Empathetic self surveillance, online porn and neo-ekphrasis / Ellen O’Donoghue Oddy

Online porn is a phenomenon that defines our poly relationship with the internet, online and offline selves, and everyday life AFK (away from keyboard). Sensations of repression and desire racked and triggered by our browsers seem to always spin back to that space, and yet it is only recently that online porn has begun to slip into the mainstream. From the loveable personalities of the Cock Destroyers in the UK, to the PR drive of Pornhub sponsoring art exhibitions in the US, old attachments of secrecy and shame around adult-only content aren’t what they used to be. More and more, we watch a TV show, go to an art exhibition or read a book where a fictionalised engagement with online porn is at the heart of pertinent social commentary and authentic character development.

Two recent books, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (2017) and Ali Smith’s How to be Both (2014), both feature online porn as a defining element of their recovery narratives. In each, subversive non-sexual engagements with porn give characters a way into reflecting, monitoring and empathising with the self. These extreme scenarios offer a literal and a-sexual reading of the empathetic process that already occurs when watching porn – as the whole point of a porn film is for the viewer to imagine it is them on screen, so vividly that it triggers a physiological reaction. What is interesting is how the interaction with online porn that happens in these texts sees characters obsessively return to the films, and watch them on a daily basis, as if addicted.

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is a collection of 12 short stories that depicts contemporary female characters through multiple genres, where female pleasure and desire is very much laid bare. The final story, ‘Difficult at Parties’, follows an unnamed narrator who has just survived a break-in and assault and uses porn as part of her recovery process. She begins watching analogue video porn and finds that as well as the perfunctory groans of pleasure, she can also hear the fed up or anxious internal narrative of the actors onscreen. When she switches to online porn, she finds this stream-of-consciousness is stronger, and one film is so triggering that she screams and throws her laptop, splitting the screen in two. The voices, however, are not the source of pain – she describes them as a ‘stream running beneath the ice’, a void filling the silence in her head. The orgasmic stream that usually follows watching pornographic content is replaced here by a psychological stream, which is triggered by an unexpected error, or glitch.

Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism theory gives rise to the transformative power of the digital error, specifically in terms of online porn. In her first article coining the term Glitch Feminism, the narrator begins watching online porn and reflecting on how the orgasm or the petit-mort, as an irruption of the uncontrollable, is mirrored in the digital glitch – ‘a little digital death, a wheeze, a shift’. Russell’s digital error, much like Machado’s broken porn narrations, ‘jars us into recognition of the separation of our physical selves from the body that immerses itself in fantasy when participating in sexual activity online.’ These visible, accessible versions of the self, the online and offline, the surveilled and the watching, the body physical and the body cyborg, memorialised by the crack in the computer screen of Machado’s narrator and scored by the sound of her scream, begin a process of healing.

The relationship between Machado’s protagonist and the actors on screen directly mirrors the reader’s relationship with the protagonist; we only access the narrator’s stream of conscious through the actors’ internal narratives. Here we could make a case for Machado blurring the boundaries between fiction and “reality” – but this age-old binary is undergoing a rebrand. Just as filmmakers claim that anyone with a smartphone and social media account is now a filmmaker, it is also arguable that anyone who creates versions of themselves on social media, discussion forums, or chat rooms, is therefore a fiction writer. These boundaries between fiction and “reality” are quickly eroding, and as such the authors of today are faced with the task of writing within this context, and building narratives around characters that have a presence on the internet, and are therefore fiction writers themselves.

The texts that take an explicit stab at this have a specific mode in common that could fall under the term: ‘self-surveillance narratives’. In these texts, characters produce works of the self, or relate so deeply to a piece of digital artefact that their self is inextricable from it, and watch or monitor them obsessively. Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy (2017) is the obvious reference point here – but so is Tom McCarthy’s chaotically traumatised character in Remainder (2005), or Ottessa Moshfegh’s protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018); from her interactions with artist Ping Xi, to her obsessive watching of 9/11 footage. (NB: these narrators are often nameless).

Self-surveillance is often a subversive mode that refuses to fit more traditional notions of surveillance, such as Michel Foucault’s Panoptican metaphor – where prisoners internalise the gaze of the guard and behave in response. Where Foucault defines surveillance within a ‘them vs. us’ binary of power, self-surveillance at its very core dissolves the ‘them vs. us’ binary in favour of autonomy. Eleanor Ferrante’s definition of surveillance as ‘the opposite of the body dulled by sleep, a metaphor counter to opacity’ that depicts ‘an eagerness for feeling alive’ is closer to what these writers are exploring. Though it teeters on the edge of obsession and psychosis, the notion of ‘self-surveillance’ as a powerful, autonomous gaze, within a Western climate where surveillance has become standard, is thick with potential for freedom and feeling alive.

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Contemporary writers and artists are faced with a hall of mirrors, where fictionalised characters and their self-controlled internalised gazes offer competing versions of reality. As the online and offline selves collapse under this mode of self-surveillance, the binaries between fiction and non-fiction follow. The descriptions of digital artefact as a way to develop the character, but also expose their dual existence online and offline, repurposes the classic narrative device ekphrasis for the internet age; a traditional mode of writing where an object of art is described, often to contextualise the narrative’s setting or to use the narrator’s response to the artwork as a way to unravel character development.

Ali Smith’s 2014 novel How to be Both is filled with descriptions of artefact – from Renaissance art to online porn – as well as doubling of selves and splitting of character. One of the two narrators, 16-year-old George, is suffering from the recent sudden death of her mother. When she watches online porn for the first time, she finds herself empathising so heavily with the actress in the disturbing, potentially abusive, film that she decides to watch it dutifully every day to acknowledge and make visible the actress’ trauma.

The descriptions of the porn film and the narrator become close to indistinguishable: all we know of the actress is that she is George’s age and that she looks ‘as if she’d been drugged’, which in turn changes ‘the structures of George’s brain’. The empathetic mode is so direct here that simply from watching this apparently drugged girl, George’s brain is restructured as if she is under the influence of a drug herself. As George decides to ‘bear witness’ to the film daily, the narrative function of this porn film extends beyond fictional wallpaper. The psychological process of watching the film sees our narrator endure a sort of performative empathy that splits them in two; both within and outside of the film, but inseparable from it nonetheless, George becomes a narrator on the page, who can also exist online.

Not content with being a regular cyborg, however, George’s online self is also undermining the rules of online porn every time she watches this film – unknowingly fulfilling the Xenofeminist Manifesto, years before it was published. Laboria Cuboniks’ manifesto urges ‘feminists to equip themselves with the skills to redeploy existing technologies […] in the service of common ends.’ George’s obsessive watching racks up views on the video, which she believes subverts the number of views from those watching for pleasure – she states: ‘my completely different watching of it goes some way to acknowledging […] to this girl’. She also claims that she is ‘witness, by extension, [to] all the unfair and wrong things that happen to people all the time.’ This extreme approach to the hermeneutic process sees George sabotage the tallied views of an online video to acknowledge the suppressed experience of others and all unfairness in the world, including her own bereavement. She is providing a service with her indestructible gaze that imparts a small but significant understanding of the actor’s experiences, and enables her to take action within her own healing process.

Carmen Maria Machado’s ‘Difficult At Parties’ comes to a close when the narrator, who is recovering from a recent assualt, has sex with her partner and records it –– stepping inside the porn film herself. When she watches it back the next morning she surveills ‘her body – my body, mine – […] striped with the yellowish stains of fading bruises […] overflowing out of itself.’ She watches, and begins ‘to listen’. This initially incumbent glitch is, as Legacy Russell puts it, ‘a correction to the ‘machine’ and, in turn, a positive departure.’ Now watching herself in a porn film, the character is finally able to disrupt the ‘quiet […] in my head’ with her own internal narrative. As this narrative shifts between the second and first person, the narrator cruises between the physical and the fantasy world, coexisting in both. Like George in How to be Both, this narrator is heavily empathising with porn actors as a way to surveil the self, listen to the self, and care for the self. She takes it one step further, however, by disrupting that space with her body. This is more than just starring in a porn film, this is a subversive act of self-surveillance that becomes self-care, and gives the feeling of being alive.

Both Smith and Machado use digital pornographic artefacts to dig deep into the complexities of their characters, and explore how humans interact with these artefacts – psychologically, socially, and physically. In these self-surveillance narratives, Foucault’s internalised gaze from the guard is transformed into the narrators’ autonomous gaze, which provides empathetic access to the self. This access means power, whether that is subverting online platforms for radical ends, or magnifying a digital error in order to resist the violence of the machine.

As readers, we too are part of the hermeneutic and empathetic process, seeing our relationship with the narrator reflected in their radical empathy with the porn actors, dissolving the liminal boundaries between online and offline, text and reader. As Machado and Smith fictionalise experiences of living in the age of the internet, they also reconsider writing in the age of the internet – reconfiguring how the reader might engage with their works, and the digital texts that lie within.