When Flesh Becomes Word: Welcome to Pornoculture

by Vincenzo Susca 
Secessio Vol. 2, No. 1, Autumn 2013

Products soaked in aphrodisiacal fragrances, advertising charged with erotic imagery, MDMA, Viagra, cocaine, Red Bull and other stimulants, cosmetic treatments and surgically enhanced bodies, designers bent on filling every last corner of the world with sex appeal, marketeers in every field trained in the art of seduction, priests, models, rock stars, intellectuals and entrepreneurs embroiled in pornographic scandals, the political imagination overflowing with moods, sexual allusions and obscene performances… take a look around: our relationship with sex has changed. Is this the result of a greater sense of guilt or modesty vis-à-vis sex…? On the contrary. The walls of porn have fallen. Welcome to the era of pornoculture.

The trajectory of pornography is an instructive metaphor for the foundations and consubstantial drifts in the diffuse eroticisation of everyday life. It wasn’t long ago that porn was a world reserved for a handful of practitioners whose sociocultural profiles were tendentiously homogeneous and recognisable: a tribe that demanded that those wishing to participate, to satisfy their desires, go through a series of trials designed to select carefully the number and identity of its members. Only those driven by an erotic impulse more powerful than the barriers of shyness and shame made this transgression into the abyss of pleasure. To get into a pornographic film showing, buy a videotape or cross the threshold of a dark room constituted a mandatory initiation rite to satisfy the pornophilic instinct.

The arrival of information and communication technologies, and in particular Web 2.0, together with the explosion of desires and the breakdown, since the 1960s, of the inhibitions that have punctuated the course of history, have engendered a profound transformation of this phenomenon. In the contemporary media and cultural regime pornography has been emancipated from its hitherto marginal role. YouPorn.com and all its myriad counterparts, sensual showcases of the participatory incarnation of the internet, neatly reflect the relationship between networks and sexuality, to the point of being enthroned in the pantheon of the emblematic figures of digital sociality. These phenomena foster the emergence of a body that goes beyond individuals, individual identity and separation from the other, immersing them in streams teeming with eroticism. Tributaries of a high emotional density in which the individual dissolves and enters into new conjunctions with the Other, be it sexual, inorganic, mystical, ethnic… The scorching screen of porn sites is not simply a place to receive and accommodate the body; it is not merely a membrane of the tactile gaze, but rather something that is becoming body: a laboratory for the deconstruction and regeneration of the body as a symbolic device and sexualised organ.

Every one of the close-ups invading the screen of a hardcore clip is also an act of décharnement. Sex and all bodily openings act as agents of passage through which to converge in the other, as porous, welcoming interstices, planes wherein to actualise multiple becomings. One only has to reflect for a moment on the names of the categories showcased in the window of porn sites: freak, animal, vegan porn, alternative porn, nanny porn, environmental porn, fantasy, interracial, shemale, toys…

The thing most conducive to generating this polymorphous alterity, dissipated in the bowels of digital entertainment, resides in its heterodox character in respect of the sexual models and fixed identities to which we are accustomed. A condition that favours unexplored conjunctions, masquerade, strange crossovers, interleavings of the confines of the human capable of undermining the most canonical dichotomous and organic orders. Yet online porn is much more than the obscene jubilation of flesh in its savage state; it represents its welcoming rupture, its final dissipation: the slaughterhouse of humanism, an apocalyptic poetry. Porn thus becomes the portal of a drunken deviation from the everyday confines of the flesh.

To follow and to understand fully the nature of this ongoing transformation, however, it is necessary to understand the characteristics of contemporary pornscapes in what is today their dominant model: Youporn.com, the everyday theatre of digital porn. Registered by a Californian company in December 2005 the domain quickly became the most popular porn territory in the world, to the point where it now ranks among the 50 most visited websites on the planet. Youporn’s uniqueness is both simple and striking: the pornographic transposition of the YouTube model, where users are responsible for providing, producing and evaluating the contents of the platform. The operation’s funding comes from the corporate advertising that adorns the site’s pages, that is, the plethora of links to porn sites, erotic chat-lines or chat-rooms offering the possibility of meeting with those who share the same lusts, pleasures and predilections. The archipelago expands by thousands of new sequences every day, each of which can already register upwards of 300,000 hits barely five hours after being uploaded. Each island provides a glimpse of the fractal horizon in which, in a manner symptomatic of the tribalisation of the contemporary world, society and tastes are articulated. Visitors stop and pass through the various branches of the landscape according to their preferences, thus determining a pluriverse of possible choices corresponding to particular sexual identities and sensual cartographies.

The case of YouPorn clearly shows that porn has crossed over from the margins of subculture where it had been confined until the explosion of the participatory version of the internet.

We are dealing now with a population that tends to merge into the mass of network users in a communicative environment in which, moreover, pornography takes a leading role: figures show that the word ‘sex’ is the most typed in search engines, that 35% of downloaded files meet the definition of licentious content and that 12% of sites are sexual in nature. Porn is thus one of the flames that shape the Internet culture and, by extension, the contemporary cultural scene as a whole.

It no longer seems appropriate to address this as a niche phenomenon or a specific narrative genre. On the contrary, Web 2.0 enshrines the advent of pornoculture, a sensibility that permeates the social fabric and contaminates every aspect of social life. There is a guiding thread weaving a profound link between porn and popular culture, between YouPorn videos and the provocative images with which advertising seduces the metropolitan passer-by or TV viewer, the sinuous forms of contemporary design as well as the erotic rumours and mythologies that circulate around political leaders.

Regardless of the particular forms and nuances, more or less refined and sincere, the relevant point in all this is that we are now immersed in a pornocultural reality whose networks are at once the cause, the effect, and the mighty amplifier. It is these that spring forth, as proliferative substances, masses of flesh, circulations of moods, intercorporeal contaminations of which YouPorn is merely a paroxysmal mark – namely, the allegory of orgiastic confusion of flesh and pixels, the ecstatic dance that drives the sociality embodied in the contemporary human being.

On this platform of pleasure it is no longer a purely pornographic structure that we see implemented. As against these images invading the screen, these short, repetitive scenes and our maniacal attention to their tiniest details seemingly bespeaking a form of cultural and psychological obsession, as if this obscene flesh was the only real content of the medium, the dimension of writing conveyed in the etymology of the suffix ‘–graphy’ is now relatively marginal, its inference of an explicit large-scale framework now redundant. Herein is realised, as a corollary of the collapse of writing, a saturation of the gaze that comes with the exultation of a seething tactility. Vision is no longer led by the eyes but driven by the body, which becomes an organ of both feeling and seeing. The writing of porn clips is generated from grammars of the body excessive, emaciated, urticant, bloody, dirty, disguised, dilated, hurt…

The cultural passage sketching itself out within the viscous folds of the internet sees the fundamental inversion of the corollaries of the equilibrium between flesh and word, the balance upon which Western culture has been founded from the time of the Old Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. […] That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. […] And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”. The sacrilegious blaze of porn in its most pagan and savage incarnation of Web 2.0 ignites a sensibility in which, on the contrary, the ‘flesh is made word’, the original and ultimate meaning, the base and pinnacle of the contemporary imagination. Its liturgy is as a sacrificial rite with multiple totems and fetishes where the cults of the body and the mystics are restituted and celebrated to the echoes of Dionysus, where the most profound sacrality and eroticism are entwined in an intimate embrace.

The cultural fabric which unfolds in such an exuberance of the senses further insults the modern Western cultural paradigm, transfiguring its very axes, creation and procreation, in a pervasive recreation of the nuances of joy, luxury and lust.

Porn, in its capillary dissemination throughout large swathes of society a lavish metaphor for the most unproductive profligacy, is the viral implication of a lifestyle marked by desire rather than by work, by lascivious conduct rather than bourgeois composure, by the subtraction of duty in the name of the most casual hedonism. Symptomatically, the semantic basin that serves as a matrix for porn videos, their settings, and even the directors and actors who make them, are extensions of scenarios and figures of ordinary existence, or allude to it, testifying to a vision of things that we might characterise in classical terminology as being “from the roots, for the roots” .

YouPorn videos abound with sequences contextualised within or derived directly from everyday life, rather than movie sets. These productions oscillate between the dimension of a spontaneous recitation and simulated spontaneity: on the one side, amateurs who create their own quasi-professional sets, and on the other, professionals posing as amateurs to attract users searching for realistic scenes. The substantive content of Web 2.0, moreover, is constituted from the user networks with the load of information, of flesh and of symbols they carry within them. Sex 2.0 unfolds on the same line as the media, showcasing, even when simulated, everyday life, to the point of surrendering it to the organisation and interpretation of the spectacle. In it the planes of the ordinary and the extraordinary cross, generating short circuits, unexpected effects, new ways of experiencing the relationship between self and other, body and screen. The ordinariness of the protagonists and their settings – outsiders, housewives, workers, students, dilapidated apartments, modest clothes – mixes with the extraordinary quality of the performance: inordinate dimensions, theatrical moaning, implausibly protracted time, extreme practices where the mundane turns into the fantastic, giving a poetic value to the most anodyne aesthetics disseminated by the social body.

Once spread throughout the most ordinary moments of everyday life – from work to studies, from recreation to domestic life – this pornoculture is slowly metabolised and rendered unmarked, gradually losing its original nonconformist load. The carnivalesque swarming of porn marks its presence in the contemporary landscape as the avant-garde of pleasure. A far cry from the secret corners of the shelves where pornographic magazines were shamefully concealed, YouPorn’s address now openly features on many a ‘favourites’ list. Hardcore artists’ performances become an acceptable topic of conversation on television and in bars, creating great hilarity, in the shadow which, however, is the sharing and circulation of intimate, inner substances that contributes to a fundamental redefinition of the balance between public and private, a shading off of the individualism on which so much of modern culture was developed.

In line with what is happening in an ever increasing number of spheres of our society – fashion, politics, social networking, reality TV shows… – porn videos from the most recent web platforms, and more particularly those where user and content coincide, expose a reality where sexual practice and the enjoyment it provides only exist and are important only in their exposure to the gaze of others. The mobile phone, the video camera or the webcam burst onto the hardcore scene and involve the presence of an audience, which, through technology, participates in the performance, transforming the most prosaic relation into an event with orgiastic echoes.

The same tendency can be noted in more subtle forms in our way of exhibiting, as integrated into every life story, the pictures taken on such an occasion, the images of the people we met and places we visited. In tourism and romance, in sport and concerts, in the various big events and in the most ordinary moments of the everyday, an array of photographic equipment is used to crystallise the reality experienced. And this is not only thanks to the immortalised Image – which might just as well play the role of a ludic souvenir of the event as proof of its very existence – but also in the act of its social sharing. Effusions, fusions and confusions; the explosion of the narrow barriers of intimacy – all of this is an affirmation, in an erotic, convulsive and uninhibited way, of the crisis of the individual and the individualism of the modern age.

Translated by James Horrox


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