Some Problems in the Aesthetics of Immersion (Part 2)

Doctor: “Another tape involves physical coercion – actually holding the child down: ‘You’re holding a pretty girl down as you eat her. You can feel your dick getting hard.’”
Lotringer: “Actually…”
Doctor: “What?”
Lotringer: “Nothing. I’m sorry.”
Doctor: “Another tape involves sadistic coercion, tying the child down, hitting him hard, making him bleed: ‘You’ve stuck a water hose up a girl’s cunt, and you’re turning on the water full force. She’s begging you to stop.’”
Lotringer: “My God!”

(Lotringer, Overexposed, p.61, bolding mine.)

Too Bored to Fuck

The above dialogue is of a doctor in an early CBT[1] clinic explaining their method for measuring the arousal of patients to certain stimuli. The clinic was run by Dr. Seymour Sachs, an early pioneer in behavioural therapy, and focuses primarily on sex offenders and sexual deviants. The ‘method’ being described is one where a patient is asked to listen to tapes depicting various short scenes whilst their arousal is measured, either through a device attached directly to their penis or through one measuring pupillary dilation.

Lotringer’s book exhibits 2 important, yet related ideas. The first is to show how over-exposure to desire and sexuality annihilates or neutralizes that sexual desire. In times previous, the rapist would ‘confess’ their impulses; the confession would be heard from the standpoint of meaningful disquiet and a general agreement on the deviant’s departure from a normal, healthy life; that “as long as a rapist feels guilty, he may gropingly search for his redemption and collaborate in his own cure, for his actions are compulsive and against his will” (Lotringer, Overexposed, p. 17). By contrast, in Sachs’ clinic, the strategy is one of overexposure and boredom – encouraging and recording the deviants in their fantasies to discover and expose every predilection and every possible turn-on or ‘arousal pattern’. Because the doctors’ focus is on behaviour (erections) as evidence of arousal or as evidence of their treatment’s effectiveness, they indifferently provide the deviant with every possible fantasy via language or photograph, encouraging them to fantasize about even their own crimes in as much detail as possible. The result of this for Lotringer is not, however, to encourage the appetite for crime, but rather to neutralize desire with boredom:

“What happens to deviance when it is approved without reservation? Is it ecstasy, excess, sacrifice, the Good News, the Great Pan’s death? Not exactly… Deviance has become banal, just like Evil. Once approved, deviance loses its meaning.” (Lotringer, Overexposed, p.16-17)

Rape Hieroglyphics

Lotringer’s second idea originates in Lacan’s remarks about the hysteric: that, “the unconscious poses a question with the hysteric, as one poses a problem with a pen.” As such, Lotringer says, “the enigma of hysteria – the tortured, hieroglyphed bodies, that medicine couldn’t account for organically – challenged psychiatry to come up with another, more devious, or deviant, form of knowledge.” (Lotringer, Overexposed, p.53). For Lotringer, something similar is true of the sexual deviant, that they are in themselves manifest expressions of the cultural unconscious in a flesh and blood language of violence and transgressive contact:

“Voyeurs testify to the disappearance of sexual secrecy. Flashers reveal the fallacy that regulates sexual relationships. Rapists fulfil paroxysmically society’s desire to possess women as objects. Masochists give their bodies to the commodification of desire. Sadists vindicate the random violence exemplified everywhere[2]. Paedophiles betray the fact that children too are ‘on the market’” (Lotringer, Overexposed, p.52).

And yet these interpretations too are simplified summaries of what ‘deviant’ desire represents in the progress of the collective unconscious and the future of erotic desire. In a sense, at the heart of this drift towards erotic limit experience is society’s lifting of the taboo on sex and its focus on individual freedoms in the experience of sex. Lotringer cites a reader of the New York Times:

“Is my generation to be the last with bittersweet memories of nearing the threshold of knowledge, of reaching in the dark, of the feel of skin on skin, no consummation, yet a beating of the heart and a flush from the feeling of having transgressed?” (Lotringer, Overexposed, p.40).

The erotic intensity of sexual freedom is a rotted corpse, its pulsing blood having been derived from the illegality that freedom destroyed. Moreover, post Freud’s universalization of the sexual impulse, it is the pervert who is placed at the heart of sex. Freud’s recognition that civilisation was the engine of madness – repressing sexual and primitive impulse – created the context by which society could not just liberate sex, but could also demolish any normative or moral delimitations on ‘acceptable’ sex, replacing it instead with a more polymorphous and relativist nature:

“The polymorphous hypothesis goes a long way in relocating ‘perversions’ at the heart of normality. It suggests that there’s no such thing as sexual deviation, only different states of desire that keep crisscrossing – and occasionally colliding – with the changing boundaries of social acceptability… It is now possible to free Freudian intuitions from their last moralistic terms and envisage human sexuality as an unlimited ‘polysexual’ patchwork that resists denomination…” (Lotringer, Overexposed, p.44)

(From Cronenberg’s Shivers)

Hence we see the emergence of ‘polyamoury’, ‘Queer Theory’, ‘Sex Positivism’, ‘kink’, ‘safe, sane and consensual’ BDSM, and yet even though such structures are born of a history of deviance, they each find themselves rooted in a civil codification: the tame and filtered expressions of the shadow of deviation that lies at the heart of all modern sexual desire. Cue the Jimmy Carr or Frankie Boyle rape joke; every tepid, mass-produced sitcom – Friends anyone? Two and a Half Men? The popularity of 50 Shades of Grey and the Katie Roiphe debarkle? Everything distorts in the dark, singular density exerted by the shadowy image of actual criminal predilection.

Reality and Immersion: Towards Negativity

Accepting that language and experience are in no way synonymous and that language, on the whole, mutilates experience where it tries to communicate it, let us define ‘negativity’ as ‘that which tends towards or gives the impression of death’. The alarming aspect of ‘dysfunction’ is death or rather the irregular pattern it imposes on the maintenance of life. It is the possibility of death that extends from certain behaviours and practices which causes them to be contained and condemned and more particularly, it is the unpredictable and infectious nature of death that compounds this negativity. The driving force behind UK legislation on ‘extreme pornography’ has come via the assumed infectious quality of the image of death and the unpredictability of its affects once universally accessible. I foresee similar future crackdowns on the unregulated production of deep, immersive, virtual experience in the near future, however while they remain possible, it might be worth saying some things about the various sides of immersive negativity and the infectious nature of the negative.

Lotringer’s discourse states that perversion lies at the heart of modern sexuality and that the sex crime is the hieroglyphic expression of the modern unconsciousness; on the other hand however, he also shows that life universally approved to the point of death equates with utter boredom and the neutralization of the sexual vitality sought. Within the mass-production and mess-exchange of negative immersion you have a similar situation to what is taking place in Sachs’ behavioural clinic. That in a universal involvement in the exchange of negative signs, the world of representation is being exorcized of transgression and evil and is destined, quite quickly perhaps, to become banal:

“Everywhere, communication has taken the place of violence, and is abusing violence in turn.” (Lotringer, Overexposed, p. 18)

And it is precisely this absence of violence that the perverse impulse is dedicated to rectifying; the absence of death in the real (which was essential to meaning) drives us towards immersive experience and thus further expunges violence from the universe of the sign. Violence is the escape from the light touch of communication that returns to human relations their depth – the voyeur may spy on their target and in the generated field of risk, return to them the vital meaning of their private body. On the absence of death within communication, Lotringer writes:

“But today death has been forgotten, or rather, it has eclipsed itself from our memory. What we need is to bring it back, kicking and shouting, into everyday life. For without death there is no meaning… Suffering has limits, whereas boredom has none… All that remains of death is a contact that must constantly be renewed… Nothing can be memorized. Our promises, hinging on nothing, cannot be held.” (Lotringer, Overexposed, p. 18)

In the above context it therefore makes sense to write about a desire for the negative and of a desire for death in the modern psyche. It even makes sense to write about the desirable nature of authentic negativity. Given the already present commodification of terror, evil and violence throughout the world of signs, and given the same commodification is set to take place throughout immersive exchange and signification, it too makes sense to say that the only locus left for Negative Exchange is in the real itself as it’s the only place death has its real value.[3] You may speak of this exchange and this yearning not just in relation to violence against the other, but also in terms of self harm, wilful insanity, political militancy etc., etc. anything to reanimate meaning and necessity amidst the expanding boredom of the great western husk. Immersive virtuality then first functions as a locus of Negative Exchange, but ultimately serves to affirm its own abject meaninglessness at the level of the sign and compound this yearning back into the real. With this we can invert the pursuit of happiness through pleasure and find cause to re-evaluate the value of unpleasure, disorder and authentic negativity in our general lives.

Part 1
Part 2


[1] Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
[2] It’s probably worth clearing up how we can here claim violence is ‘exemplified everywhere’, yet later claim violence has disappeared. It is more that violence is communicated everywhere, expressed everywhere, sold everywhere. Real violence (and therefore necessity) occasions our everyday lives, say in the form of disease or a crime, but generally we are very remote to it. Mostly, it is only communicated to us via news, health stats or entertainment which Lotringer (p.18) (and Ballard) would describe as a vaccine against boredom.
[3] In the first Black Mirror (The National Anthem) Charlie Brooker presents a world where actually making the Prime Minister have sex with a pig constitutes ‘art’; in David Bowie’s 1995 album Outside, he presents a world where murder and bodily mutilation have become forms of artistic expression. Both seem to point to the idea that representation has become bankrupt in terms of its ability to communicate meaning.

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