Surveillance

Shot Theory: From Viagra to the COVID-19 Vaccine, Pfizer Got it Right

July 27th, 2021

How did data culture evolve in the past decade up to present day? It shifted from the euphoria of sharing for the sake of sharing, characterizing Web 2.0’s advent in the mid-2000s, to the uber surveillance marking the post Arab Spring moment. I will map out how data culture has evolved over the years. Beginning with the over celebration of the social web and participatory culture in the post-dotcom years that peaked with global protest movements in 2011, to the gloomy stage of anxiety and fear that first emerged with the rise of ISIS’ globally hypermediatized terror and, lately, with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I will explore this evolutionary turn in data culture through the metaphor of the ‘shot’ – a figurative device which helps us (re)think how the relationship between violence and visibility has developed in the past decades.

The twofold dynamic of shooting as in filming and shooting as in killing, movements which I call the ‘camera shot’ and the ‘gun shot’, becomes apparent in the context of armed conflicts in Vietnam, former Yugoslavia, the Gulf Wars, and reaches its peak during the Arab Spring. These events, particularly in Syria, have made visible the extent to which regimes of representation and violence, media and military, violence and visibility, have dramatically become intertwined.

The current phase we find ourselves in, though, takes it a step further. It requires the individual to respond to the rising fear and insecurity brought by global terrorism, health crises and the planetary diffusion of biochemical threats. This stage is marked by the emergence of the ‘cum shot’, where the body itself is transforming into a technology of the self. A living, embodied device of violence and visibility that produces the subject and their subjectivity through molecules ingested and injected in the name of pleasure, safety, and health. We no longer need a surveil-and-punish apparatus, as our body – through the substances we absorb to reassign gender, boost our sexuality, alter our psychic status, cure our mental or physical dysfunctions – controls us from the inside, becoming our micro-molecular inner guard.

Welcome to the era of the cum shot. However you put it, from Viagra to the anti-COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer got it right.

This essay is inspired by the video essay ‘Give it a Shot. VVV: on Violence, Visibility, Viruses’, produced by Donatella Della Ratta at Affect and Social Media #4.5 and The Sensorium Art Show: Media Virality and the Lockdown Aesthetics, July 2020].

The World We Live in

 On a glorious Spring day, in the year 2021, a friend sent me this photo.

Covid-19 self-isolation tracking device, ‘Al-Hosn’

This is the tracking device she has to wear while self-isolating for 14 days as part of COVID-19 measures. It is a watch with a sim card that detects the wearer’s geolocation. If this watch-wearing body steps outside the area of confined isolation, the light will immediately start blinking, alerting the police. My friend is even afraid of throwing her household waste outside as the wristband may notify the authorities.

Looking at this picture – the device’s consistency, size, and shape on my friend’s wrist – my childhood resurfaced. I thought of Reideen the robot, one of many Japanese cartoons Italian TV broadcasted non-stop when I was growing up. Its protagonist, Junki Saiga, is an ordinary teenager until a meteor falls from the sky and activates a mysterious bracelet his late father, an archaeologist, gave him. The now fantastical bracelet merges Junki with an ancient robot buried deep in a pyramid. He becomes an uber-human potentiated by the device’s superpowers.

Japanese children’s animation series, ‘Brave Reideen’

The Arabic name of the app connected to my friend’s wristband, ‘Al-Hosn,’ renders a similar feeling. It means the fort, something that gives you strength and protection. An invincible shield travelling across centuries of imaginaries, connecting my robot populated childhood past to our virus inhabited present.

But very soon even the robot-like bracelet will be a remnant of the golden past, as much as Reideen itself. The extinction was predicted back in 2013 by two big names in the tech and politics arena: former CEO of Google, Eric Schimdt, and CEO of Jigsaw, Jared Cohen. Their book, The New Digital Age (2013), is the bible of 21st century interconnected lifestyle. ‘Soon you will be benefiting from a slew of physical augmentations designed to monitor your well-being […] such as microscopic robots in your circulatory system that keep track of your blood pressure, detect nascent heart disease and identify early-stage cancer’. Recently, Science Robotics published a study about a new microrobot using ‘clever biological disguises to get even closer to the source of disease in the body in order to provide the most targeted (and effective) treatment.’ This can be revolutionary in treating brain cancer which a self-propelled, drug-delivering microrobot could do much more effectively than any pill or injection.

Cartoons got it right way before Google’s executives. The 90s classic Magic School Bus features the famous shrinking bus, now a microrobot invading human bodies to explore skin cells. Nanotechnology at its best? As in Schimdt and Cohen’s early prophecy, we no longer need prostheses or external tools to monitor our health, track a disease and cure it.

90’s children television series, ‘Magic School Bus’

In The New Digital Age, Schimdt and Cohen push their imagination further, describing the futuristic average morning of a young urban American professional. An automated environment in which the internet of things wakes you up with freshly brewed coffee, gently lighting your bedroom and giving you a soft massage without interrupting your REM cycle. When you start thinking about having an extra cup of that deliciously automated coffee a ‘haptic device that is embedded in the heel of your shoe gives you a gentle pinch,’ alerting you that your meeting is coming up. ‘Perhaps you grab an apple on the way out.’ Or perhaps the Magic School Bus picks you up instead and drives you into the depths of your body cavities, exploring your cells, cleaning them up from potential illnesses, strains and anxieties.

Two Decades of Data Culture

The mid-2000s are a milestone in shaping the future of contemporary digital culture. A culture that is going to be heavily centered around ‘data and who owns and controls, or gives the best access to, a class of data,’ as prophetically said by entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly. In the lobby of San Francisco’s Nikko Hotel in October 2004, O’Reilly sits with prominent web entrepreneurs and theorists such as Jerry Yang and Larry Lessig, conspiring about the future of the emerging ‘social web’ or Web 2.0. Facebook is less than a year old, YouTube does not even exist, but they discuss the ‘web as a platform,’ the idea that ‘customers are building the business for you.’ Tech companies, they say, just need to act as intermediaries for the interactions between users.

‘We are a tech company, not a publisher’ is the mantra Mark Zuckerberg religiously repeats when accused of harvesting millions of Facebook users’ data. More than ten years have passed since that memorable Nikko Hotel meeting, but the principle is still the one dictated by O’Reilly at the time: Let users do the job, let them generate the content (in whatever form, visual, textual, or multimedia), and let companies harness the data to create value. Net theorist Tiziana Terranova comments on the language used to describe this process: what was once ‘harnessing’ data turned into the much more invasive practice of ‘harvesting,’ reaching the point where all things data are now about ‘mining.’ And platforms are the ones acting as harvesters, or data extraction plants as claimed by The Economist in 2017, ‘The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data.’ For scholars Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias, this predatory practice of extraction combined with ‘the abstract quantification methods of computing’ opens up to a new phase of contemporary capitalism which is known as ‘data colonialism.’

They argue that our daily practices and relations, hypermediated by and within the social web, have become an open resource that is ‘“just there” for capital’– ready to be appropriated and exploited. This capitalization is justified by sheer abundance of data, produced within the dominant mindset of a culture of sharing. The mantra of sharing for the sake of sharing is the ideological cover inducing us to think about data in terms of an abundant resource, thus value-less. Couldry and Mejias build on historian Jason Moore’s remark that colonialism’s predative argument is grounded in the idea of cheap nature, in ‘natural resources that are abundant, easy to appropriate from their rightful owners, and whose depletion is seen as unproblematic’ as they are just there.

The early days of Web 2.0 are marked by excitement for the new possibilities of participatory internet. Users are caught into a sort of data-bulimia, producing a continuous flow of information, consuming it, re-appropriating, and re-injecting it into the never-ending cycle of the data stream. ‘Sharing Is Caring’ is the catchphrase written in big letters on my Creative Commons T-shirt. Larry Lessig’s book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy (2008) inspires a whole generation worldwide to produce culture rather than just consume it. What he calls ‘read and write culture’ is the new literacy of the 21st century: blogs, user-generated videos, remixed songs, and political mashups. In the same years Henry Jenkins enthusiastically declares that media industries will no longer be able to ignore fans and their grassroots creativity, hailing the new era of ‘participatory culture’ where users produce and consume content, finally embracing their hybrid status as ‘prosumers.’

The social web embodies fantasies of participation, abundance, and access that lie at the basis of contemporary neoliberal democracies. While it turns everyone into a data producer and carrier, the actual quality of the content that is carried is no longer relevant. Messages are degraded to mere contributions – ‘whatever’ contributions, Jodi Dean notices. For Jean Baudrillard, in his prophetic In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, or The end of the Social (1978), it is precisely the intensity and speed of communication that destroys meaning. This is communication for communication’s sake. Pure contact, the mere technical possibility of establishing a connection, dramatically replaces content.

These words, written way before the birth of the Web 2.0, resonate in the contemporary age of participatory internet. ‘If it doesn’t spread it’s dead,’ Jenkins declares, thinking about an environment where content should be able to move across platforms seamlessly. Spreadability is the engine of the social web. Data that are not able to travel across networks are not ‘social.’ Data that do not spread are condemned to extinction.

Tales of Virality and Viruses

On the social web, spreadability equals viral contagion. It follows the Darwinian imperative of the survival of the fittest. Information comes closer to genetics, or to memetics – defined by biologist Richard Dawkins as the study of cultural reproduction based on an analogy with the Darwinian concept of evolution. For Dawkins, a meme is a ‘unit of culture’ hosted and carried by an individual, which can reproduce itself into a new host following a process of viral contagion. ‘Life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information,’ he writes. And people are spreaders of this vital information.

In 2018, The Verge leaked an internal video, The Selfish Ledger, made for Google by Near Future Laboratory’s co-founder Nick Foster. The video, an exercise in speculative design, makes explicit reference to Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene, suggesting that we might change the way in which we understand data. We should think about ourselves no longer as data owners but, rather, as their custodians, caretakers, transient carriers, leaving them in a shared ledger so they can be passed onto other users, from generation to generation – a sort of genetic code Google-sanctioned.

Virality is the engine feeding this genetics-like mindset. It emphasizes on the code and its capability to spread and reproduce regardless of individuals, who are understood merely as data producers, carriers, and caretakers. Virality quickly expands from the domain of information and marketing to become a pervasive techno-social condition defining and commodifying the whole sphere of human relationships. The more ‘likes, shares, retweets,’ the higher social ranking and reputation for the user, translating into financial profit for the platform.

Virality is the quintessential paradigm shaping this first phase of the social web, so pervading that it has come to affect the domain of politics. The Arab uprisings of 2011 are the utmost political embodiment of this data euphoria and the concrete manifestation of the culture of contagion that spreads through revolutionary hashtags. Building on the epidemic metaphor, Al Jazeera declares that ‘few countries were immune’ to the revolutionary virus which spread across the Arab region at an incredible pace: 23 years of Ben Ali’s regime gone in one month of protests in Tunisia; 30 years of presidency, 18 days of protests and Egyptian president Mubarak steps down; 8 months of the uprising, a NATO intervention and 42 years of Qaddafi’s rule are over in Libya; after more than three decades in power, Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Saleh resigns in February 2012.

‘The speed of change’ achieved in the Arab world through the so-called ‘hashtag activism’ is unprecedented. Regime after regime falls in a matter of weeks or months. The more hashtags created, the more countries affected and infected. It is not about how and why the revolutionary idea spreads but that it conquers by viral infection, which seems to prove that virality works in politics like it does in web marketing. It finally materializes as the quintessential techno-social (and political) condition of the Web 2.0’s first phase, becoming an inherent feature of the early 2000s’ digital culture.

Yet very soon the other side of the coin surfaces. Few years into the uprisings, and the Arab world descends into chaos, mayhem, and civil wars. Armed jihadi organizations such as ISIS become visible in the region and globally. ISIS enters the global stage using hashtag activism, the very same technique that made Arab protesters so famous and celebrated. In 2014, the group cleverly hijacks the world cup hashtags #Brazil2014 and #WC2014 to gain global visibility through social media as it takes over Mosul. In a few hours #alleyesonISIS becomes the most talked about viral campaign, terrorizing and fascinating people at the same time. It literally turns into a weapon of war in the hands of the terrorist organization to shock and awe the world, intimidate some and recruit others; triggering a wide array of reactions from fear and anxiety to praise and admiration.

The viral metaphor is once again employed, yet this time to convey terror and despair rather than revolutionary excitement. Now viral contagion evokes disease and death. Barack Obama compares ISIS to a cancer that must be extracted so ‘it does not spread,’ while  hacktivist collective Anonymous threatens the terrorist organization: ‘You will be treated like a virus, and we are the cure.’

In the second half of the 2010s, with the rise of ISIS and the health-related metaphors associated with it, virality dramatically shifts in meaning. It now enacts terror via participatory culture with ISIS’ terrifying shots as the utmost example of the new understanding of spreadability. Terrorism embodies a counter-revolutionary hashtag activism spreading on social media as much as on the ground. The production of a sheer amount of controversial yet professionally made audiovisuals (from memes to short videos such as the Mujatweets to fully-fledged feature films like Flames of War) is yet another powerful weapon in the hands of the organization to gain more media visibility, therefore more supporters and emulators. ISIS films and kills, shoots and shoots at. Violence triggers visibility, visibility activates violence, in a spiral that thrives on the inner mechanism of the social web. The more ‘likes, shares, retweets,’ the better.

Screenshot from a video made by ISIS, 2015

It is circulation for circulation’s sake, regardless of the content, disseminating whatever message. It is Jenkins’ ‘If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead’ repurposed in a cynical twist: ‘If it’s dead, it spreads,’ marking the end of data culture as we knew it.

Shot Theory

The rise of ISIS and their spread of terror and anxiety via social media has put an end to the euphoria of hyper circulation that characterized the social web’s early days. Circulation for circulation’s sake can lead to toppling authoritarian regimes, creating viral marketing cases, and earning stellar profits, as much as it can equally push forward terror, chaos, and instability. In these shifted circumstances, concepts such as virality and spreadability might not be apt to provide a solid framework to account for the new emerging techno-social condition: a condition of anxiety, fear and insecurity that calls for control and containment.

To read this shift, I introduce the metaphor of the shot. A shot is a shock, too. Syria offers the perfect entry door to my shot theory showing the extreme entanglements between the act of shooting and being shot at, of filming and killing, of filming to kill and killing to film. During the Syrian uprising in 2011, the events were captured on live camera granting them the immortality of digital pixels. These were turned into documents that memorialized the happenings and eventually served as court evidence against human rights violations. The very same act of filming also exposed those who performed it to the risk of being shot at, of being killed precisely for having video-witnessed the violence. And yet, as I emphasize in my work Shooting a Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria (2018), shooting as in filming and shooting as in killing share a similar concern ‘for the aesthetic performance, a preoccupation with the (re)presentation of the act, a compulsive attraction to any visual format offering visibility to the violence.’

Syrian activist Basil al-Sayed’s camera, photo by Rami Jarrah

Here is when the ‘camera shot’ and the ‘gun shot’ merge together and dramatically intertwine. What makes Syria the quintessential case study of the unprecedented enmeshment between violence and visibility is the nature of its conflict. It encompasses a networked dimension which inscribes both the act of a peaceful protestor filming with their smartphone, and that of an armed man raising his gun to shoot at them, into a dynamic of participatory culture. ‘In Syria, every day, YouTubers film then die. Others kill then film,’ Syrian director Osama Mohamed says in his film Silvered Water: Syria’s Self Portrait (2014), co-directed with Wiam Simav Bedirxan. Every day, everyone films in Syria: from the peaceful protester to the armed jihadi, from torturers to security agents. Everyday this visual production is uploaded onto the web, shared, liked, retweeted, commented upon, re-manipulated and Instagrammed.

The time of the shot has come. The camera shot and the gun shot, visibility and violence, become dramatically entangled in the networked form, as they are rendered into sharable and likeable items for the sake of circulation on the social web. Those who contributed to the ‘shooting’ process in both senses, no matter if armed jihadis, regime officers or peaceful activists, are equally transformed into routine labor – whether paid, unpaid, or semi-paid – in the economy of networks. The enmeshment between visual regimes of representation and modes of media production, with warfare and modes of destruction, thrives on the techno-social infrastructure of the social web and its demand for networked participation.

The result of this process is the rise of a new condition of the visual which I refer to as ‘the networked image’ where ‘Syria’s networked images are the most perfectly accomplished visual (and political) formation of our time.’ Everybody contributes to it, from Silicon Valley platform capitalists, non-violent activists and casual remixers, to regime soldiers, ISIS jihadis, YouTube and Facebook algorithms. Visual media produced in the context of the Syrian uprising shed light on the nature of the networked image. This image takes a distance from the footage generated in the aftermath of the first protests with the aspiration to serve as proof of the violence on the ground, and eventually bring those responsible for it to court. Instead, networked images are operational as described by Harun Farocki: they ‘do not represent an object, but rather are part of an operation.’ They are made neither to entertain nor to inform, but to do something, to perform an action, to call a world into being. Such a world is materialized through ISIS media production, from the killing of the Jordanian pilot live on camera to the merciless videotaped destruction of Mosul’s museum.

Palmira, Columbia from Assad to ISIS to Russia, 2011-2016

From Cheshire Cat to Zoom Lawyer Cat

This emerging mode of the visual takes a distance from the language of representation. Images disconnect from the thing represented, rather they explode in endless combinatorial possibilities to call new worlds into being, turning themselves into pure abstraction. They become the grin without a cat that leaves Alice in Wonderland so puzzled: ‘I’ve often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!’ Not by chance, philosopher Gilles Deleuze also mentions the Cheshire Cat in his visionary essay The Exhausted (1995), reflecting on the image’s shifting condition. For him, the image has disengaged from the object so ‘to become in itself a process – a possible event that doesn’t even have to realize itself in the body of an object any longer.’ Deleuze calls this emerging mode of the visual ‘langue III’ that first surfaced with television. But it’s with the Web 2.0’s networked communication technologies and techno-social infrastructure that langue III takes its most complete and perfect form.

Cheshire Cat inspired from the animated film, Alice in Wonderland (2010).

Binary code, the language of the networks, is abstraction in its purest form: a sequence of zeros and ones creating new worlds from scratch. Objects no longer need to exist in the physical domain to inhabit the digital one. Images no longer need to suggest having once existed, in a material form, somewhere, somehow, the remains of a past, embodied life. They now flourish in the domain of the immaterial, yet very concrete, where a new state of existence and condition emerges defined by virtue of binary code.

Syria epitomizes this new condition with the overwhelming quantity of visual media produced during the uprising which generated uncertainty, confusion, and chaos instead of a shared truth and a solid narrative on the nature of the conflict. British artist Banksy conveyed this atmosphere – and this emerging paradigm of the visual – in his fascinating yet mysterious Rebel Rocket Attack, a 2013 viral video portraying a Syria under chaos where a group of armed rebels kills a little Dumbo flying in the sky. Nothing should surprise us, as everything becomes possible under the visual (and political) regime shaped by networked images. They no longer aim at mirroring reality or conveying a truth-value but, rather, at establishing their own ‘fictionality’ which, following Jacques Rancière’s definition, ‘does not refer to the creation of a fictitious universe but, rather, to an aspiration to construct new realities and propose alternative framings of the empirical world.’

Yet, this new condition of the image does not solely belong to Syria, to a crisis context or a war zone. It is, in fact, a much wider, global way of existence for the visual – which translates into a politics of the visual – defined around mere abstraction. The image becomes the grin without the cat, a process in itself that no longer needs to take a material form in order to embrace real existence. ‘I am here live. I’m not a cat,’ was the desperate cry of a Texas county attorney during a hearing on Zoom last February. ‘Mr Ponton, I believe you have a filter turned on in the video settings,’ the judge presiding over the case said, trying to give a rational explanation to the awkward situation.

Awkward, yet not exceptional, as in a pandemic and Zoom-fatigued world everything can and will happen in the domain of the immaterial. An Italian priest live streamed a mass, forgetting to turn off his phone filters. The digital magic rendered him into a boxer, a wizard, a wolf. ‘Just as with the priest, here the delight comes from the dissonance between the absurdity of the image and the seriousness of the setting,’ comments The Guardian on the lawyer cat story. That’s precisely what happens in Bansky’s video: a Dumbo falls from the sky, an absurd image in an extremely serious context of war and violence. And yet, isn’t war absurd but also real at the same time?

And while The Guardian’s commentator maintains that the lawyer cat does not say much about us humans, yet he indulges in a picturesque description of ‘an entirely feline justice system that exists just out of sight, under the surface of the world we think we know.’ It’s actually not hard to visualize this mysterious underworld pullulating with cat lawyers and feline officers, as much as to imagine a blue sky filled with flying Dumbos hoping not to get caught by friendly fire. In the absurdity of Syria, yet another absurdity might just make sense. In the absurdity of a (post?) pandemic world populated with surgical masks, aseptic gloves, and face shields, digital cat lawyers should not surprise us.

Meme about Zoom cat lawyer

Networked images have finally taken over. They do not describe reality, they make realities. They make our present reality. Artist-theorist Hito Steyerl once wrote: ‘Whoever is not an image raise their hand.’ At the time of the networked image, a time of global pandemics and Zoom fatigue, we echo: Whoever is not a cat remove your filter. Yet there is nothing underneath, a digital cat without a grin.

Bodies as Extensions of Techno-Capitalism

CW: needles

In a world where everything is retreating into the image form, where images have become, as Steyerl wrote, ‘things among other things, image-objects, image-events, image-situations, image-bodies,’ one might wonder what happened to the body, the utmost frontier of the physical, the last defender of the organic. Does it make any sense to talk about the body in a time of social distancing, when face masks prevent us from establishing any contact with other bodies?

The hug rooms of care homes in Northern Italy show what human contact might look like in the new decade of the 2020s, with malleable plastic curtains allowing bodies to embrace others in total plastic safety. Or they could touch each other through rolling bubbles, following the model inaugurated by rock band Flaming Lips to host in-person concerts in the time of social distancing. Whether plastic hugs or bubble kisses, bodies in their materiality, in flesh and bones, seem to be slowly disappearing in 2021, giving way to a world populated by ghosts (and digital bits). Even the last farewell to those who perished due to COVID-19 takes immaterial form as online funerals are becoming the new normal of mourning, inaugurating a virtual funeral etiquette of their own.

Hug rooms in care homes, Northern Italy, photo by Domenico Sartor.

If, at first glance, the body seems to have disappeared within the new paradigm of social distancing, it is in fact being re-engineered and re-arranged in a new form making its management easier. This process did not start with COVID-19. In fact, the utmost euphoria for hashtag circulation and the spreadability paradigm was already rendering everything into exchangeable data, including the body. Emojis, first offered in 2008 by Apple’s iPhone in Japan and then commercialized internationally in 2011, were the first technical formations to render bodily emotions – anger, happiness, joy, care, sadness – into visual texts.

Networked technologies trigger the textualization of emotions, and of the self overall, as they work to externalize and objectify the latter ‘through visual means of representation and language,’ as Eva Illlouz’s brilliant work highlights. This becomes apparent in the socially typical domain of the body and bodily emotions, i.e., dating. Online dating obliges users to render themselves into textual representations of chats, bios, profile pictures, hashtags, etc., for the sake of interacting with and meeting others.

One of the most problematic consequences of presenting a self devoid of the body through textualization is its transition into a readable, analyzable, quantifiable and commodifiable entity. The textual self is a market good inevitably exposed to the logic, features, and metaphors of emotional capitalism. As one of my students reckons in an auto-ethnographic piece analyzing networked emotions: ‘I had never realized before that the word “swiping” that Tinder has connected to online dating is in fact coming from the market…swipe your credit card, swipe the guy right or left on Tinder.’,

In the past decade, data capitalism has worked to render everything into abstract exchanges, including the body. And while the body is being desubjectified, its textual manifestations are objectified and turned into commodities. ‘For a long time,’ poet Wayne Koestenbaum writes, ‘civilization has been in the business of siphoning the body away from the scene of vocal expression, of interpersonal confrontation. More and more, the industries of communication and entertainment – with their globalizing quest to amuse, stimulate, connect – secretly work to deaden, or desubjectify, the human voice.’

While desubjectifying human beings, at the same time this new phase – and face – of capitalism works in the direction of invading the body, extracting as much data as possible from it, making it into the utmost commodity. Queer philosopher Paul B. Preciado calls this emerging moment ‘a third form of capitalism’ characterized by the techno-political management of living bodies through sex and sexuality. It performs both via technological and media devices and via science, particularly endocrinology, which controls the functioning of the body through hormones. ‘We are being confronted with a new kind of hot, psychotropic, punk capitalism,’ he writes, marking a stark difference against the previous phase founded on the extraction of value from knowledge and cognitive processes.

This new capitalism, what Preciado calls ‘the pharmacopornographic regime,’ puts the body’s materiality at the center stage of the profit-making mechanism. It refers to ‘the process of biomolecular (pharmaco) and semiotic-technical (pornographic) government of sexual subjectivity.’ Here, sex is no longer managed through mechanisms of containment and restraint, but through the promise of pleasure instead. The pill is our lightweight and portable Panopticon, where ‘the surveillance tower has been replaced by the eyes of the (not always) docile user […] who regulates her own administration without the need for external supervision.’ We no longer need prison cells, whips, guards, and threats, as our bodies are our own imprisonment, in which we self-confine and self-surveil in the name of sexual freedom, total pleasure and a feeling of omnipotent control. The control manifests in multiple forms: a new instance of capitalism interested in engineering people’s subjectivities through hormones, from IVF to gender affirming treatments, and through drugs employed to shape and alter states of excitation and relaxation.

New forms of surveillance?

It’s no longer about manufacturing commodities but about the making of our bodies into living commodities, constantly invented and reinvented through chemical substances that are (seemingly) assembled to cure diseases or to boost livelihoods. Yet, they produce the subject and their subjectivity instead. Reversing media philosopher McLuhan’s vision of media as extensions of the body, Preciado draws a disturbing picture of the latter as an extension of techno-capitalism. A body defeated by the delights of the pharmacopornographic regime, won over by voluntary subjugation obtained with the promise of freedom and pleasure.

Pills from the Colonies to Wonderland

Starting from a different premise, postcolonial theorist Achille Mbembe also talks about a process of total enslavement of the body via colonization, a powerful manifestation of ‘necropolitics’ – the right to decide and rule on people’s life, and death. The body is totally colonized by a variety of (chemically engineered) forms of life, from hormones to bacteria, strengthening the dramatic intertwinement between biological life and technology. Mbembe dubs it ‘techno molecular colonialism,’ building on Margarida Mendes’ idea of ‘molecular colonialism;’ a dynamic that turns the body into the ultimate corporate territory by controlling the infinitesimal gene and molecule. Mendes traces such molecular governance back to colonial containment measures, such as hygienization, demographic management, and the Global Vaccine Action Plan pushed forward by the World Health Organization – or, as Preciado suggests, the contraceptive pill tested on Puerto Rico’s non-white population. Mendes reports that ‘the last century helped produce 80,000 new molecules that were subsequently released into the ecosystem and whose behavior we cannot fully predict.’

These man-made molecules, together with the global circulation of GMO, have become fully integrated into our daily ecosystem. They are ingested and absorbed by our bodies, binding them, as Mendes remarks, in a ‘proprietary relationship of biological subjugation’ to corporate capital, generating unpredictable effects and an overall endocrinal crisis. The effects include increased rates of cancer, autoimmune diseases and general risks associated with toxic exposure. And yet, as biologist Malin Ah-King and gender scholar Eva Hayward notice, of all disasters and health dysfunctions brought in by endocrine engineering and manipulation, the most feared and talked about would be a ‘Frankenstein metamorphosis that threatens sex and sexuality’ in the guise of infertility, sterility, intersexuality, gonadal deformities.

Among the agents responsible for this endocrine disruption, they notice, we find several substances related to sex and sexuality: ‘[A]rtificially produced hormones (steroids), which have been widely used as contraceptives for the last fifty years’ or ‘estradiol and Premarin®, prescribed to medicate menopause symptoms, provide birth control, and other hormonal replacement therapies; and androgens, used for muscle enhancement by athletes and during androgen deficiency.’ As Preciado’s analysis of these industrially produced sex hormones shows, the pharmacopornographic regime generates the problem and, at the same time, offers a solution to it.

The pill, the most manufactured synthetic substance in global pharmaceutical industries, provides the utmost example to illustrate this ambivalence upon which the profit mechanism of pharmacopornographic capitalism proliferates. Largely promoted through the idea of finally freeing the female body from the constraints of reproduction – to the extent that the feminist movement happily embraced it as a tool of liberation – the success of the pill marks the entrance into a new stage of endocrinological and bio-technological control of private corporations over bodies. In this phase, bodies are invaded from inside the domestic space and are subjugated to corporate capital imperatives with the promise of unlimited freedom from the burden of reproductive labor. This narrative is so pervasive that, on the one hand, the problematic side effects of a prolonged use of this medical device – breast or cervical cancer, thrombosis, etc. – have been downplayed. While on the other hand, the pill has been increasingly employed for what Preciado calls ‘the cosmetic production of femininity’ as a treatment of acne, a hormone replacement therapy for menopause, or to manage irregular menstrual cycles.

Combined oral contraceptive pill

If one of its treacherous side effects accidentally hits the oblivious body, corporations will offer a solution in the guise of other hormones and chemical substances to heal the disease. If the non-menstruating body subject to a long-time pill regime suddenly wants to conceive and is not able to, there is a solution. Pharmacopornographic capitalism intervenes to give the body another chance via other hormones, infertility treatments and gonadotropin injections. Ultimately, hormones are somato-political fictions, Preciado reminds us. Human bodies, far from being the result of merely natural processes, are rather produced by a vast array of technologies, from media to genetic engineering to endocrinology. All equally contribute to the making of contemporary subjects and subjectivities from their interior, from inside the domestic walls, being free to operate on the excuse of pleasure and liberation.

Following Preciado, the production and large-scale commercialization of hormones should be seen as a science of communication, as ‘the biologization of a theory of broadcasting, distribution, and treatment of information.’ Here, subjects and subjectivities are made through communicating fluids and chemically engineered messages. This new phenomenon brings into stark relief an old dynamic: the enmeshment between capitalism and colonial exploitation. As the philosopher’s analysis underlines, former colonies have provided the perfect setting to conduct most clinical trials for the pill, offering the pharmaceutical industry a wide array of racialized and sexually deviant bodies to experiment upon. Ah-King and Hayward remark that the greater impact of these artificially produced hormones on environmental pollution has been felt, for the most part, precisely by the populations of former colonies, contributing to raising the risk of sterility, poisoning, and contracting diseases such as cancer.

And yet in a fully globalized world – traversed by continuous fluxes of emotions, bodily fluids and chemically engineered substances contributing to pharmacopornographic capitalism – everything is so interconnected that we can no longer establish a here and an elsewhere, a place of comfort and a place of crisis, a safe zone and a conflict zone. Violence, and the hypervisibility granted by social media, are both pervading and pervasive. They touch upon each body, enslaved by the pharmacopornographic power that promises pleasure and liberation. Ingesting substances to reassign gender, boost sexuality, cure erectile dysfunctions or depression, conceive or avoid conception should make us acknowledge these trafficking networks of biochemical materials that are founded upon exploitation and violence and can perpetrate that very exploitation and violence.

‘Each time I give myself a dose of testosterone, I agree to this pact (…) I draft a contract whereby my desire is fed by – and retroactively feeds – global channels that transform living cells into capital,’ writes Preciado. We should rethink necropolitics and acknowledge that what was done to Africa once is now being expanded onto the entire world, Mbembe echoes.

Alice picks up and drinks the bottle labeled ‘Drink me.’

We are entering the era of the eat me, drink me. The era of swallowing substances, and of being swallowed by them. The era of the cum shot.

From the Camera and Gun Shot to the Cum Shot

The era of the shot – the figurative device I use to describe the intertwinement between violence and visibility – starts as early as the first decades of the last century, with World War I. At the time, Ernst Jünger, a philosopher, warfighter, and author of fascinating accounts on the mediatization of conflict, was convinced that ‘there can be no war without photography,’ as violence and its technological reproduction were mutually and mysteriously interconnected.

After that, many other writers, philosophers, and artists have written about the uncanny enmeshment between violence and visibility. Paul Virilio’s seminal work War and Cinema (1984) explicates a disturbing convergence between the logic of perception and the logic of destruction through technologies of the visual and of warfare. Here the simultaneously invented film camera eye and the machine-gun merge in a dynamic which is twofold, that of shooting and being shot at, of filming and killing. ISIS is the best example of this blending of visual and military regimes, generating a vicious cycle between violence and visibility in which the camera eye and the machine-gun feed each other in endless loops. In general, Syria offers an exceptionally rich case study to illustrate this double-sided movement, with its army of disarmed protesters and their non-stop documenting camera eyes, and the myriad of state and non-state violent subjects, pro-revolution battalions and jihadi groups producing annihilating spectacles of violence in visually compelling ways.

The camera shot and the gun shot are the armoured object, an object that functions, at the same time, as a protective layer (the camera) and as an instrument of attack (the gun). Even if in different ways, they evoke aggression (whether metaphorical or physical), belligerence, and militancy. They are quintessentially connected to manliness, working as external prostheses of the body which functions as its belligerent and powerful prolongement, like a male organ. Yet, the camera shot and the gun shot are still two-dimensional objects, modern, mechanical, and industrial. They both function by aiming at an external target, taken at a distance; something to frame and capture or, rather, destroy. They do not concern the body directly but are preoccupied with its killing and filming prostheses.

What Preciado, Mbembe and Mendes have described is, instead, something of a different nature: immaterial yet organic, metaphorical yet very concrete. Something molecular, intravenous, subcutaneous, that takes over the subject from the inside by way of swallowing, injecting, digesting. It is about invading the body, becoming the body. It is about changing it, modifying it, and finally, re-engineering it.

I call this third stage of the shot ‘the cum shot’ because it concerns pharmacopornographic capitalism invading the body with micro-prosthetic and incorporated technologies. Being no longer extensions of the body, they have melted with the latter. They control and surveil it from the inside, not by way of coercion and repression, but by way of pleasure. They make it come. The pleasure element is the triggering mechanism by which individuals meekly agree to be penetrated and enslaved by these molecular forms of pharmacopornographic capital.

I use the term ‘cum’ as I want to stress the pleasure component. At the same time, I want to emphasize the two elements that come together in the cum shot. On the one hand, its very organic and material nature, rendered visible through the consistency of the ejaculated semen. On the other hand, its semiotic and metaphorical power. The cum shot refers directly to pornography understood, following Preciado’s lesson, as the complex nexus of the networks of media and devices that make the subject hyper-visible. Social media is the best example of this process of hypervisibility becoming inherently pornographic, as through its mechanism of self-disclosure it produces, at the same time, pleasure and frustration, exaltation and humiliation.

The cum shot is, thus, about something very material and indeed metaphorical at the same time, something hypervisible yet hidden into the body, ingested and digested by it. By using the expression ‘cum’ by no means do I want to hint at a prevarication of the female body by the male ejaculator, or to refer directly to pornography. Once again, drawing upon Preciado’s reflections, I suggest broadening its definition to incorporate it within a wider understanding of contemporary capitalism becoming a fully-fledged pharmacopornographic regime. Within this regime, it makes no sense to talk about gender if not in the form of a somato-political fiction, as ‘male and female are terms without empirical content beyond the technologies that produce them.’

The cum shot is un-gendered, neutral, and transparent as a chemical substance. It is about injecting substances into the body to achieve pleasure in various shapes: from taking hormones to reassign gender (as Beatriz Preciado does to become Paul B.) to taking the pill to escape pregnancy, from administering gonadotropins to produce more follicles to become pregnant, to swallowing viagra to cure an erectile dysfunction. It is about networked sex toys and their tech interfaces taking over our sexual life to evaluate our orgasm and measure enjoyment and pleasure, or about letting period tracking apps and their algorithms assess our menstrual cycle and notify us when it’s a good time to get pregnant or how to avoid it.

Period and ovulation tracking mobile app, Clue.

It is also about vaccines and protection from viruses that could potentially kill us. Achieving immunity from diseases and keeping our bodies healthy is yet another form of aiming at maximizing pleasure and extending the human lifespan. Whether through the optimization of our sexual life and enjoyment, or through the promise of being kept safe from external viral attacks, the invasion of our bodies happens gently and submissively. We voluntarily submit to the imperatives of pharmacopornographic capitalism, whether in the form of a pill to be swallowed or a fluid to be injected. Whether it’s viagra or the anti-COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer gets it all.

Pharmacopornographic capitalism proliferates upon healthcare and bodily pleasure. Back in 2017, Argentinian artist Amalia Ulman had sensed this in her powerful work Dignity featuring glossy photos of her face covered with semen as if she had been ejaculated on. As Alexandra Symons Sutcliffe reviews Ulman’s work, the artist’s installation suggests a reflection on care work, whether professional caregiving or sex work, both understood as forms of care since both require ‘a relinquishing of the barriers to intimacy – a degree of bodily disclosure.’ The bond between those who labor through their own bodies and those who labor for the bodies of others once again recalls Preciado’s reflections on the needed solidarity between trans bodies and bodies of the disadvantaged, of the migrants, of those who perform care work.

Pharmacopornographic capitalism, the philosopher points out, extracts value ‘from racialized and pauperized bodies (nonwhite bodies from places referred to as “developing countries”),’ using them indifferently for sex work or caregiving, two fields of work where the West would tolerate an intrusion of non-Western labor. Within both, dignity is ‘rendered a privilege through its economic evaluation,’ Ulman’s work reminds us.

On the one hand, pharamacopornographic capitalism continuously extracts value from these disadvantaged bodies to give more privileged Western bodies the illusion of pleasure and safety. On the other hand, it also puts these very Western bodies continuously at work in various forms: by making them produce data through the very promise of pleasure and safety (from period tracking apps to fertility apps to portable devices to monitor people’s health), and by normalizing and de-stigmatizing softer forms of sex work to produce more data – and profit. One of the best examples of this process of re-branding forms of sex into something more socially ‘acceptable’ that would serve the interest of the data extraction business model is OnlyFans. The increasingly popular platform enables content creators to earn money from users who directly subscribe to their channels, eventually becoming ‘fans.’ Since the beginning of the pandemic, the app’s popularity has increased as more people are confined in their homes. Sex is at the core of its success.

Logo of content subscription service, OnlyFans.

The paradox, says Australian media theorist Emily van der Nagel, is that OnlyFans is ‘a platform people associate only with sex work, but it’s missing an opportunity to support sex workers in this endeavor.’ Content creator Brooklyn Rose echoes: ‘I’ve known people to wake up one day and their account just be deleted… because they have maybe used a word that they shouldn’t. So, yeah, it’s not sex worker-friendly.’ In reality, OnlyFans triggers a mechanism that is peculiar to pharmacopornographic capitalism. It extracts value from what Preciado calls ‘potentia gaudendi,’ i.e., the potential capacity of any living body to produce pleasure and the possibility for capitalism to derive financial gain from it. This can be in the pharmacological form, ingesting hormones and chemical substances to potentiate the self, or in its pornographic – because over-exposed and hyper-visible – representation via social media. However, it does so by concealing the appearance ‘of the true engines of pharmacopornographic capitalism’ and avoiding, as Preciado writes, ‘the social panic generated by the following revelation: it isn’t rationality and production, but potentia gaudendi, that sustains the world economy.’

While sex work is normalized and de-stigmatized through the promise of empowerment and being in control of one’s choices, OnlyFans sanctions any explicit reference to it, in the spirit of a quintessentially neoliberal puritanism. Expressions such as ‘I feel like I’m completely in control;’ ‘I like the self-esteem boost the platform gives me;’ ‘I feel empowered because people have a strong desire to see me, so I feel desired;’ ‘Men and women want to see me. They pay to see me, it’s very flattering and makes me want to do more for them,’ gathered from OnlyFans users perfectly illustrate this mechanism. When asked whether they consider themselves sex workers, they have no hesitation in rejecting the whole idea, without thinking about the contradictions their problematic answer reveals: ‘No. I don’t go on it to profit and I enjoy just naturally showing off my body and I feel like it’s where I can express myself freely.’

Phamarcopornographic power acts without being seen explicitly. It works to normalize the process of commodification of the body and of its potentia gaudendi by covering it up with quintessentially neoliberal metaphors such as that of empowerment and freedom of choice. At the same time, it sanctions manifestations of sex and sexuality that would eventually not fit within the parameters set up by the new normal.

To read this paradigm shift and replace that of spreadability and virality characterizing the social web’s first phase, I suggest using the metaphor of the shot. The shot looks at how the relationship between visibility and violence evolves in different stages of data culture. While the camera shot and the gun shot give a powerful account of how visibility dramatically intertwines with violence in the most intense phase of the rise of the social web – the peak of the Arab Spring – I maintain that their two-dimensionality and their being connected to prostheses external to the body do not account for a different stage in the development of capitalism where the body itself has turned into the utmost source of profit.

In a moment when capital takes a pharmacopornographic form, the shot becomes tridimensional, ingested, digested, organic. It becomes the body, so to extract more value from it. Building on Preciado’s hormonal theory as a biomedia, ‘a theory about a form of communication in which the body is no longer just a means of transmission, distribution, and collection of information, but the material effect of these semiotechnical exchanges,’ we have to rethink our approach to data culture and understand the unprecedented place that the body occupies in something which was previously conceived as inherently immaterial and cognitive.

Angel Laureano holds a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., Dec. 14, 2020. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Unlike Google’s Selfish Ledger, where human bodies accumulate and transport data, taking care of them, giving up to their private ownership so as to benefit future generations, now hormones and other micro substances carry the relevant data. They occupy the body, they become the body. The body is transformed into a vessel carrying unknown chemical information, a message whose implications we cannot fully grasp. While teaching cells how to make a protein or a piece of protein, mRNA vaccines, like the one issued by Pfizer, are messengers who penetrate our bodies and carry new instructions into our genetic code. It’s a new phase of biopolitics, hidden behind the promise of safety, health and pleasure, the consequences of which are yet to be fully explored.

Thank You

I want to wholeheartedly thank my research assistants, Chiedza Mashonganyika, Marija Rakovic, and Anthony Tricarico for the anonymous interviews they conducted with OnlyFans users between September 2020 and April 2021.

Donatella Della Ratta is a scholar, writer, performer, and curator specializing in digital media and networked technologies, with a focus on the Arab world. She is Associate Professor of Media and Communications at John Cabot University, Rome. Her INC blog: The Technological Zombie Twitter: @donatelladr

Reference List

Malin Ah-King and Eva Hayward, ‘Toxic Sexes: Perverting Pollution and Queering Hormone Disruption’, TechnoSphere Magazine, 20 March 2019, https://technosphere-magazine.hkw.de/p/Toxic-Sexes-Perverting-Pollution-and-Queering-Hormone-Disruption-w19PngN1pNwssGrnNm7hmy.

Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities…or The End of the Social and Other Essays, New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias, ‘Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject’, Television & New Media 20.4 (2019): 336-349.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View, New York: Basic Books, 2008 (Paperback reprint of 1995 ed.).

Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics, Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Jodi Dean, Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.

Gilles Deleuze, ‘The Exhausted’, SubStance 24.3 (1995): 3-28, http://ghostprof.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Gilles-Deleuze-The-Exhausted.pdf.

Harun Farocki, ‘Phantom Images’, Public 29 (2004): 12-22, https://public.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/public/article/view/30354/27882.

Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press, 2007.

Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey and Brooke Foucault-Wells, #Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020.

Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Henry Jenkins, ‘If it Doesn’t Spread, it’s Dead (Part One): Media Viruses and Memes’, Confessions of an Aca-fan, 11 February 2009, http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2009/02/if_it_doesnt_spread_its_dead_p.html.

Thomas Keenan, ‘Publicity and Indifference: Media, Surveillance, and “Humanitarian Intervention”’, in Joram ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer (eds) Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory an, Levd the Performance of Violence, London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2012, pp. 15-40.

Wayne Koestenbaum, Humiliation, London: Picador, 2011.

Anna Leander, ‘Digital/commercial (in)visibility: The Politics of DAESH recruitment videos’, European Journal of Social Theory 20.3 (2017): 348-372.

Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2008.

Achille Mbembe and Libby Meintjes, ‘Necropolitics’, Public Culture 15.1 (2003): 11-40.

‘Presidential Lectures in the Humanities: Futures of life & Futures of Reason with Achille Mbembe’, Stanford Humanities Center, Stanford University, 20 October 2020.

Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

Margarida Mendes, ‘Molecular Colonialism’, Anthropocene Curriculum, 29 May 2017, https://www.anthropocene-curriculum.org/contribution/molecular-colonialism.

Jussi Parikka, Digital Contagions: A Media Archeology of Computer Viruses, New York: Peter Lang, 2016 (2nd edition).

Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, New York: The Feminist Press, 2013.

Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Donatella Della Ratta, Shooting a Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria, London: Pluto Press, 2018.

Donatella Della Ratta, ‘Reflecting on the Online Self Through the Looking-Glass: From Auto-Ethnography to Empathic Criticism’, in Donatella Della Ratta, Geert Lovink, Teresa Numerico and Peter Sarram (eds) The Aesthetics and Politics of the Online Self: A Savage Journey Into the Heart of Digital Cultures, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle, ‘Opening welcome: The state of the internet industry’, presented at the Web 2.0 Conference, Hotel Nikko, San Francisco, CA, October 2009.

David Shields, War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Eric J. Schmidt and Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, New York: Knopf Publishing Group, 2013.

Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.

Tiziana Terranova, ‘L’Era delle Piattaforme’, talk in Dinamopress, 14 January 2021.

Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, London/New York: Verso, 1989.

Websites

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, http://www.open-bks.com/alice-73-74.html.

BioIntelliSense, https://biointellisense.com/biobutton.

read more: