is whether a notion of the "base material," formless, abject, "excremental" body is still possible on the Web. Though I've attempted to suggest some slippage points above, a more concerted formulation of the body as excess would have to highlight a certain tension and a new type of knowledge of the body. That tension is the fundamental paradox between an image of the obscene, visceral body and it's being mediated through a digital medium (where, as the Web has taught us, all reality is a matter of code). And that knowledge is the proposition that in some basic way, bodies on the Web are constituted by and through information. A future body politics of excess would thus have to form a hybrid between the excessive, abject body and the body as information - something which current web pornography has been unconsciously doing for some time.
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