- Lost Sociality of Skin: Security and the Pedophilic Function
Now I am ready to tell how bodies changed into different bodies.Ovid, Metamorphoses1
Only in this way is the paradox of the moral demand to be met, exacting simultaneously the overcoming and the subtlest elaboration of man’s sense of disgust. He may not deny his bestial relationship with animals, the invocation of which revolts him: he must make himself its master.Walter Benjamin, “One-Way Street”
In 2011, Russell Banks was ready to tell how physical bodies changed into virtual ones. His novel, Lost Memory of Skin, narrates how turn-of-the-twenty-first-century targeting of “sex offenders” remade the human body into a vehicle for the virtualization of reality. This story begins during the era of governmental [End Page 740] neoliberalism—when 1990s Sexually Violent Predator statutes, the Wetterling Act (1994), and Megan’s Law (1996) broadened sex offense categories and naturalized exceptional expansions of state power—and continues into the War on Terror when the 2000s federalization of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) through Title I of the Adam Walsh Act (2006) and US Supreme Court cases upholding the legitimate public safety aims of registration, notification, and indefinite detention affirmed sexual security as a national interest (Wright, Ewing). From 1990 to 2011, both state and federal governments passed new laws broadening the definition of sex offenses, expanding police and judicial powers to target and punish sex offenders, and extending the reach of surveillance and security through new information technologies of offender registration and community notification. Across these 20 years, traditional forms of legislation and policing were expanded by increasing legal categories of sexual offense and widening the net for offender capture. At the same time, technologies of punishment and surveillance were extended by elongating punishment to include indefinite civil detention or permanent public registration and surveillance to incorporate all domains of public, private, and virtual life. By 2011, an elaborate system for sex offender management had been created, including online preventative surveillance, psychological and actuarial risk assessment, lifetime registration and residency restrictions, GPS and electronic monitoring, and mandatory community notification. The sex offender became the instrument of what Walter Benjamin calls “the paradox of the moral demand” to elaborate and overcome disgust (67), first by focusing on the body as a surface hiding potential predatory desires, then by securitizing the body through increasing surveillance and management of its virtual possibilities.
Banks’s story of how “bodies changed into different bodies” focuses on the “lost memory of skin,” a move from visceral embodiment through visual culture to the virtualization of human life. As one New York Times review explains, the title “refers to the way real flesh has been supplanted by the virtual kind” (Maslin). The novel opens with the Kid, a 22-year-old working-class white man registered as a sex offender for soliciting sex online with a 14-year-old middle-class white girl. The Kid’s story maps a security society created through systems of sex offender management, from the constant surveillance of an information society that erodes public/private distinctions (the Internet, GPS, electronic monitoring) to the segregation of registered sex offenders in archipelagos carefully cordoned off from children (in this case under a bridge, at the airport, or in a swamp). The Kid’s short life exemplifies the virtual revolution associated with the past 20 years. His childhood desires were shaped by [End Page 741] avid and isolated use of video and online pornography, creating a distance between his own skin and a social world of sexual connection. His attempt to shift virtual desire into live sex entraps him in an online sex sting, where instead of Brandi18 from Craigslist he finds her father and the police. After serving half of a six-month prison sentence, the Kid is required to register as a sex offender and wear an ankle monitor for 10 years.
Enter the Professor, a sociologist who visits the homeless sex offender encampment under the Causeway and takes the Kid as his primary research subject. The Professor interviews the Kid on camera and conducts social engineering experiments under the...