It will come back to haunt you.
This is the keystone threat of the digital age. It’s the threat used to dissuade girls from doing porn. ‘What if your kids see it?’ my mother screamed when I briefly considered posing for Playboy. It’s the threat leveled at teen sexters, oversharing vloggers, anyone with a thirst trap Instagram. Be careful what you put out there, people warn, as if you were a camper putting out food scraps for bears. These things might come back to haunt you.
Rhetorically, it’s a curious phrase. It is a threat suggesting the undeadness of digital images, their lack of mooring to one time or place. Like Irish ghosts, they roam forever. Off-screen, it is the threat of climate change and its slow ravages, of individual actions in a globalized world, of gossip and cigarettes – that first drag will haunt you. It is also, on a scale both private and global, spanning hard drive to market to ether, the threat of the sex tape.
The threat evokes the rapid speed of transmission and circularity that defines internet porn, and has made sex tapes like 1 Night in Paris the stuff of sleepover lore – indeed, the eerie use of night vision makes that tape’s ghostliness explicit. It is a threat concerned with both the future and the past, pitting the soon-to-be-past you (so craaazy) against the distant-future you (with a reputation, with kids). On an affective level, it is a threat invoking memory, that which we will be haunted by no matter how wild or mild our escapades. At twenty-three I am haunted by the memory of far less sensational things my body has done, on- and off-camera. I still remember the video-rental store I used to go to as a kid: Silver Screen, smack dab in the center of a dying strip mall. I’m haunted by its plastic smell, its inch-thick carpet and the red velvet curtain in the back, with a sign that said 18+ only. I never got to see what was behind the red curtain; by the time I was old enough, the store was long gone.
These things might come back to haunt you.
Yet for all its force, the threat is unclear. Who or what carries out this haunting? Is it the younger you in the sex tape, the body made foreign by grainy reproduction and an outdated belly ring? Will this body haunt the distant-future you with her youth, her ease, with embarrassing noises you’ve since learned not to make? Or is it the video itself that does the haunting, the redirect to porn sites that haunts all future Google searches for your name? Is the sex tape ghostly because it follows you around, like a stigma, or because you can’t touch its bodies, no matter how real they seem?
Or vaguer still, is it the mere knowledge of the sex tape’s existence that will haunt you? Like, even if you never see the tape again, you will be kept awake by the suspicion that somewhere, through the time warp of cyberspace, a zitty citizen might be watching you get off, nursing a semi as he clicks other links. This audience of one will haunt you; you, with your belly ring, might haunt him.
I live in San Francisco, a city haunted by missions, Aids and the fog. I agree with the songs that say people are gentler here, more submissive to the flux. We lie down in our parks and close our bars early. People with money theorize utopia, drink fresh-pressed juice. Things have always had the shimmer of the too-good-to-be-true. As new technologies make the body feel diffuse (which can be sexy) and irrelevant (which can be grim), I find myself seeking spaces or zones in which I feel contained. These need not be brick-and-mortar locations. If all that is solid melts into air and the Amazon superstores are run entirely by bots, it would seem physicality is a moot point; what matters most in the drone age is faith. As Philip Rosedale, founder of the San Francisco lab behind Second Life, says, ‘Things are real because they’re there with us and we believe in them.’
It is this faith in the nonmaterial that unites the poet and the gamer, the psychic and the techie, as they reject the flesh in favor of signs, be they Foucauldian or paranormal. One need not have a body in order to be touched: this concept has long gone mainstream, and makes sense to anyone who texts and thus understands the gravity of the red-rose emoji. This renunciation of matter can make you feel like a god (omnipresent) or a Popsicle (melting fast). Personally I’m OK with getting rid of my body; I see the appeal of newer, better containers. In a post-body landscape, I’m interested in where touch will take place. In our parks? In our contact lists? I’m interested in the spaces that exist within these so-called non-places.
What is a non-place? There are many ways to define the term, put forth by French anthropologist Marc Augé to describe ‘a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity’. A non-place is somewhere my architect father, always snooty about vibes, might call ‘soulless’, like a big-chain multiplex with fluorescent lights, inexplicably decorated in oranges and tans. The strip mall that once housed Silver Screen, alongside a bagel shop and a stationery store, was a non-place. An airport, with its sterile cheer, is the classic example: better yet, an airport bar, with its pseudo-European fixtures and French fries in a wire cone, its line of soft-bellied businessmen playing footsie and watching the game. Another example: the fast-growing condos in San Francisco’s former meat market. The bars may shut at two in SF, but the gyms are twenty-four hours. Once I went all the way to the fifth floor of a Holiday Inn near Times Square only to learn, after fiddling with my keycard for ten minutes, that I was in the wrong hotel. My Holiday Inn was across the street.
Once armed with the term, one can see non-places everywhere. One might think of refugee camps. One might think of the Metaverse. One might think of endless bureaucratic hallways, or endless bureaucratic email chains. One might think of online shopping emporia like Amazon, which are literally malls located nowhere. One might think of the tense quiet of an Uber. One might think of the comments section on a political article, into which one is sucked for hours. I am attracted to these looser uses of the term, as ‘non-place’ morphs into a shorthand for the sense of unreality alleged to define our post-postmodern existence of half-truths and year-round avocados.
My questions are, when all the world becomes a waiting room, how does one preoccupy oneself ? When the muzak plays, where does one dance?
Cut to my interest in amateur pornography, or, more sweetly put, the sex tape. There are those who say that you can learn everything you need to know about the twenty-first century from the Kardashians. Let’s not forget, then, what started it all – the seed of their empire: Kim’s sex tape.
I like the term ‘sex tape’ for its anachronistic conjuring of videotapes, things filmed on a camcorder and stuffed into the VCR: compact, discrete and holdable. Perhaps my nineties childhood has instilled in me a tenderness toward VHS, on a par with my attraction to hot pink and Kelly green. The phrase ‘sex tape’ feels directly opposed to the spacy feeling of non-places, evoking the material, hard shiny black plastic, long after the sex tape has morphed into a transnational tele-digital commodity. The speed with which sex tapes are transmitted, seen, copied and compressed speaks to the placeless network of relations that defines globalization. Sex tapes would seem to be a prime example of the body made commodity, a literalization of the late capitalist truism that there is nothing which is not market, including (or especially) shaky fellatio in motel lamplight.
I’m reminded of that stoner truism, that if you can think of a title for a porno, it must already exist. Long car rides have been passed in this fashion: Withering Heights! Lord of the Cock Rings! My Big Fat Greek Penis! My friend told me about a man she met on Grindr whose fantasy was to be small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. His username was, aptly, VerySmallMan. In her novella, dominatrix Reba Maybury describes a sub, nicknamed Humpty Dumpty, whose fantasy is being force-fed until he is so massive that he becomes a genderless blob. He illustrates this fantasy on his Tumblr with stock footage of tropical-print beanbags. He wants to get so big that a woman can comfortably recline on him.
Express yourself!!! the market bellows. Everything is up for grabs. And why not? Physicality is a moot point; sex is not an act but a headspace. We’ve all fucked Paris Hilton. A fantasy can be entered again and again, quietly, easily, in the non-place of one’s choosing. In the loneliest of places, an airport bar or Hilton hotel room, you need not feel alone; you need not even feel human.
According to the logic of the non-place, to be in a Hilton hotel in Dallas is the same as to be in a Hilton hotel in Dubai or Dublin. Regarding 1 Night in Paris, one might go so far as to say that to be in Paris Hilton is the same as to be in Paris, France, which is the same as to be in Paris, Texas. Fantasy fixates, and thus fixes the parameters, such that one knows where to go when one wants to feel good. One night in Paris becomes a lifetime supply, an unending season in Paris if that’s your go-to happy place. One might recall Rosedale’s statement: things are real because they’re with us and we believe in them. Cue George Michael, a recent ghost: you gotta have faith! Or perhaps one recalls a song played in waiting rooms and airport bars the world over, a song that, for better or worse, will never die: Plenty of room at the Hotel California . . . Any time of year, you find it here. Which California is up to you.
Before I go further, let me say plainly: I love Paris Hilton. I think she is a prophet of the watched age, disarmingly sweet. I grew up seeing her name in every checkout aisle; I remember the free paris T-shirts after her arrest. She is responsible for so many of the things I associate with my pre-Y2K childhood: belly rings, tiny purses, tabloid fever and, come the 2000s, reality TV. The Simple Life, ethics aside, is an incredible document with regards to white privilege, self-surveillance, female intimacy and the American imagination. The Simple Life follows Paris and BFF Nicole as they bounce between non-places, sampling drab summer jobs at Burger Kings and Walmarts and factory farms. They get up to no good in windowless break rooms. Their bewilderment at the American landscape is meant to be funny, a consequence of their alienation as celebrities, but watching Paris get lost in the frozen-food aisle of a chain supermarket (like, what makes it, like, super?), I relate. She’s the reason I wore my pants ultra-low, the reason I draw out my vowels and talk slow. She’s been the ghost in my closet and throat since ’02. She lingers in every ‘like’.
Let’s talk more about ghosts. Colin Davis neatly describes the concept of hauntology, coined in 1993 by Derrida: ‘Hauntology supplants its near-homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.’ Say it again: things are real because they’re with us and we believe in them.
What sex tapes offer, on a hauntological level, is an impossible closeness to that which is neither dead nor alive. The bodies in the tape are real, or used to be, but the threesome formed by your attention, your jollies, rewrites history. Perhaps this explains the specific kicks of watching a sex tape, the thrilling sense of infringement as one observes Paris flicking her belly ring. To watch a sex tape is to be aroused while simultaneously unsettled, to be an anthropologist and also a kid – nudging open closed doors, shocked by your findings.
In these televisual documents, one is presented with a frightfully candid world, replete with nonfictional objects like garbage and dogs, white noise, dirty linen, makeup strewn on the counter. The trash looks alive. Clutter becomes a signifier of authenticity, as does a certain distractibility. The camera can’t focus. One is absorbed by the erotic action, yet never unaware of the device recording it, nor the video’s status as just that.
‘Is this thing on?’ Paris asks. Within seconds, the fourth wall is broken, like a champagne glass.
‘Ewwww!’ she cries when the cameraman teases her. She shuts the door in his, our, face. By assuming his point of view, do we become him? Most people watching would probably rather be Paris.
Later, his off-screen voice teases: ‘I thought you were a wild party girl! What happened to you?’
‘I never was,’ she whines. The bleariness of her reproduction, against the bland drapes of a midsized hotel room, makes this statement of nonbeing feel poignant and true.
Later still, the camera is set on a table. We watch it shift from side to side. Paris flops in a standard-issue armchair, spike heels on the bed. Everything in the room is the color of oatmeal. She points out a better position. ‘Over there.’ The cameraman, still unseen, suddenly
a perfectionist, mutters: ‘Actually, it looked better before.’
These unscripted moments in 1 Night are gold. After all, it’s not a regular porn film one has chosen to watch, but a sex tape: an artifact, whose status as real is underscored by its amateur aesthetic. This aesthetic includes shaky camerawork, off-screen breathing, jerky zooms, unflattering angles, mumbled asides and long, unedited, unpornographic interludes. The amateur (also called realcore) is a genre of porn defined by its claims to realism. The style swings from art film to Planet Earth documentary, MTV behind-the-scenes to The Blair Witch Project. The fantasy world one enters has more of the quality of memory, imperfect and banal, than cinema. Paris is hairless, but grainy. She is present, but low-res. She’s not a poster, but a ghost.
Here is a genre perfectly suited to supermodernity, in which uncertainty and blurriness are understood as keystones of reality. In order to define the current moment, which some call post-postmodernity, some reach for examples of late capitalism at its most demented, of environmental destruction that crosses national lines, of AI and transhumanist propaganda. I reach for the sense of unreality relayed by Paris Hilton in black underwear: her real/digital/hyped body as the site where the viral and desirous collapse into one, an overdetermined symbol that can’t be controlled. We own her; she, a billionaire, owns us. Paris zings through the ether at nonhuman speeds, but it’s really really her you’re seeing on your screen. The graininess is proof. Clarity and the absolute are rejected: in 2018, they are neither probable nor hot. All that is solid melts into air, and the amateur sex tape, echoing innumerable theorists, fetishizes this smeary state as the realest of real. Our babes are not airbrushed, but air brushing past.
It seems important to note that Derrida was conceptualizing hauntology in 1993, when hackers were sexy and the internet new: a Baudrillardian moment of techno-tele-discursivity, Simulacra with a capital S, and hot pink. According to realcore expert Sergio Messina, the amateur fetish boom began in 1997–98 when digital photography first became popular. Digital cameras would help shape the sex tape in its evolution from cheeky Polaroid to in-group DVD to hacked celebrity file. Realcore fetishizes realism, but it is a special brand of real: the compromised realism of fragmented bodies in flux, of jump cuts and bad lighting, born of the digital age. Realcore prizes the uncanny, the creeping familiarity of piled towels and beige walls, of famous bodies bunched and bored in hotel suites. Enter the ghost, another instance of compromised realism: the body both real and phantasmic, familiar and freaky, the arresting figure not-all-there.
Paris Hilton herself alleged that she was not-all-there – in her words, ‘out of it’ – when 1 Night in Paris was recorded. This claim triggered a defamation suit from then-boyfriend and substandard cameraman Rick Salomon. Watching the tape, I believe her. I understand how she could be both deeply in and out of it. Sex can be a non-place too. And it is precisely her semi-presence, not-all-there, that continues to circulate, on the internet and in the mind, as one recalls her baby voice and limp, long limbs. It is the sense that she’s ‘gone’ in multiple senses that makes the tape so haunting.
What makes a sex tape signify as real are its ghostly qualities. The blurs, the shakes, the I-think-that’s-what’s-happening-there; the sense that physical bodies, once real in the classic sense, have been imperfectly conjured, and are now real in a different sense. ‘You’re, like, obsessed with filming me,’ Paris tells the bodiless cameraman. Like a ghost, he flits in and out of visibility, appearing sporadically in a corner of the mirror, bulked up by white towels. His off-screen laughter and cokey commands – say hello to my little friend! – chase Paris as she moves away from, then toward, then away from the camera. But of course, in the parameters set by the fantasy and the duration of the tape, there is no escape.
This actually happened, the sex tape insists of its bodies, with their stretch marks and sad rooms. It is historical, yours to observe from the allegedly firm ground of the present. And yet, with a sort of techno-utopian exuberance, it also insists: This can happen again, over and over, forever, for you! Paris always squealing ‘siiiick!’ in any Hilton of your choosing. It is a fantasy: yours for the taking, yours to express yourself with, yours to spread over the internet and send to your friends, yours to go into whenever you’d like. The sex tape presents realism for those who know that nothing is real.
It will come back to haunt you: in 2018, this is not only the threat of the sex tape but also its promise.
Realcore pivots on this eerie return. Perhaps the naysayers are right: perhaps that sex tape will come back to haunt its eighteen-year-old star, her belly ring long since removed. But the threat goes both ways. The sex tape will haunt us too, as its viewers and inhabitants. It will house us, with its fantastic infrastructure. We were there, in that bedroom. We pulled aside the velvet curtain. The sex tape is a haunted house, or should I say, a haunted hotel, a haunted Hilton, in the spectral California dusk of a fixed 73 degrees. It could be in Hollywood, or San Francisco, or an anonymous rest area off CA-1. Take your pick. But beware the reggae-inflected threat: you can check out any time you wish (flash to Paris’s out-of-it body, checked-out, not-all-there), but you can never leave.
Photograph © Steve Granitz / Inactive