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  • Toward a Symptomatology of Cyberporn
  • Michael Uebel (bio)

Machines are social before being technical.1

The skin trade it seems has gone electronic. In the third week of 1996, W. H. Smith’s, England’s largest book vendor, removed all the pornography from their magazine racks. Their explanation: there is virtually no demand for the stuff. While we might be tempted to speculate on the role politics played in W. H. Smith’s decision, rather we should see in their apparently disingenuous explanation the truth of contemporary porn consumption: that demand for it is in fact virtual. The virtual realityof porn today is that, with about 70,000 sex-related Web sites generating as much as 15% of an $8 billion industry in the US alone, the contours of its demand, consumption, and enjoyment are radically shifting. As magazine gives way to digital image, new lines of access to cyberporn are generating new forms of eroticism, new affectivities, new relations.

Kimberly Young and Alvin Cooper, a psychologist and a psychiatrist respectively, are among the first to study systematically on-line sexual behavior. Most researchers, Young and Cooper among them, approach cybersex2 as psychopathology, a clear and present symptom of neurotic, compulsive behavior. Thus the familiar spectre of addiction haunts the electronic frontier.3 However, the close discursive proximity of researchers who elucidate the psychic and social dangers of cybersex and those who warn against the dangers of more conventional porn serves as a register of just how uncritically cybersex is assumed to be just like its progenitors.4 All too frequently it is assumed that cyberpornography, while it may be differently disseminated, perfectly replays the key problems feminism in particular has for a long time identified with porn consumption: it produces fantasies of control, the real life consequences of which are obscured; it is a conduit to and expression of violence; and it fixes subordinates into the position of fetish object.5 As socio- and psychopathology, all porn functions in this view as a mirror of the dark side of power relations, for porn sets in motion fantasies whose virtual support is found in ritualized practices and fixations, primarily of a sadistic sort.6

The new fantasmic dimensions of cyberpornography are my focus in this essay. It is my contention that, as the media of mass-circulating porn are changing, as bits and binary codes replace glossy centerfolds, fantasy is being activated in novel ways. Cyberspace is installing a new regime of sexual representation and, with it, tactical modes of dreaming, thinking, and acting. The pornographic image, more than ever, occupies the interspace bridging private fantasy and mass public disposition.7 As the Web becomes increasingly constructed as the imaginary reference point of the public, we begin to recognize our own desires as they are re-presented to us in the media senssuround. “Even. . . the most perverse among us,” Michael Warner observes in another context, “could point to his or her desires or identifications and see that they were public desires, even mass public desires, from the moment that they were our desires.”8 Yet at the same time that we observe our desires (pre)scripted in and by the grand historical metatext of late technocapitalism, we are discovering that there are points within the metatext, like cyberporn, which hold the promise of strategic resistance.9

Cyberporn, more aggressively than other contemporary mass-public languages (advertising, network news, Hollywood film), translates subjective desires and fantasies into objective, often unstable, “published dreams.”10 This translation into objectivity of the pornographic imaginary is a crucial aspect of its productive cultural function. If conceiving the desires cyberporn produces as separable from the scripts, the enunciated laws, such porn calls into existence, is impossible, then we do well to follow Foucault in replacing the strict “law and sovereignty” of sex with an open “technology of sex,” a multiple, positive technology of desire.11 Such a positive technology of desire opens the possibility of directing our attention to the specific ways the postmodern apparatus of cyberporn produces, rather than just regulates or prohibits, desires. Although Clinton and Congress, law enforcement, the press (witness its singular obsession with “child porn”12 ), conservative public-interest organizations...