tagReviews & EssaysThat Obscure Object of Desire

That Obscure Object of Desire

bysynthese©

Funny story as to how all of this came about. I've long been interested in music, and over the years have sunk thousands of dollars into LPs, CDs, cassettes, 8-tracks, etc., all of which are media for the storage of recorded musical performances. My tastes are catholic, or, perhaps more accurately, I should say, agnostic, and run the gamut from hip-hop to opera. It's not just individual artists, or performances, that I'm fond of (although, indeed, I have preferences just like everybody else); rather, also, the feeling of sound itself, the vibrations, if you will, as they waft through the air and into the tympanic membrane of my ear. Sound, not as some kind of abstract intellectual exercise, but rather, as the experience of sound per se. There are times when it feels as though the music goes straight through me, and I am but a passive receptacle, like one of those great SETI radar antennas, a conduit for the reception of pure sound. When that happens, the notes, the melody, the rhythm, they all just vanish.

Then along comes the IPod, which I acquire right away, and dutifully begin ripping the aforementioned LPs and CDs into the computer. It's a lower-fidelity device, certainly not suitable for use with any half-decent stereo, but it sounds remarkably good on its little speakers, and in the car, and its portability and compactness make for an overwhelming case. Strange thing, the IPod, because it actually proliferates at least two copies of the original recording – that on the computer, and that on the device itself. Where there used to be one, now there are three.

In this respect, it is fundamentally unlike, say, a mobile telephone, which now is equipped to receive on-demand streamed musical performances from a central server. You don't "own" a "thing," like an LP, or a CD, which inherently is a duplicate of something else. Rather, you have the ability to play the master sound recording itself (or a higher-order copy of it) any time of the day or night, whenever you want. It's like a radio, but you get to decide exactly what is played, and when. Most likely, the mobile telephone will evolve into a kind of internet appliance; you always will be connected, and the internet automatically will find you as you walk around. And it won't be a slow connection, like today's Treo, rather, it'll be at broad-band speeds. This evolution will take place in much the same way that broad-band replaced dial-up. These are the two templates – streaming and downloading – that are vying for dominance, even as we speak.

How this turns out will determine much of our media future. For example, will we carry songs around with us, on an IPod-like device, or simply tune into them, whenever and wherever we want? What about pictures, and documents, and files, and all of the other minutiae of our lives in thing-like format, that are susceptible to this type of approach (i.e., not tables and chairs, for example)?

This is as good a place for me to start as any, because what I want to write about is what I have come to think of as the "iconography of things" – objects, primarily those embodying or instantiating consumer entertainment software content, such as movies, books, pictures, songs, and the like. I have a friend who is President of a leading auction house. Her whole world is based around things, and valuable things at that – transacting in them, buying them, selling them, and auctioning them off. But, typically, these are works of design, or works of art. They have acquired a status, a set of cultural associations, and references, that go well beyond their thing-iness, that is, the inherent properties they have as things, such as mass, extension, and solidity. Furthermore, they are unique, which is what qualitatively differentiates them from ordinary, mundane things, like tables and chairs.

This is fundamentally unlike a work of consumer entertainment software. The distinguishing feature of such a work, as the theory goes, is low marginal duplication or reproduction cost, especially when contrasted with the cost to originate the work. A movie, for example, might cost $120 million to film, but DVDs can be manufactured inexpensively. Which is why record companies and movie studios get so exercised about file-sharing. It's not so much that the file sharer is displacing the small profit attributable to the sale of the individual thing, although this is annoying. Rather, the file sharer is not making any contribution whatsoever to the fixed (and probably high) cost of creating the original, from which the thing is derived. This also explains why record companies and movie studios require exclusivity in the marketplace. You never see the same record or movie, for example, being distributed by two different companies. This would be wholly untenable, because each competitor would be incentivised to undercut the other's price, especially given the low marginal reproduction cost.

I started thinking about issues involving this special class or category of things, in the context of my relationship with a startlingly remarkable woman whom I've met. It turns out that she's an accomplished model – an "adult" model, as she puts it, which means a species of what commonly is referred to as pornography. Now, I never have been a consumer of porn. I haven't ever subscribed to a magazine like Playboy, Penthouse or Hustler, nor have I sought it out on the web. I've never even been to a strip club, nor had sex with two women at once, and all of my relationships with women have essentially been serially monogamous (ignoring the odd affair here or there). I'm not sure I know the difference between "hard-core" porn and "soft-core" porn. Not that I have anything against any of the foregoing, it's not as though I've lead a sheltered life, rather, it just never occurred to me as something that I should be interested in.*

There is nothing secretive or surreptitious about her choice of career. Her parents know. She told me all about herself during our very first telephone conversation, and even directed me to her website. While I understood her words, I don't think I really "got it" at the time. I liked her – and now, love her – for her charm, intelligence, beauty, wit, and a variety of other ineffable factors that, in combination, I find to be unique and compelling. In principle, the ways in which these factors aggregate and juxtapose has been no different for me than might be the case for anybody else who falls in love, or who is in love.

I think that there is a certain subset of people who have approached her, sought her out, and gotten to know her, because of her wide media exposure. In other words, their familiarity with her work preceded their personal acquaintance with her. In my case, it was exactly the reverse – only after we met did I acquire an appreciation for who she is, what she has done, and what she does. In a way, then, my experience of her has been backwards. This created a unique aesthetic environment for me, especially after we became lovers. For it only was then that I looped around, and started to review some of the extraordinary images of her, that are readily available to anybody who sets out to find them.

Over the space of an afternoon, I was able to accumulate about 10,000 pictures of her; my rough estimate is that there probably are around another 15,000 floating around in cyberspace. These images, these things comprising the stuff of her life. And then I put them all on my IPod, so now I can carry them around with me and look at them whenever I want. Or even hook them up to a TV, or project them on the wall. Although not an interactive hologram, I can look at her, take some part of her with me, whenever I wish. Ironically, it was Jim Morrison who sang, "I won't need your picture, until we say goodbye;" now, one can view as many pictures of one's beloved, as might be desired, even accompanied by music, at any place, and at any time.

There are all kind of pictures, some with clothing on, most with clothing off; some posing by herself, some with other women; curiously, none with men. I have two theories about this. First, if she had sex on film with a guy, then it might turn off some portion of her constituency, which is busy fantasizing about having sex with her themselves, not about her having sex with somebody else. Second, curiously, many female porn stars restrict themselves to "girl-girl" photography, as opposed heterosexual sex, upon entering into a monogamous relationship with a man (I forgot to mention that she is married, though obviously her fan base doesn't know this, and in fact would be shocked to find out; it took her a long time before she even told me). The reason why is that "boy-girl" photography might tend to create issues for her partner, such as: Does he envision her having sex with others? How is that any different from her making love with him? How can he tell if she "really" means it, or not? Does she eventually approach sex with a kind of world-weariness, depletion, or even cynicism, because it has been devalued by its commercialization?* None of these problems, incidentally, has anything to do with "morality," or her potential squeamishness at having a bunch of random sex partners.

Note that, in a way, this second hypothesis relies on a premise that should be internally contradictory, at least for the porn star. If sex is just another activity, absent an act of will – a proposition to which the porn star surely would assent – then, in principle, there should be no difference between girl-girl photography versus boy-girl photography. It is not the physical act of sex itself, but rather, the degree of emotional commitment accompanying it, that should be the qualitative differentiator. Thus, a relationship with a woman, where sex was meaningful, should be far more threatening to the porn star's partner, than an enacted relationship with a male. For some reason, though, this isn't the case.

The reciprocal of the girl-girl photography phenomenon is that most female porn stars expect fidelity from their heterosexual, non-porn-industry mates; what she does is "just acting," as opposed to the "real thing." This is consistent with her over-all world-view, provided she is successful in erecting a wall between having sex and any form of emotional response. In order for them to match, the state of mind of her counterpart in the relationship must be: "the issue is not the nature of her activities as a porn star vis-à-vis others; but rather, her orientation towards me." In other words, if she truly loves (or exhibits some other form of acceptable emotional response towards) me, then whatever else she's doing simply doesn't matter. I don't think this outlook necessarily requires the male partner to avert his gaze from what she does, and its implications; or, for that matter, to embrace it. Rather, it simply recognizes that the relationship between them – their relationship, however constituted – must be evaluated on its own terms, and not terms imported in from some other relationship (or, needless to say, social convention).

The difficulty of doing this might be the reason why porn stars frequently develop emotional relationships with fellow actors/actresses, or persons in the same general line of work. She believes, whether rightly or wrongly, that only such a person will understand or "get" her, or be able to tolerate her and what she does, and thus is able to provide the requisite level of emotional sustenance, or other combination of qualities falling under the general rubric of "love." But, there is no right way to fall in love, and no right way to be in love – my relationship with her probably is the best illustration of that.

Anyway, back to her pictures. What do you do when your name has 109,000 Google hits? OK, some of them aren't you, some of them are duplicates, some are in incomprehensible foreign languages, but that's still a whole bunch. In fact, you kind of feel bad for the dozen or so folks who share her name. Imagine if you were like some poor librarian in the Midwest, and constantly had to explain to friends and acquaintances that no, you didn't have a side-career in porn!

I wonder what it would be like to have all of those images out there for people to look at. I would think that, after a while, it just doesn't matter, because there's nothing you can do about it, one way or the other. A little-known fact about the porno biz is that the models, the performers, actually are paid very little. In consideration, they are expected to take off their clothes, assume a variety of poses, have sex with other men and/or women, appear to enjoy it, and sign over all rights to the commercial exploitation of their image in any and all media throughout the universe in perpetuity. There is no such thing as "photo approval;" and you don't have any control over how your image is used, or distributed.

Wouldn't this be somewhat disconcerting? The closest analogy I can think of is the curious sense of detachment I experience when I'm flipping through the TV schedule and see a listing for a movie I produced. Not that I go and watch it – God forbid – but there's a momentary frisson of recognition, an invigorating little jolt, like running into an old acquaintance at a party. You say: "How are you, wow, you look great, it's good to see you again," all the time not only trying to remember this person's name, but also connect the person in front of you with the image you have of that person inside of your head. And, sometimes, it's just not possible to link the two together, so they lie there, sputtering on the ground, like two sparking ends of a bare wire.

I wonder if she ever looks at the girl in the pictures, and wonders who that is. Or, if she would be able to remember the details of a particular shoot. Her head is filled up with porn stuff, like how to pose, how to pout, how the lighting works, where the camera is. And more businessey things too, like who the distributors are, what the flow of money is, who's making what. It is a truism that our mind adapts to our environment, like a tribe of Eskimos who might have 50 different words for "cold." What else, though, should she be thinking? If she was a lawyer, then it'd be stuff about contracts, or civil wrongs, or criminal defendants, or whatever she might end up doing. Like in the old movie "Why Man Creates," our brains are like giant blenders, you simply open up the hatch at the top, dump in the ingredients (comprising the variegated miscellany of experience), and push the "start" button. To say that what one person thinks, or does, is any better or worse than what some other person thinks, or does, is a kind of category error; it's like going to a Chinese restaurant, when what you really want is Mexican. Why not simply try somewhere else?

The imagization of her body leads to other issues. Islam, for example, prohibits impressions resembling living beings, on several grounds. First, they derogate from the sanctity of life, particularly because they either can depict a person inaccurately, or can be manipulated into giving a false representation of that person (presumably, Islam and PhotoShop would not get along). Photography involves capturing light, using artistic techniques, and Islam prohibits creating a likeness that has no previous existence. Only Allah has that prerogative. Second, painting and sculpture are closely associated with the worship of images, which is a form of paganism. For example, taking a picture of someone and then hanging it on the wall may give rise to a feeling of reverence, or even worship, which is prohibited, because it might result in polytheistic tendencies. On the other hand, if photography is used for the simple, innocent retention of memories, then it's OK. I think porn more likely is associated with the first class of images, than the second.

Some cultures go so far as to believe that a photograph captures the soul. The image is trapped, and with it, the life and essence of the subject. Does this mean that images are the window to our souls, or that a collection of images can capture a person's soul? The way I see it, her pictures reveal only aspects of herself – the sheen, the gloss, the patina of who she really is. They certainly comprise a part of her, and it would be a mistake to dismiss them as superficial, because she is concerned with her image, and she makes money with her body.* But, it is like the carapace of a beetle, it is what's on the surface. Even the most complete collection of her images could not possibly approximate who she is, in real life. Any more than a frame of 35mm film, viewed in isolation, could create the illusion of movement.

The idea that one's life is shortened by, say, an hour, each time one's picture is taken, reminds me of a similar belief about sex. There is a phrase in French, "le petit mort," which means "the little death." It refers to the timeless moment of orgasm: a brief release from life, mind, and ego. For an instant the world falls away, and, as the mind is silenced, one is open to an ecstatic union, as self glimpses Self. The ego is momentarily displaced: hence, the little death. Certain female insects actually eat their mail partner following coitus, resulting in literal death; and, parthenogenesis is not biologically uncommon. Taoist philosophy holds that for both men and women, sexual essence is a kind of "storage battery" for vital energy, or "chi." In conventional sexual relations, a man ejaculates when he has intercourse, thus, in a sense, depleting this energy, even to the point where it's possible for him to shorten his life span. In the meantime, the woman gets stronger – both from her own orgasmic secretions, and from her assimilation of the male's semen. This analysis of the male sexual experience – that sex, in a sense, leads to death – has long informed artistic endeavors. For example, the author Honore de Balzac is famously reported to have exclaimed, following sex, "This morning I lost a novel." I wonder if, for her, having her picture taken, raises similar concerns.

And then there's the question – why so many pictures? Wouldn't, say, a couple of hundred be enough? Wouldn't there come a time when you simply run out of poses, or looks? Evidently not; and I think this accounts for, or maybe is symptomatic of, the relative fungibility of most women in porn, and the huge library of images that must be available world-wide.* Pornography depends for its sufficiency and vitality upon the "objectification" of women. Pornography is "about" a woman (or women); she (or they) is the "object" of pornography, even though, ironically, porn depicts the "act" of having sex. This object may be inculcated or instantiated in any number of different media, such as pictorial images, or film and video. Thus, in addition to her pictures, the flesh-and-blood woman also becomes iconic, becomes a thing.

A measure of the aesthetic value of pornography might be the extent to which it evokes a sympathetic or resonant response in the counterpart participant (the reader, or the viewer), for whatever reason. From this premise, we might conclude that a measure of what counts as "good" pornography is the extent to which it accurately or effectively depicts, exemplifies, or even stylizes the woman that is its aesthetic object. I am being deliberately vague with my choice of verbs here, because I do not want to pre-select any particular aesthetic outcome; there may be as many different definitions of what counts as good, as there are potential combinations of object and counterpart. There is no "objective" result, because people have different tastes and aesthetic proclivities. What I might consider to be gross or disgusting, for example, might qualify as a paradigm of artistic presentation to somebody else, who, for whatever reason, simply likes it. There are many reasons why this might be the case, all the way from simple demographic factors to complex psychological explanations.

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