Katrien Jacobs on 1 Sep 2000 16:17:47 -0000

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Sex is Just a Mess


Zillah Eisenstein, Global Obscenities: Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Lure
of Cyberfantasy. New York: NYU Press, 1998.

Reviewed by Katrien Jacobs

Pornography as sexually explicit electronic traffic and a bubbling
entertainment industry has pervaded the Internet from its very infancy,
and is now causing fear and headaches amongst citizens and rightwing
organizations. While porn consumers are franticallly buying access to
state-of-the-art sites, the unwieldy empire of the senses is stirring up
new modes of chaotic conservatism and censorship legislation. Where are
the responses from activists and critical thinkers to this perceived mass
compulsion towards Internet pornography? The intellectual's good old sense
of bodily detachment and cynicism towards sexuality problems, the feminist
debates of the 70s and 80s generations, the introverted rhizomatic geeks
of the 90s, all have contributed to an epoch of sexual sleepiness -- ie.
weariness and refusal to participate in forms of online sexual
experimentation and revolution.

Zilla Eisenstein's _Global Obscenities: Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the
Lure of Cyberfantasy_ is a raw and angry book, a passionate attack against
American capitalism, the Clinton administration, privatized
telecommunications and Internet companies that manufacture "global
obscenities." When I picked up Eisenstein's book, I was hoping to find a
critical analysis of Internet pornography and cybersex. However,
Eisenstein does not attack pornography, but a soiled capitalist mindset
and new economy which produces (top speed) patriarchal hierarchies and
inequalities in global information technologies (IT) networks.
Eisenstein's treatise against obscenities does not cover pornography as
mediated sexual scenes, is neither an instance of anti-pornography
feminism, but introduces a new form of anti-pornography marxism. The book
intends to investigate how "Karl Marx's theory of exploitation can be
adopted in new media criticism as a radical feminist recognition of women
as a sexual class" (3). This recognition is highly pessimistic.

What then is the marxist definition of pornography? In Dialectic of
Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno point to the emergence
of corporate enlightened sex education exemplified in the works of de
Sade: "Enjoyment becomes the object of the manipulation until it is
entirely extinguished in fixed entertainments" (106). From the
Enlightenment period onwards, obscenities become fixed products of a
compulsively calculated enterpreneurism rather than fantasies acted out in
amorphous festivals or grotesque productions. Following Eisenstein, one
could define pornography as a calculated screen presence representing
commodity culture's most banal fantasies. Internet pornography is always
present as a material obstacle to sexual utopianism, a hyperreal showcase
hiding the actual mess perfuming the masses and challenging transcendental
definitions of cyberspace and eroticism.

According to Michael Heim, we plunged into cyberspace escorting a
titillating transcendental adventure. In _The Metaphysics of Virtual
Reality_ he explains our fascination with technology as an aesthetic
detachment from sensuous loving, indicating a revival of "the escalating
spirituality of the erotic drive" (87). The machinate Eros mind skips
modes of seduction and locates willing partners in the frictionless,
timeless, and non-descript bodies of the WWW. Desperate minds attract each
other and invent a new kind of promise. If Heim's erotic conversant is
typically made out of wired geek existence and excessive communication,
his contemporary partner netporn adheres to an orthodox business
mentality. Netporn has no time for erotic gaming nor sneaky love-letters.
While geeks develop secret languages and intimate codes to look inside the
other's underwear, netporn is hides her pussy in bland commercial software
programs and wallpaper designs of the Internet.

Internet pornography as a commercial industry is also believed to
contribute to the erosion of the Internet as a public space (a space for
openness, education, noble eroticism) and thus gives shape to new
appearances of the straight-laced imagination. Conservative feminists and
the Christian right in the Anglo-Americas have had a solidly mediated
tradition of "porn moaning," and commercial netporn's tendency towards
hypervisibility is erasing the work of small-scale pornographers and
artporn collectives who present porn noise as fantasy rather than
complain. While the Internet is quickly becoming a commercial goldmine for
tame pornstars and enterpreneurial feminism, it can also be used by women
in their deviant sex visions, excessive lust patterns, or critiques of a
uniformly netting of pornographic bodies and sexual encounters. Beyond an
emphasis on the (racist, sexist, ageist, fascist) exploitation of women by
netpimps, designers, and porn manufacturers, we need to reclaim the Net
for melting down sexual hybris and cynicism, for renewing "private"
desires as significant collective outbursts, for capturing positive sexual
energies and supporting refusals to be sexually cloned.

Even if we cannot find valuable bodily knowledge in pornography today,
what if the Internet were to be hijacked by right-wing industries and stop
producing pornography altogether? Eisenstein's _Global Obscenities_ is not
very interested in a discussion of radical alternatives to pornography, as
she believes that the new privatized economy has destroyed human values
and community networks, promotes conservative family values and sexist,
racist ideologies. The book unfolds as a historical political study of the
USA in the mid 90s, focuses on the Telecom Act of 1996, and bemoans the
existence of "a cyber-media-corporate complex" that helps to dismantle the
remainders of the welfare state. The book is interesting as an
oppositional testimony to the emerging cyber-media-corporate complex and
gives a compassionate overview of the effects of globalized communication
on developing countries, women workers, and feminist networks. However, it
does not commit a detailed analysis of cyberexploitation nor suggests
positive strategies for third world communities and minority groups to
utilize Internet communication towards political activism.

Eisenstein is peculiarly angry at Bill Clinton who promised health care
reform and a renewal of the public sphere "where the needs of individuals
merge with the collective whole: roads, education, drinking water, social
discourse, interactivity, and so on" (19). It is disconcerting to see that
so much of Eisenstein's anger is directed towards the "waffling" president
and his sexual tricksters. Indeed, the Clinton sex spectacle became a
primary example of mediated fear as "pornography," as Eisenstein
indicates: "Scandal, almost always sexualized and racialized, becomes a
kind of pop-cultural aesthetic in which corporate consumerism orchestrates
new layers of deception" (35). The fall of Clinton was a mass orchestrated
simulation of sex as sin, an ultimately archaic-puritanical strategy which
suggests that the Internet could indeed fall prone to older forms of
sexual disciplining (from Jesuit Memory Training to Spanish Inquisition).
Eisenstein knows that there are alternative routes to such corporate
deception, "the struggle of the twenty-first century is to control the new
flows of cyber-media corporate power," yet she spends a lot of pages
demagoging against the fall of Clinton without offering insight into his
remaining flows of power (33).

To move beyond this point of anger, we can browse the Internet and locate
feminist media art such as Catherine Sokoulov's Fauxmemory Archive. The
Fauxmemory site aims to "re-see us through the traditional mass media and
discuss what is not yet history" and introduces visual anthroplogy
concepts and advanced new media imaging techniques to unfold American
mythologies. Eisenstein's analysis of Clinton assumes similar mythical
proportions as his governmental and corporate bodies are assumed to exist
but never named, explained and demystified. The book is groping for an
overview of the capitalist and patriarchal agents of the Internet and an
appreciation of decades of activism. Of course, such efforts have only
been fairly recently documented in (non-academic) organizations such as
the Institute for New Culture Technologies in Vienna. In a recent
exhibitin Brussels, the Institute for New Culture Technology collected an
impressive and insightful world-infostructure covering very detailed
information about global markets, access, security, and content channels.
While this exhibit tries to unfold the entire corporate materialist
foundations of the Internet, it also gives room and funding to artists and
subversive collectives such as Rtmark to develop and display their work.

Eisenstein refers to canonical media and cultural theorists such as Arjun
Appadurai, Paul Virilio, Mark Dery, and Saskia Sassen to back up her
marxist-feminist critique of the Internet, but she is ambivalent about the
validity of new media theory. For instance, the blurring of
"materiality"and "virtuality" as concepts in political networking is
discussed, but the book seems more convinced that political (and blow)
jobs should take place outside discourse networks. Global Obscenities
informs us about new media theory yet struggles to endorse it; fancy
theories are easily dismissed as examples of neoconservative, privatized
thinking. Eisenstein firmly believes that offline platforms, such as the
1995 meeting of feminist organizations in Beijing, offers a superior space
for exchanging ideas and strategies between third and first world

The last section of the book "Net Feminism and Virtual Sisterhoods" gives
a brief overview of feminist Net operators who have been able to carve out
potent and influential webzones. This is one of the most optimistic and
promising sections of the book. Take the work of Francesca da Rimini who
started out as a pioneering cyberfeminist artist in the Australian
collective VNS Matrix. Da Rimini's archive contains samples of
correspondences between her online personas and cyberlovers (eg. IT
professionals on their lunchbreak), and later HTML work which combines
text fragments with image and sounds. The archive is not a collection of
solidified ideas but of fluid webvoices or webpresences attracting
navigators, sampling old and new art work, guiding us through further
Internet searches. The feminist navigator today is deeply affected by
fluid voices, specific to and critical of electronic networks. Feminism
today may require journeys through cyberspace, not only to gather
information about feminist movements as Eisenstein outlines, but to meet
ghost presences which haunt and question the patriarchal-pornographic
roots of the Internet. This is how da Rimini's Doll Yoko invented the
slogan: "All Women are Ghosts and should Rightly Be Feared." It only takes
a certain number of women to read and apply such wisdom for Internet
searching to become a more political, decentered, and less predictable
feminist activity.

Citing Arjun Appudurai, Eisenstein believes that consumption in our time
has become a "disciplining the imagination." Culture produces a
transnational imaginary that views the globe as unified, tunnels and
disciplines our vision, and so the imagination becomes conformist and
universal (102). While right-wing activists believe that such obscenities
are still a dangerous and immoral presence to the unprepared navigator,
the intellectual opposition seems to have been completely turned off by
pornography. This is a dangerous attitude in the USA, where outspoken
anti-porn attitudes, primarily generated by extremist religious groups,
are too easily adopted in everyday environments such as home and school.
Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, rightly
describes this cult of sexual negativity in higher education as the "hells
of academe" where attitudes of silencing and discomfort easily permeate
all manners of sexually oriented expression. This stifling climate is a
burden for students and educators as it produces a total rift between
educational content, sexual activity, and activism. At this point in US
history, scholars and artists could reclaim the Net and mock-preach like
the Christians, admit and confess that they are sexual beings and beg not
to be too harshly punished. The subversive cyber porn art and base
obscenities in the work of VNS Matrix, Sandy Stone, Geekgirl, Gash Girl,
Shu Lea Cheang, Guerilla Girls, and sci-fi heroines emits a spirit of
courage and humor to younger generations and subverts the calculated
designers of the Internet. However, a shortcircuit of communication
between obscene artistry, industries, and academic thought is visible in
Eisenstein's _Global Obscenities_. The book is a uniquely dark testimony
to Internet deterioriation and capitalism in the 21 century, not suited
for net addicts and horny investigators of cyberspace's underbelly.


Works Cited:

Michael Heim, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1993).

Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York:
Continuum, 1993)

URL's Mentioned

http://www.world-information.org (Exhibit Organized by Brussels 2000 and
the Institute for New Culture Technology)

http://sysx.org/gashgirl (Francesca da Rimini's work)

http://www.fauxmemory.com (Catherine Sokoulov's Fauxmemory Archive)

This review first appeared as the Book of the Month Review for the
Resource Center For Cyberculture Studies http://otal.umd.edu/~rccs

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@bbs.thing.net