What A Body Can Do: From the Frenzy of the Communicative to the Visual Bond...

Francis Summers

Response To:

The Politics of Amateurism in Online Pornography

The first part of my subtitle reworks Linda Williams’ canonical term regarding the history and pre-history of the pornographic film: ‘the frenzy of the visible’. In her book Hard Core Williams brings to our attention the nineteenth-century thesis that knowledge was to be found in the visible; the need to show all by penetrating all zones of pleasure with photographic certitude, her case studies ranging from the erotic sub-text of Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies to the development of the money shot as visible signification of climactic pleasure. [1] Recent developments in online culture show that it is not only the visible that is at stake when addressing pornography, both in terms of production and consumption. Instead it seems that online pornography presents questions of communicative circulation, moving from the frenzy of the visible to something more like the frenzy of the communicative. This transition also sheds light on emerging issues around digital photography in general: a discussion that has shifted from issues around virtual fakery to issues of the visceral and of velocity, of affect and instant communication.

To respond to Feona Attwood’s essay on amateurism in online pornography, I will consider some other ways in which the figure of the amateur is driving the development of ‘pornographic culture’ online, drawing attention to another type of ‘prosumer’ that can be found on the blog hosting platform tumblr. Tumblr allows users to post their own images and re-post images found on other sites. This structure provides both an image-roll where a user collates pages of posted material and a network of links to other tumblr sites – including the history of where an image has been previously posted and what other tumblr sites he or she is following. Whilst tumblr has become a hugely popular site among teenagers and social networkers there has also been an explosion of sites dedicated to pornographic imagery. In these sites consumers of the pornographic image circulate images they have found on professional porn sites alongside re-posted images, videos and gifs from other tumblr sites they follow, images that have been solicited (some sites invite their readers to send in images of themselves) and images of themselves (sometimes tagged as GPOY; gratuitous picture of yourself – the realcore amateur image par excellence).

Whilst the images are not always of amateur performers, this is another instance of the consumer-producer at work. The professional-amateur assemblage here is the not that of performer-viewer but of viewer-distributor (and sometime performer or agent). Rather than exhibiting their own body, what is being put on show is the form a private desire takes, which in turn demonstrates the way that private desire is already mediated by public forms.   These tumblr sites present an individual’s own form of choice and his/her engagement with a community that shares such an ‘object-choice’; presenting an endlessly refreshed archive of variations on the same drive-object: that type, that body, that hole, that look, that act. Examples include 40andplum, bottomlessanal, chubbycubs and real-thick (all followed by .tumblr.com); the content of these sites range from mosaic pages of gifs looping through the same sexual act to images of bodies that conform to a particular sexual ideal.[2]

In these sites the identity of the ‘doing subject’ is less important than categorisation, the process often becoming obsessively typological as image-rolls of particular body parts, types or specific acts are generated. The object (or act) of desire is presented, again and again, distinct from the usual pornographic narrative of progressive revelation until climax. The typological study prevalent in nineteenth-century photography returns here as the fetishisation of the minimal difference between shots, developing into taxonomic groupings that repeat seemingly infinitely. Jodi Dean, remarking on this taxonomical urge notes that the implications here are for the transformation of desire into drive.[3] Drive, in Dean’s conception of contemporary digital culture (which in turn takes heavily from Slavoj Zizek’s formulation of drive) has a particular effect. As well as pointing towards the circulation of sexual drive that aims for a particular ‘object’ (the oral, the anal, the genital drive to use psychoanalytic terms) this describes the activity of the subject enmeshed in what she terms ‘communicative capitalism’: a frantic circulation of ever-expanding content that is formed through a talking-without-response where the possibility of contestation becomes significantly reduced.[4] The characteristic of drive, as evidenced by many pornographic tumblr image-rolls, is that there is a strong sense of circulation but also a predominant fixity, a sense of the ‘stuckness’ of fixation as well as a ‘stuckness’ of repeating the given categories of sexual act and/or object. The charge that Dean levels at the operations of communicative capitalism can be applied here as well – there is a lot of circulation, but little real movement (be that cultural or political).

As a counterbalance to this pessimistic reading it might also be useful to address some terms that the filmmaker Hito Steyerl provides. In her essay on the nature of online images she brings up the issue of the visual bond, first theorised by the filmmaker Dziga Vertov. She notes: ‘This visual bond was, according to Vertov, supposed to link the workers of the world with each other. He imagined a sort of communist, visual, Adamic language that could not inform or entertain, but also organise its viewers.’[5] This bond-production, she notes, is now taking place, albeit under the double-edged conditions of “capitalist media assembly lines and alternative audiovisual economies” – producing both “stupefaction” and possible “disruptive movements of thought and affect.”[6] This articulation of the visual bond is another way to approach the activities on tumblr that I’ve described so far, one which tempers Dean’s dystopic vision of communicative capitalism. To think of visual bonds created on tumblr sites, the paradox that Steyerl describes between the assembly-line and the alternative audio-visual economy is often present: there is both the accelerated portioning up of sexuality into marketable object-choices (the ever increasing list of categories including straight, gay, latina, asian, ebony, group, solo, erotic, hardcore, amateur, mature, teen, bbw, bbc, bdsm, etc.) as well the potential conditions for the emergence of other ways of visualising, inhabiting and imagining sexuality.

Looking at the image-board site 4chan.org provides another instance for the activities of pornographic user-groups in a way that grants another perspective on online pornographic prosumerism, in terms of both communicative drive and visual bond. 4chan hosts various image-boards – or image-based bulletin board – where users anonymously post images and texts initiating replies from other anonymous users. The different image-boards grew from an initial enquiry into manga and anime culture into a spiral of different topics, the most infamous being the /b/ or ‘random’ image-board from which many internet memes have emerged, including the lolcat phenomena (viral images of cats with humorous captions that have come to define much internet humour). The anonymous image conversations on these image-boards have been credited with the emergence of the genuinely new in relation to digital culture.[7] In respect to the viral creativity that is latent within this site and its community of users it is noteworthy that specific image-boards are dedicated to particular pornographic genres, including /hc/ for hardcore, /s/ for ‘sexy beautiful women,’ /gif/ for pornographic gifs and /y/ for yaoi (a manga genre depicting male homosexual relations). The process at work within 4chan is something like a Sadean hivemind; there is little that is redemptive or utopian here, but the anonymous and associative thread structure contains the possibility for reformulating given categories through this particular collective cognitive process (as well as displaying a certain ‘stuckness’ as I’ve explored in relation to pornographic tumblr sites).

As the darker side of the dark side of the internet, the operations of communicativity in 4chan posits a more brutal face than many tumblr sites whilst also having a more directly relational quality. Users will post images along a suggested theme, such as ‘girls kissing’ or ‘feet’, and other users will post images directly in response; this activity forming a visual and verbal conversation. This builds up the same typological obsessive repetition displayed in many tumblr sites whilst also precipitating some more detailed and détourned moments. Whilst many pornographic tumblr sites sit somewhere between professional channels and fans’ collections the focus is generally on a theme that remains distinct (tumblr sites remain concerned with their defining category; that act, that object-choice, that hole...). The 4chan image-threads seem more dynamic and fluid as well as more cruel, aggressive and misogynistic; the best and the worst aspects of internet culture circle each other here. In these threads the taxonomic and categorical concerns of online pornography are enacted to the point of making the contradictions of much pornographic image-culture apparent as well as unhinging some of these categorical co-ordinates. The given categories of pornography are rehearsed in a live conversation of image-swapping to the point where themes can diverge from their original intentions, perhaps becoming a little less stuck as the headless, impersonal, or acephalic aspect of drive is embraced.

To conclude I want to point out how these issues highlight some of the core concerns of the digital that confront us; questions of affective intensity and the communicative circuits of capture. That pornography is concerned with affect (it is, as Linda Williams points out, a discourse that works to literally ‘move’ us) and has historically been an early adopter of new technology makes it a particularly crucial case study for an investigation in the development of photographic culture, rather than merely the black sheep of the family.[8] Pornography reposes for us Spinoza’s question ‘what can a body do?’ The answer to this question—that a body has the capacity to be affected and to affect other bodies—has been crucial for many who have studied the effects of new technology and the emergence of new economic structures in areas such as crowd-sourcing, immaterial labour and post-Fordist forms of work.[9] The specific developments in pornography that Attwood remarks upon, particularly the emergence of amateurism, or the hybridisation of particular roles, should also be investigated in this light. The amateur who produces value through the body’s capacity to affect and to be affected is fast becoming a central rather than marginal figure in our economy. Contemporary forms of online pornography pose and repose this body under post-Fordist conditions in its full affective capacity as well as subjecting it to the most extreme forms of instant communication; sticking it in place through a circulating drive whilst also providing the means to produce new types of organisational bonds. I would also suggest that we pay close attention to the new ways in which our energies and potentials—our desires, sexual or otherwise—can be captured or enabled through technological apparatuses that inform ever increasing modes of spectacular bio-political management. If the sexual revolution was transformed from a liberational impulse into a spreading shopping mall of sexual market-choice and anxiety it is important to see what transformations might occur in this technological onrush. The dice is being cast, but the result is not yet foretold. 


  1. Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible’, (London; Pandora, 1990) back
  2. Two other examples, or modes, also are worth remarking upon. The first is the fan site, collating images of a particular star, such as fyeahsashagrey.tumblr.com where images of the actress Sasha Grey are collated from various online sources by a fan who admits no affiliation with the star or the porn industry. The second example is that of the professional using tumblr to generate an ‘amateur’ aesthetic in order to tap into the appeal of so-called realcore authenticity that Attwood describes. One instance of this is missdanidaniels.tumblr.com where the actress posts strange juxtapositions of photographs of her dog, her mother, her friends, images of her naked body from her perspective, fan art that has been sent to her as well as images of her in professional scenes. Here the dual intimacy-exhibitionist effect of social media is directly put to use where the boundary between public and private is erased or at least redefined. back

  4. Jodi Dean, ‘Search and Store’, accessed via http://jdeanicite.typepad.com/i_cite/2010/11/search-and-store.html back
  5. For her argument on this see Jodi Dean, ‘Technology: The Promises of Communicative Capitalism’ in her Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham &London: Duke University Press, 2009) back
  6. Hito Steyerl, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, e-flux # 10, Nov. 2009, accessible via http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/ back
  7. ibid, np. back
  8. For a discussion of 4chan and of the meme form see Deterritorial Support Group, ‘All the Memes of Production’ in Alessio Lunghi & Seth Wheeler eds., Occupy Everything! Reflections on Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, (New York: Minor Compositions, 2012) also accessible via http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/all_the_memes_of_production back
  9. Williams, Hard Core, p. 5. For Williams, responding to pornography merely through our ‘gut responses’ of scandal, arousal or outrage are not enough, as she calls for a ‘symptomatic reading’ of pornography. back
  10. Recent texts on these include Paolo Virno’s discussion of the post-Fordist worker as a virtuoso who plays the score of the general intellect, possessing the faculty of communication rather than particular expertise; see Paolo Virno A Grammar of the Multitude (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004) and ‘Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus’ in Michael Hardt & Paolo Virno eds., Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). For a discussion of bio-capitalism see Christian Marazzi, ‘Financial Illogic’ in No Order: Art in a Post-Fordist Society, ed. Marco Scotini (Berlin; Archive Books, 2010). For a discussion of the body and the psyche in relation to work and new media see Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009). Two key discussions of immaterial labour include Maurizio Lazzarato’s ‘Immaterial Labour’ in Michael Hardt & Paolo Virno eds., Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) and Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri’s Empire (Cambridge, Massachusetts & London: Harvard University Press, 2000) back