Monday, 26 March 2012

NSFW: Public Relations


With pwnography's ballooning mainstream presence since the 90s, discussion of it has become a little more nuanced. However, in terms of the 'public arena' the debate has largely boiled down to censorship, family morality or rape - deeply emotive issues that encourage fundamental calls for freedom, regulation or condemnation. By and large, viewer effects - and human sexuality - remain mysterious even to the most attentive researchers. Inequality between the sexes, less so; but to locate it in specific media product is to limit understanding of what representations emerge from. The reproduction, enforcement, and mutation of gender oppression began long before the invention of the internet, film, photography or the printing press. In a sea of imagery and discourse competing for attention, gender oppression is consolidated at every level of culture. There's frequent confusion between 'genre' and 'industry' when discussing pwn - as with de facto arguments that deem it an objectively worse form of exploitation than extracting value from au pairs, farmhands, cleaners, miners, or prison inmates. Sociological and economic research may suggest otherwise. We can't be certain if 'pwn causes rape' any more than we can know if gangsta rap encourages urban crime. We can't be certain if it 'prevents' rape either. However, as something interrelating with the cultural landscape, pwn plays a crucial ideological role; and not necessarily in ways that most assume. That's not to say that I'm 'defending' it - far from it - but I'd like to gratuitously shift focus in a different direction.

As this is (nominally) a blog about the 90s, I'll try and focus on what pwn has been 'about' since the turn of this century; which I'd contend is very different to what it was 'about' in the 70s or 80s. I should add that I'm discussing 'mainstream' pwn here - namely, heterosexual productions featuring 'name' performers, and - of ideological importance - legally marketed from the US by its most powerful brands and distribution networks. Since the 90s, pwn has embedded itself into mainstream culture; but certain kinds remain more mainstream than others - the kind where performers put their names to supplementary merchandise, has its producers interviewed by non-pwnographic outlets; and lurks much closer to 'respectability' (and mainstream sexual representations) than the daunting range of niches pwn caters for. The usual debates about pwn may never be resolved; because what it 'means' as a genre will never be as fixed as many of its critiques assume. The meaning of a genre changes as much as its production, format and marketing does.


If that's confusing, let me offer another example. Not only did 'Dracula' or 'the vampire' mean something very different in the 1990s to what it did to the 1890s; but also the overall meaning of 'horror' as label and metaphor changed, and will continue to do so. Meanings within a story always operate in directions moving outside the story; towards the identifying features of a genre itself, in its role as an intermediary between text, production, industry, audience and society. The varying status and influence (and market share) of genres over time demonstrates this. What horror means (and its value) depends on geographical and historical circumstances as much as anything else. Even non-fiction requires certain motifs, hierarchies, environments, narrative structures, character behaviour (and of course, clichés), to be identified as a genre. It simply puts different energies into disguising its ideological coding - its metaphors, or 'similes' - beneath the narrative. I'm taking it as given that metaphors largely function as ideological coding, however playful or contradictory they may be; and at different levels, they are always present in visual narrative. For example, a straightforward one-hour medical documentary of diagnosis, treatment and recovery is held together by a guiding metaphor negotiating issues of health, family, state, individuality, responsibility, security, work, growth and death. These issues periodically rearrange their perspective, emphasis, urgency, authority - recombine into a different generic meaning - according to ideological shifts over time. The genre of 'medical documentary' is as subject to change as medicine itself. In the context of the genre discussed below, this is relevant to the problem (or appeal) of something so dependent on the 'reality' of what's filmed.

Contra Goebbels, masking ideology beneath ostensibly 'real' imagery has proven to be very powerful in reinforcing cultural hegemony. Social, political, technological and economic conditions - themselves determining a given genre's production, distribution and consumption within society - adapt to 'answer' questions posed to a given audience; or to reproduce further questions, desires, to retain attention. In addition to constant dialogue with its audience and society, a genre engages in dialogue with other genres and in dialogue with itself to adapt, survive, and sustain a certain kind of power. With all these levels of negotiation, the overall genre may eventually synthesize, to represent an entirely different metaphor to that of an earlier stage. It can retain unavoidable traces and influences from previous syntheses (and usually does), but a genre can come to play a very different 'role' within the culture it forms part of. With this in mind (and in the hope I'm making sense!), we'll now consider what pwn has actually represented since the end of the 90s.


At this historical conjecture, within the imperial core of the west, pwn isn't really about sex. Rather, it uses sex as a metaphor. Here’s a standard scenario in mainstream American pwn, the ‘bare bones’ of the genre in its current state: A woman is interrogated by a man (about her background, age, status etc.). The man – and/or the camera – conducts a physical examination of the woman, often with running commentary on her ‘distinguishing’ features; before, during, or after she undresses. This commentary usually goes no further than physical description, without much suggestion of what could be done, will be done, or why it is done. Then, a penis is introduced – in the manner of a protagonist, or rather a hero. It/he is foregrounded by both the camera and the woman, to confirm its central role in the narrative (rarely off-camera, the pwnographic narrative devotes more attention to the penis than anything else). It/he may be commented on in admiration, but hardly interrogated. Then, fellatio – at which point the woman’s dialogue largely ceases; give or take improvised fragments of ‘dirty talk’. Fellatio is often filmed from several angles and/or in different ‘variations’. Then following this (usually protracted) sequence, there is vaginal sex; again from several angles and/or different ‘variations’. This is then followed by anal sex. Not always, but common enough to be normative; if not for the woman, then definitely for the genre. Intervals of fellatio will frequently punctuate penetrative sex. Then to conclude, the man ejaculates; almost always on the woman’s face, with the camera paying upmost attention to the penis until it does so. Before fade out, there will be a (very brief) denouement where the woman (still covered in semen) expresses satisfaction; either verbally, with a silent smile, or an endorsement of her employers. The end.

That’s the basic scaffolding of 21st century mainstream pwn. To the above can be added a higher ratio of male participants (or less commonly nowadays, female), intensified aggression (of sexual acts, apparatus, dialogue, or pacing; with an emphasis on punishment), varying levels of attention paid to age, race, experience, nationality, body type, or fetishes (close-ups of particular body parts, orifices, objects or clothing); or a slightly more detailed mise en scene and ‘dramatic’ context for activities depicted. This context goes no further than the title, packaging or rudimentary introductions between characters (“I’ve brought my wife”, “I need to check your immigration status”, “What are you doing in the girl’s dorm?” etc). These details may add some initial ‘tension’, but they largely adhere to the standard plot above. Even today’s more ‘elaborate’ pwnographic scenarios devote a bare minimum of attention to the social context of ‘employee’, ‘boss’, ‘guest’ ‘suspect’, ‘babysitter’, ‘teacher’, ‘neighbour’, ‘wife’, and ‘best friend’s’ (my?) ‘mother’ ‘daughter’ or ‘sister’. Compared to how these relationships were ‘explained’ in earlier decades, narratives (and social relations upon which they’re based) are largely ‘expressed’ through sexual acts alone. It’s a process of interview (or exchange), employment (dispossession), performance (ordeal) and 'payment' (ownership). That’s the affective part of the scenario, but it’s also producing something other than profits (or semen). Ideologically, this grotesque caricature of sexual relations represents – and reproduces – surplus desires venturing beyond misogyny.


It’s been widely noted how ‘drama’ in pwn has shrunk to a bare minimum since the 70s. Changes in technology, economics and distribution played a major role; but the drastic reduction in narrative context also suggests an ideological shift (itself affected by technology, economics and distribution). Three hits that put pwn ‘on the map’ in the early 70s – Behind The Green Door, Deep Throat, and The Devil in Miss Jones – were based on very different narrative ‘scaffolds’. This is not just due to running time (contemporary pwn films often run much longer than the above, albeit mostly as ‘compilations’ of unrelated scenes). Nor is it due to changes in sexual practices (although what sex is ‘for’ may change). All three films focused on women moving from restricted, lonely worlds to one of supposed ‘liberation’; a standard plot template that would continue into the 80s, less so by the 90s, and now pretty much non-existent. They would of course conclude with ‘liberation’ (supposedly) conducive to the sexual demands of men, arriving at similar conclusions to the soft-core pantomimes of Russ Meyer, Tinto Brass or Just Jaeckin. Like them, standard pwn stories were variations on a ‘journey’ from one experience of life to another. But that was during a time of great social upheaval and cultural fragmentation. It was also a country still licking wounds from its last war. Lockdown on the field of vision wasn’t as resolute as it is now.

This is not to say the above were ‘sexier’ more ‘realistic’ or ‘progressive’. They weren’t. Notions of a golden age with regards to anything are almost always reactionary nonsense. But however corny, distorted and misogynistic, earlier mainstream pwn films were nominally about sex. Plots up until the 90s were often built around frustration, restlessness, or even love, on the part of men or women. Set-ups leading to sex scenes were based around awkwardness, curiosity, anxiety or farce. ‘Major’ sex scenes accrued meaning in relation to ‘minor’ sex scenes. This could be expressed with music, montage or ‘meanwhiles’. They would include scenes of unsatisfactory sexual activity (for both parties). Jealousy, domestic limitations, separation, adultery, performance anxiety, competition, and social taboos – however clumsily, they were articulated in plot, setting and dialogue. However ugly, offensive or crude it was, mainstream pwn once entertained the basic foundation of drama: Conflict, something that has largely vanished from within pwn’s narrative. In contemporary pwn, there is little suspense as to who will do what and when or how they will do it. With Internet distribution, all acts – and outcomes – are explicitly announced in advance. Its use of sexual activity reproduces a way of seeing. It isn’t about ‘the battle of the sexes’, so much as asymmetrical warfare in microcosm. When one, two, many male performers enter the scene, it’s on condition their full spectrum dominance will be a foregone conclusion. The camera must accord pride of place to their camaraderie and superior equipment. The performance – or mere introduction – of the ‘unquestioned’ penis must be greeted with shock and awe.


Popular pwnographic websites monitor highly organized classifications of operations, resources and personnel: ‘Natural’, ‘nerdy’, ‘ebony’, ‘Asian’, ‘blowjob’, ‘interracial’, ‘anal’, ‘big cock’, ‘milf’, ‘teen’, etc. etc. Activities, appearances, races, uniforms, skills, capacities that can be assessed, filed, exchanged; in order to be efficiently mobilized at the click of a mouse. In addition to this military classification, next to performers’ names (including all aliases) are detailed lists of previous activities; regularly updated like personnel files. Some may even include places and dates of birth, height, measurement, sub-listings of previous employers, and activities they specialize in. Many include links to forums requiring log-ins, where further information and codes are exchanged like classified information: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Jerkoff. Look at security agency websites, newspaper editorials, or dossiers arguing for war – the protracted gobbling of pre-intervention propaganda and selective data, stimulating a solid case for action. Desire is generated, and generated further, to arouse ‘security threats’. It consolidates the efficient, reductive ideological economy. Phrases are repeated like mantras to the rubes: “Evil dictator”, “office gang bang”, “nuclear capabilities”, “first time anal”, “failed state”, “cumshot fiend”, “clear and present danger”, “double penetration”, “humanitarian intervention”. Identify the transgressor. Locate the target. Point your weapon. Splat.


With these eye-catching labels and formats, one link leads to another. And another. Accompanied by adverts demanding further and further attention. Do you 'want' this? We could provide something better, more you. Like the recruitment ads say: Be all you can be. Keep clicking until we get you there, that's a good boy. The viewer’s attention rationalized ever more efficiently; it trains him to desire in a certain way:
The parallel to the scientific management of production is straightforward: the task of watching is broken down according to the specific characteristics of the viewer. The rationalization strategy is based on “the specification and fractionation of the audience,” which leads to “a form of ‘concentrated viewing’ in which there is (from the point of view of advertisers) little wasted watching.
Mark Andrejevic Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched

To ensure “little wasted watching”, the message must be received with a minimum of interference. For mainstream debate, narrow it down to a minimum of ‘talking points’, all arriving at the same consensus. For mainstream pwn, narrow sex down to the unchallenged penetration of three orifices in the ‘right’ order, concluded with ejaculation upon the ‘right’ area. Work to convince young audiences this is ‘what men want’… or what the Free World needs. Micromanage the available paradigms, based on accumulated audience data – target that pwn viewer or patriot. Show them the way to wave their respective flagpoles. Ensure all complementary information - adverts, menus, supplementary entertainment - stay on message. Reproduce further desires accordingly, until the neural routes of ‘sex’ and ‘war’ get hotwired into the slickest of perception machines; generating stimulus with the structure and POV of a drone operation. To masturbate or bomb with maximum productivity, one must know how to look. Ever wondered why Neocons (far to the right of Nixon or Reagan’s moral majorities) raised little more than a whimper in their supposed war against pornography? When clamping down on so many other civil liberties like a ton of bricks? It takes more than Jack Bauer to keep the Homeland vigilant.


As with (competitive) reality TV, sports broadcasts and videogames, pwn has adapted its format and narrative structure to reproduce war by other means. Arnie or Bruce decapitating terrorists got somewhat passé years ago. Interactivity can bypass fragile suspensions of disbelief. Voting, cheering, betting, shooting, ejaculating - it draws one into the heat of battle more effectively than simple reading, watching or listening. Paul Virilio noted how narrative codes of the moving image emerged with the use of military ordinance and surveillance since the First World War: “The function of the weapon is the function of the eye.” Consider how wars have been fought by western powers since 1989. Compare CNN’s bomber’s-eye view of Gulf War I with the ubiquitous ‘POV facial’. Or compare the news anchor’s admiration for Pentagon hardware to the pwn star’s (and viewer’s) reverence for her partner’s invulnerable tool. Consider pwn’s accelerating efficiency in marketing, classification, consumption, editing, positioning, perspective, decontextualization, dumbed-down ‘rationale’ and the parenthetical asymmetry of its aggression. Keep the story simple: Either with us or against us. Suck it or fuck it. Axis of Evil. Bikini Sluts Gone Wild. No-fly zone. Gone are any pretenses to depicting the push-and-pull of the sexes, or the possibility of legitimate resistance in enemy territory. Character has been superseded by function (by the climactic cumshot, does the remote masturbator remember – or care - if the ‘target’ was born in Los Angeles, Buenos Ares or Prague?). The mechanistic misogynists of the Renaissance get a belated second wind on Porntube: I cum therefore I am.

And that’s just in ‘normal’ pwn scenarios. Over the past decade, mainstream providers have increasingly brushed against the edge of legality – overtly deploying rituals of humiliation, confinement, binding, gagging, deprivation, tools, and stated demands for absolute submission; with her approving smile concluding the narrative as much as it would after ‘vanilla’ activity. The same performer who played that curious mom, daughter or sister last week can be broken down and reconstructed in scenarios of Extraordinary Rendition within dungeon-like settings; a microcosm of the overwhelming force deployed against Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia. “Pure cock punishment”, that the ‘accused’ will eventually thank her punisher for (whether said ordeals are staged by pwn directors or NATO). Cheerful reminders that it’s ‘just a movie’ must be included, lest viewers by distracted by the possibility of real suffering (by all means have a “mission accomplished” parade, but sores? Enemas? Streets strewn with mutilated corpses? Bad for morale…). Accentuate the positives in sadism, with a happy disclaimer that abuse was actually invited with open arms. But do pwn performers represent 'soldier' or 'enemy territory'? Female performers could represent both, albeit at different degrees of degradation. It helps if military ideology covers all its bases. In its initiation rituals (break 'em down to build 'em up), militarized subjectivity demands alienation from the self as well as designated enemies. 


As with ‘the Iraqi people’, ventriloquism can be employed to request violation. Like the ‘freedom’ once demanded by the Eastern Bloc, which since the 90s has supplied ever more ‘cannon fodder’ for western pwn markets. Economic shock treatment got the Homeland more bang for its buck. White women paid at Third World rates were the spectacular trophies of globalization. But pwn isn’t racist per se – Black Bros on Blonde Hos teaches us that opportunity awaits Amerikkka’s most marginalized citizens. These wars need all the ‘swinging dicks’ they can mobilize. This is no time for cracker insecurities. Like I said, pwn’s overriding metaphor is no longer about sex, but is it about rape? Like famine or slavery, rape is one of the most ancient weapons of war. Pwn is about war, and war is about rape as much as any other atrocity it entails. Rape isn’t culturally unique to any military campaign. To claim otherwise is to provide Empire with another trusty weapon: Demonizing the sexual depravity of the natives. It’s deeply ironic how Catherine Mackinnon accused pwn of being a “genocidal” incitement to mass rape in Yugoslavia – contributing to a chorus of propaganda eventually used to bomb it to the End of History; paving the way for further US atrocities in the decade that followed (space restricts discussion of Andrea “pwn holocaust” Dworkin’s celebration of Zionist masculinity). We had a responsibility to really fuck Yugoslavia, to protect its peasants from their pwn. Rocco fucked Budapest. Wall St. fucked Warsaw. Slick Willie fucked Belgrade. Money shots all round.


Relentlessly pounding that pseudo-frontier of known unknowns: Women, foreign territory, the clash of civilizations, lucrative resources, male desire – the only known knowns are profit, imperialism and the reproduction of an ideology required to maintain them. Am I confusing the development of an industry with a genre here? The perspective of the former feeds into the latter, and vise versa. All corners of our increasingly militarized culture energize a self-perpetuating ideology machine. With their wings clipped by the Great Enclosure, future generations line up for enlistment. They may yet have their perspective and desires directed accordingly; reproduced via a landscape of ‘pure entertainment’ that’s left them riddled with frustration. Doubtless there's drill sergeants initiating their young privates with interrogative, relentless demands like a domineering pwn stud. Indeed, he’s likely barking kinky insults redolent of ‘extreme’ pwnographic ordeals. On the battlefield, our boys may finally make sense of that invincible, unquestioned prick that every shot trained them to focus on; like the winning weapon in an X-Box game. Disciplined through every receptive orifice, our ‘heroes’ can stand erect at the centre of the ongoing military spectacle. Penetrated by ideology as virgin territory, they can reify their manhood by penetrating further territory. And we can expect them to penetrate the right territory in the right order, aiming with admirable precision (and mentioning epidemic levels of rape among ‘our' boys would only empower the enemy, so don’t even go there…). Pwn's infernal desire machine bypasses the frontal lobes, heading straight for the groin; reaching the parts that even Goebbels couldn’t (loser). After we dump the last load upon their grateful heads, we can only hope ‘liberated’ nations will smile at the camera to endorse our superior culture. If they don’t, I’m sure news anchors will find a way to tell us they are. At this point, it’s a generic requirement.

10 comments:

Dominic said...

The commonly accepted l33t-substitute for "porn" is "pr0n". To "pwn" is to "own" (i.e. to defeat an opponent in some online arena):

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=pr0n

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=pwn

David W. Kasper said...

The play on "owning" was deliberate. The post was originally named "Pwnogwaphy".

Dominic said...

That would make sense; I did wonder whether or when the slippage between the two terms would be made explicit.

Alarmingly, although not especially surprisingly, "rape" appears to have some currency as a synonym for "pwn"...

David W. Kasper said...

There's a lot of "internet slang" with crude sexual/financial aggression about it.

But then, I've always found computer-based terms kinda ugly. "Blog"? Yecch! Sounds like a side effect of piles or something.

Greyhoos said...

You forgot "Hello, I am here to fix deine cabel..."

Quite brilliant and deeply hilarious at times. Raising far more points than I can begin to address.

But yeah, about the narrative structure: "Classic" seventies/celluloid pwn always brought afternoon soap operas to mind, except with even sketchier dialogue, worse "acting." And the main difference being that there was no fade-out or cutaway when the pervasive fucking started.

Whereas I guess you could say pwn after the advent of cheap VHS production & distro was more like a martial arts movie that consisted of nothing but fight scenes.

David W. Kasper said...

And actual martial arts movies got much more pretty and romantic at the same time.

Maybe it already exists, but I guess the next stage for pwn would be short bursts of one specific movement, in 3-D: "Select angry shove + grunt - click here or cancel".

ralph dorey said...

droppin' fuckin' loadz

Post-Continental Satyr said...

hey dominique sorry i neglected you for so long, i'm working on a buggery of SHAME where you appear in the lead again as a dysphoric heterosexual yuppie in London who feels a compulsion to star in lesbian sadomasochistic porn...

David W. Kasper said...

If you want to stalk Mr. Fox, kindly take it elsewhere.

I warned you about that shit last year. Don't think I'm playing games, punk.

Post-Continental Satyr said...

It's not stalking, it's viral marketing!