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Of Deep Throats and Shallow Thought
The Art and Politics of Netporn
by Sebastian Olma

A new zone of media theory, netporn, revealed itself at this
October’s The Art and Politics of Netporn conference in Amsterdam.
Willing voyeur Sebastian Olma remained largely unaroused – except by
the Italians, who were quite affecting.

Want to go to a conference on internet pornography in Amsterdam?
Alright, stop twisting my arm! The Art and Politics of Netporn is
organised by the Institute of Network Cultures in collaboration with
Katrien Jacobs and Matteo Pasquinelli. Rather surprisingly, Franco
‘Bifo’ Berardi’s is on the bill. Autonomia meets netporn – sounds
rather interesting.

Mark Dery opened the event with the Burroughs-inspired announcement
that Sex Organs Sprout Everywhere. What the US-based cyber theorist
delivered as the first keynote can only be referred to as a porn-
poem: a rhetorically brilliant exposé evolving around the central
thesis that the neo-puritan Kulturkampf in the US is met – at least
virtually – with an explosion of transgressive practice in the a-
moral depths of the internet. Full-immersion baptism, as one could
perhaps summarise the argument, finds its virtual other in bukkake
(according to the wikipedia definition a ‘group sex practice wherein
a series of men take turns ejaculating on a person [often a
female]’). In an extremely entertaining sweep through the bukkake
side of the dichotomy, Dery brought to the close attention of his
audience the ever increasing boundaries of the sexual cosmos: babes
in bathing caps, fanciers of underwater catfights, connoisseurs of
submarine blowjobs, breath-holding fetishists, fans of simulated
drowning, people who get off on showering in business suits,
lactating transsexuals, scrotal inflation to mention just the tip of
the, well, iceberg. What left one with a disappointing after-taste
was that conceptually, all Dery had to offer was what he called the
‘Newtonian physics of contemporary society’, i.e., the thesis that
for every repressive action of the dominant culture, there is an
equal and opposite transgressive reaction from subcultures. One might
have expected less leaning toward theoretical mechanics from the
‘leading cyber-critic of the United States’ (Geert Lovink).

The second and in sense complementary keynote came from psychoanalyst
Mikita Brottman who ventured into an analysis of the Christian
right’s paranoia regarding not only cyber-pornography but the
internet as such. To the postmodern crusader, Brottman argued, the
internet looks like the ‘portal to hell’ sucking in home-loving
husbands and turning them into porn fiends or, even worse, leading
innocent kids onto the playgrounds of paedophile predators. Bush-
lovers (as in George, that is) thus see the internet as technological
desecrator of previously immaculate minds. What makes this view so
dangerous in Brottman’s assessment is that it defuses the ‘democratic
potential of the internet’ by degrading it to yet another temptation
to be conquered. The question might be asked, though, why anyone
would expect otherwise from the puritan brethren in the US.

Most of the conference’s remainder is quickly summarised: an
unintentionally hilarious (because extremely germano-academic)
presentation on search engine statistics by Manuel Bonik, Ayah Bdeir
(MIT) on spam, July Russo (Brown University) on how classical porn
studies (sic!) are too orientated towards film studies, Rogerio Lira
on his experiments in social nudity on Flickr.

Perhaps the climax of the day came with Sergio Messina, an
independent musician, journalist and technology researcher based in
Milan. His gig (a summary of which can be found at: http://
www.daridire.net/realcore/) was a rough ride through the world of
what he called realcore, i.e., a kind of people’s porn that
circulates on Usenet newsgroups, Yahoo! clubs, Msn and so forth. As
he claimed, there are 2 million images posted on these newgroups
daily which, if it is true, contradicts the journal Nature’s (2002)
findings according to which adult content websites make up as little
as 2% of the internet (though obviously generating exponential
amounts of traffic). Messina’s fantastic presentation, which was a
sort of Rock’n’Roll version of Dery’s exploration into fetish-land,
was only slightly weakened by the sheer absence of any awareness as
to the highly problematic nature of his assertion that these private
postings have a superior reality, showing the sexual acts or kinks of
(the) people as they genuinely happen.

At this point one has learned quite a bit about what is out there, or
rather, in there, i.e., on display in the promiscuous regions of
netporn. There is, however, one nagging question: Where the fuck is
Bifo?

Anticlimax: it transpires that Bifo has pulled out at the last
minute. This is even more unfortunate as his essay, (perhaps
programmatically entitled) The Obsession of the Vanishing Body, that
circulated at the conference, could have set the tone for a
productive engagement with the matter at hand. In this brief exposé,
Bifo suggests a conceptualisation of pornography as index of what he
refers to as the contemporary pathology of emotionality. In a sense,
he applies the familiar Baudrillardian thesis of the implosion of the
real to the phenomenon of netporn, arguing that the compulsively
repetitive character of internet pornography reveals the general loss
of connection between vision and emotion. As the perception of the
image does not yield the desired result, the act of vision is
ceaselessly repeated. The desiring body is thus put in a state of
permanent electrocution that buries sexual imagination under the mass
of repetitive acts of vision. ‘Stimul-hypertrophy’ becomes the
instant substitution for emotional elaboration at the level of the
body. What results is emotional atrophy.

This might, perhaps, sound a bit old-fashioned. However, it could
have delivered a trigger for a debate conceptually on a par with the
currents of contemporary theory. In fact, continental thought today
does offer a rich and fertile arsenal of tools for critique and
exploration of a phenonomenon like netporn. One might think of the
renaissance of Bergson’s work on perception (an ontology of affective
images acting on other affective images) whose intellectual mutations
have quite productively begun to move media and art theory out of
their structuralist deadlock. One could also imagine an interesting
approach to netporn from the perspective of biopower/biopolitics, for
instance in a problematisation of the formation/deformation of the
flux of living desire in the smooth flow of internet imagery (and the
corresponding economy).

There are of course a host of other theoretical potentialities. The
fact that none of them really actualised might be attributed to the
fact that this event was the ‘first conference on netporn criticism’.
What saved it in the end were clearly the Italians. In terms of
entertainment value, the above mentioned Sergio Messina proved
absolutely priceless. Heuristically speaking, it was Matteo
Pasquinelli (indymedia Italy and rekombinant.org) and artist/designer
David Boardman (only the name sounds English) who saved the day with
their discussion of warporn which is generally understood as the
mainstream media/government fascination with images of high-tech
weaponry and the clean sci-fi display of the theatre of war. For
Pasquinelli and Boardman, however, the choreography of warporn has
substantially changed since the emergence of Abu Ghraib’s hardcore
images. As they argued, those pictures have to be read as the
American reaction to the images of 9-11 at the level of the global
imaginary. For the first time a snuff movie was projected onto the
screen of mainstream media to counter the blockbuster imagery of the
WTC attacks. Its message is plain: ‘If you demolish our phallic icons
we’ll fuck you even harder.’

Whatever one might think about this thesis, here was finally an
attempt to approach the phenomenon of netporn. At last some
theoretical penetration at the end of a day that was full of
epiphenomenal petting. Mille grazie to the Italian delegation…

The Art and Politics of Netporn, De Badcuyp, Amsterdam, September 30-
October 1 http://www.networkcultures.org/netporn/