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The Internet Is (Still) for Porn

Pixels, porn, proliferation. Read an excerpt from Virginia Heffernan's 'Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art.'

by Virginia Heffernan
Jun 2 2016, 12:25pm

Virginia Heffernan is the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, a new book on the aesthetics and effects of our web-enabled world. She is a contributor to The New York Times and previously appeared in The Creators Project's documentary, ReForm: What's It Like to Become a 3D Actor? With the book out on June 7 via Simon & Schuster, Heffernan was kind enough to supply us with an excerpt from, as well as an exclusive intro to, Magic and Loss.

When Amy Schumer took to Instagram last week to post a picture of herself in a swimsuit, looking like normal pretty person, she clinched it: The Internet is still for porn.

But not porn in the narrow way. Not the monochrome hairless acrobats of various stag-film hubs—though of course they’re still at it, day and night, in their pixel bordellos. What I mean, though—and what I discuss in my new book Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art—is the pornography that has always suffused every corner of the Internet, from nytimes.com to Instagram. This is porn in the sense that it is watched alone; is watched clandestinely; and is scrutinized closely. Pornography, broadly conceived, is also designed to produce a measurable response in the body—arousal, disgust, amusement. Frisson. A writer of mass-produced romances describes her mandate this way: To promote physical responses on every single page. For her female audience, the coveted responses are sexual stirrings and tears. If she hits these bullseyes even four times per book, she knows she has a hit.

Amy Schumer. Photo credit: anna Hanks

“The erotic has been a force driving technological innovation,” John Tierney wrote years ago in The New York Times. “Virtually always, from Stone Age sculpture to computer bulletin boards, it has been one of the first uses for a new medium.” Pigment in Renaissance paintings was mixed to express the flush of thighs or cheeks pre- or post-coital, the subcutaneous coursing of blood in aroused and dilated capillaries. In the last century, pressure to find tech—VHS—that allowed movies to be watched on private sofas and in beds came from the Santa Monica porn industry. Naturally, when broadband dilated ten years ago, and Web video could suddenly be streamed, the expectation was that a video-clearinghouse like YouTube would be flesh-colored almost overnight.

Caravaggio, The Lute Player. Photo credit: Nichole Brown

It didn’t happen. Magic and Loss tracks this mysteriously swerve in technology—and in particular the bait-and-switch move that primes us for traditional pornography only to sub in a staggering diversity of film, from the seemingly infinite cache of videos of people playing games on Twitch to Beyoncé’s tightly-held “Lemonade.” Here’s an excerpt from the book:

funtwo, “guitar.” photo credit: Virginia Heffernan.

On January 25, 2006, a mysterious image showed up on YouTube, the video-sharing site that was then only three months old. A sinewy figure in a swimming-pool-blue T-shirt, his eyes obscured by a beige baseball cap, was playing electric guitar. Sun poured through a window behind him. He played in a yellow haze. The video was called simply guitar. A handmade title card gave the performer’s name as Funtwo. The piece Funtwo played with mounting dexterity was an exceedingly difficult rock arrangement of Pachelbel’s "Canon," the composition from the turn of the 18th century known for solemn chord progressions and overexposure at weddings.

Peretz Partensky, “Desert Cyrens.”

But this arrangement, attributed on another title card to someone called JerryC, was anything but plodding: it required high-level mastery of a singularly demanding maneuver called sweep-picking. Over and over the guitarist’s left hand articulated strings with barely perceptible movements, sounding and muting notes almost simultaneously, and playing complete arpeggios with a single stroke of his right hand. The video was thrilling to watch. Almost instantly I was hooked. Before I’d used Skype or FaceTime, I wasn’t accustomed to this intensely focused exhibitionism, the pleasingly distorted self-portraits in moving pixels, often of family and intimate friends, that now flood our screens.

@Saigon, Looking for David Hockney

Funtwo’s own selfie video was curious, masturbatory. It was David Hockney’s colors, plus chiaroscuro. The effect was not wholesome. The video lacked the creamy resolution, crystalline audio, and voluptuous effects associated with professionalism. It was homebrewed, flawed. You didn’t behold this video, as you might a Hollywood movie, enraptured by the spectacle. You inclined toward it. You studied it, like a scientist. You peered, as at scrambled porn on a high and forbidden channel.

As soon as I leaned forward, I had reached for Tolkien’s ring, or tasted some life-altering drug, or crossed a magical line, and there was no going back. Just as Nabokov forces us to take Humbert Humbert’s language into our very mouths in the opening of his great novel of child rape—“Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth”—this video seemed to implicate anyone who watched it. I played guitar again, then again. A small miracle was quietly happening in those first months on the site.

Robert Michalove, kudzu

The bona fide pornography that I’d been sure would drive out all other video genres—as a predator plant strangles diverse flora and unbalances ecosystems—never showed up. Without actual porn, the subtler voyeurism of guitar stood a chance of becoming a hit with viewers. And hit it was. By the end of its first week on YouTube the video had been viewed 1 million times. By 2016 its various versions had drawn more than 10 million views.

That was it for me. While there was still achievement and pleasure in the old media, it was clear too that the dogs had barked; the great caravan that brings the knowledge and ideas that shore up human enterprises had moved on. Back issues of magazines piled up on my coffee table, and then joined landfills. They weren’t culture; they were carbon.

The deeper I ventured into the civilization I found online, the more I realized I’d need new models of courage and imagination to contend with the trippy, slanted, infinite dreamland of the rapidly evolving Web. Funtwo became my hero. The velocity, intricacy, and exactness of his performance modeled the rhythms and mental requirements of the Web itself.

Alan Levine, King of the Trash Hill. Buckhorn Mesa landfill.

Funtwo’s guitar video speaks to me now, a decade later, just as a chalice of certain dimensions tells us something about the people who inhabited a lost world. From a chalice we learn how big were the hands that were meant to hold it; how much liquid people liked at once and could consume; what kind of liquid, cold or hot, basic or acidic, they considered potable; what kind of surface their cups might sit on. The dozens of hours that I spent feeding my obsession with guitar were not wasted. Or not entirely.

Right at the dawn of Web 2.0, when that newly expansive broadband permitted the dissemination of video and the rise of social networking, the Internet became something more than a reformulation of the offline world. The Web represents a grand emotional, sensory, and intellectual adventure for anyone willing to explore it actively. Alarmist tracts that warn about how the Web endangers culture or coarsens civilization miss the point that the same was said in turn about theater, lyric poetry, the novel, film, and television. In Magic and Loss, I want show how readers might use the Web and not be overwhelmed by it; how we might stop fighting it, in short, and learn to love its hallucinatory splendor.

Pre-order a copy of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art here. Ships June 7, 2016. 

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