Simulation in Cyberspace and Touch of the Flesh: Kissing, the Blush, the Hickey and the CaressRichard Alapack
Norwegian University of Science and Technology,
Beyond sheer criticism, the article presents sketches of commonplace fleshy phenomena which go missing because of mainstream social science’s narrow, prejudicial positivism. Females and males, as part of the politics of everyday romance and Eros, blush in each other’s presence, kiss one another, trade hickeys and caress. Vivid narratives, generated by existential, phenomenological, and hermeneutic methods, portray those sensual-sexual experiences, depict the dynamic power of cyberspace, and sketch a vignette of bionic embodiment.
This article, to clarify cogently what authorizes its divergent standpoint on embodiment, also expresses its underlying deconstructive nerves: the trenchantly nuanced analyses of Nietzsche on nihilism, and Heidegger’s views on death and the essence of technology. It also articulates its constructive concepts, , i.e., Merleau-Ponty’s “lived body” and Levinas’ “carnal intersubjectivity.”
The living flesh and cyberbodies are synchronized swimmers in the ocean
of life. Do not look for any dualisms in this study. Like a
disappointed lover, I have spurned them all. My presupposition is that
everything in life is inter-related. Flesh and metal are not enemies
but twins. An ordinary “moment” from daily life demonstrates the point.
My day breaks. It is still dark in Norway. I’m an early riser, acquainted with the woes thereof. By habit, I hit the button on the channel master; the Cable TV is on the blink this morning. Turning on my computer, I then slither into the kitchen. My espresso maker won’t work. “Rats,” I intonate, and start brewing regular coffee. While my oatmeal is cooking, I try to go Online. The system is down. “Maybe my wireless isn’t wired,” I joke to myself. Squeezing some honey, I nibble the piping hot oatmeal; it tastes like cut-off nails. Anyway, all is not lost: my cell phone is charging. I put down my spoon and check my SMS messages. There is only one: “I love you lots and lost.” In an eye blink, the chill of loss comes crawling. Simultaneously, my nose smells my toast. Under my breath, I mutter. “Let her, uh, let it…burn...in hell”-- “Hey, but I can still put on a CD,” I say out loud. Too distracted or gutless to see which disc I randomly finger, I grab Vern Gosdin and listen to him promise this night to do his “damndest not to drown in bourbon or tears.” Now I am grinning from ear to ear. With luck, the car will start. Hopefully, Uncle Sam won’t drop another atomic bomb today on brown or yellow people. My Polish Grandmother used to say, “When the truth hurts, only a lie can be beautiful.” I’ve heard enough beautiful lies to last me a lifetime. I start singing, two notes shy an octave, “If technology doesn’t kill me, you’re memory will.”
Such is everyday life in postmodernity. Touch touches everything; it is impossible to give away all our kisses or caresses. And since we always had and always will have technologies with us, gadgets escort our love. This coil of flesh and metal is so pervasively twisted that we better not “sleep in” lest while we doze someone furtively tries to FAX us. In the meanwhile, somewhere betwixt real life and cyberspace we drift and soar, stride and stumble, cuss and sing, laugh and wail. In order to continue this search, I turn to phenomena of…
The Living Flesh
Within the politics of erotic-romantic-loving relationships, males and
females blush in each other’s presence, kiss one another softly and
hotly, bestow and receive hickeys, and tenderly caress. These
commonplace phenomena are “elementary forms of socioerotic” life
(Weitman 1999: 74). To exhibit flesh-blood as it contrasts with
metal-iron, I use a narrative approach consonant with the switch to a
late modern paradigm and a self reflexive, biographical approach to
romance (Giddens, 1992; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995). Here comes the
roadmap of my pursuit.
After presenting the sketches of the flesh, I discuss the power of cyber-transactions based upon a hermeneutic research on flirting on the Internet. Next, borrowing Fredric Jameson’s (1991) “cultural logic,” I offer a vignette of one classic cyborg, The Bionic Woman that distinguishes sharply fragile flesh from its hybrid. To address the roots of cyberspace’s implicit logic, I then evoke Nietzsche’s “closing” of Platonic-based western metaphysics. I follow with a synopsis of Merleau-Ponty and Emanuel Levinas whose phenomenological concepts ground my non-rationalistic, non-dualistic, carnal-relational approach. Finally, I bring Heidegger’s ideas about technology and death into the mêlée. These thinkers help me avoid the temptations either to bless technology or demonize it. They open doors and windows to light, life and love.
Sketch 1. The Kiss: Our Gateway to Romance 1
The kiss is a “colossal knot” woven in variegated strands throughout
the whole history of human love (Perella 1960: 10). Are not our own
personal tales of romance interwoven with memorable kisses or botched
moments? Nothing is more intimate than kissing. Like sexual
intercourse, the kiss is touch. But since it can mean more than a
climax, kissing is potentially more expressive than intercourse.
How so? A complete kiss must be reciprocated. In a bi-lateral exchange, when my partner kisses me back our lips dance, and maybe our tongues. Loan-words from the French language carry this point by differentiating two types of pleasure, plaisier and jouisance. Whenever two pairs of lips meet, the pleasure traded does not exhaust the significance of the event. A mutual kiss grants in addition the experience of jouissance, genuine and uplifting satisfaction; pleasure plus (Lacan 1977). Tension-reduction or homeostasis never exhausts the significance of sexual actions. The wondrous power and beauty of a relationship confers additional deep satisfaction.
The kiss cannot be faked. Either we are “in” it, or it is empty and cold. There is no place to hide while kissing, and no way to camouflage heartfelt emotions. Immediately and unerringly, my partner senses if I detach, withdraw, or pretend. “Kiss me as if you mean it” the discerning partner is apt to respond when faced with lack of enthusiasm or downright coldness. “Why did you turn your head?” “You stiffened when I held you.” “Please don't close your mouth.” “You kissed me like you were kissing your sister.” “What’s wrong, did the cat take your tongue?” An unshared kiss is nothing... or worse than nothing.
It is easier to feign emotional responses during sexual intercourse, which can be sheer coupling performed without passion, tenderness, or the union of hearts, bodies, minds, and souls. We all look beautiful or handsome in the dark. Just kill the light. Then we can experience powerful pleasurable sensations with anyone: with a perfect stranger; with someone who is drunk; during a “quickie” in the toilet at the disco on a Friday night. Rape is the worst-best example. One can force or steal a kiss, but not a response.
American men, especially during “locker room talk,” use pathetic macho phrases while yapping about women. One such expression goes, “It doesn’t matter if she isn’t a perfect ‘10’ or even a measly ‘four’. Just put a paper bag over her head.” That phrase makes the point perfectly. If a man would cover a woman with a paper bag, obviously he could not kiss her. Of course, he does not actually use the bag. But the attitude betrays the aim of getting a good “lay” or “a piece of ass.” “Screwing,” we call it, or “banging,” “balling,” and “jumping bones.” The image of the paper bag denigrates a woman.
Similarly, a woman can go through the motions of climaxing. Faking orgasm, however, does violence to the man—even if her intention is to please him, inflate his virility, or flatter his ego. Performance for performance sake, of course, requires no justification. Anyone for some finite reason might choose a de-valued sex partner and prefer performance over meaning. Who can honestly gainsay that choice without knowing the whole situation? Nonetheless, a phenomenological reflection upon kissing reveals a difference between sexuality as expression or meaning and as behavior or performance. This conceptual distinction is a key to all sensual-sexual happenings.
From the perspective of abstract thought, the kiss seems trivial. As soon as you “taste” it, however, the whole world of love opens up… or closes down. Because why? The kiss is an initiating act. It starts a lot for us. During adolescence, our first kiss was a revelation no matter whether it surprised, shocked, or revolted us (Alapack 1991, 1993). We did not know how to do it “right”; we did not even know how to do it “wrong!” “Where do the noses go?” “How long should it last?” “What do I do with my hands?” Kissing romanticizes our total body in both the anatomical-physiological and lived senses. Body parts, especially lips and genitals, become “zones of interaction” (Sullivan 1953: 62-75). After tasting another’s lips, we all wanted more. “More please” we said, perhaps under our breath. We didn't even know what “more” we ached for, but we found out.
An originating act, the kiss surprises us. “In the beginning was the kiss.” We were unaware of romantic feelings for a person until we “surprisingly” kissed. After we broke the moment and opened our eyes to look at each other, we both knew. It would never be the same. We had just changed each other's lives. In D. H. Lawrence’s (1922/1969) expression, “…he kissed her on the mouth, gently, with the one kiss that is an eternal pledge...He had crossed over the gulf to her, and all that he had left behind had shriveled and become cold” (331).
The completion of a first or “transformative” kiss leaves an awful ache, like an “amputation”:
reluctantly from sleep, struggling drowsily against the glare of
the morning sun as it struck their eyelids, as they yearned to
hold on to the fragment of unconsciousness left to them
...When their lips parted, an ominous silence seemed to fall, as
though the birds had suddenly stopped their attractive song
(Yukio Mishima 1973: 85)
Kisses also end “things.” If a relationship has gone “dead,” the
missing passion and tenderness show in the kiss. I can “mouth” all the
“right” words, tell you that I love you and even mean it. But if my
kiss is cold and empty, then the truth-in-the-kiss belies the verbal
Pause a moment. Conjure up your romantic-erotic partners. Remember the place that kissing held within the economy of your relationships. See what I mean? The way we kiss each partner existentially diagnoses our relationship. The kiss is a “lie detector” (Weitman 1999: 76).
The kiss is also a concrete symbol, signifying what it is and does: a joining, a mingling or a fusion. Two become one flesh. About intimately shared kisses we say, “You take my breath away.” “Your kiss is holy water for my lips.” I can't get enough of you.” “I want to eat you up.” “Such kisses that they must kiss each other for ever” (Lawrence 1928/1983: 143).
Sketch 2. The Blush: the Evanescent Beam of Nascent Sensuality 2
The mystery of the differences between the genders, twinborn with the
“lust dynamism” shows most concretely whenever two youngsters lock eyes
(Sullivan 1953: 271-274). Not surprisingly, they blush. The phenomenon
of blushing in the presence of the other-gendered person or whoever
attracts you symbolizes the early adolescent predicament. At that time
of life, typically one either receives ravishing stares or else now
flashes that “second look,” undressing the other with the eyes.
Picture a young girl at home sauntering down the spiral staircase. A moment ago she was priming and primping in the mirror, pretending to be a grown woman. It was still child’s play. In an oft-repeated moment, she enters the living room where her older brother and his best friend are sitting watching TV or playing video games. This time, her developing body and pretty face spontaneously evoke “the once over.” The boy glances at her, by no means innocently. Catching the look, she blushes.
What does the blush signify? Sexuality has entered her existence. She knows… that he knows… and he knows that she knows… Like an “atmosphere,” sexuality is now part of her experiential world (Merleau-Ponty 1962:168). Last month, last week, or even yesterday the boy might have leered at her in the same invasive way. She did not understand the look. She looked right through it. It meant nothing to her. Now, she understands it and feels it. It warms her. She blushes. In an eye-blink, she has reached a new level.
Phenomenological reflection elaborates the happening. What does it take to blush? Skin is imperative. If there would be an angel, an angel could not blush. Secondly, consciousness is necessary. The flesh recognizes itself as sexual with sure but ambiguous awareness. Mark Twain pens a pithy one-line gem: “The human being is the only creature that blushes, or that needs to.” Thirdly, the blush requires a complex social membrane-- intercorporeity and shared consciousness-- that connects us to a shared erotic field: I-know-you-know-we both-know. A “barrier of blood” both hides and broadcasts fledgling sexual desire; one recoils at being gazed upon as a sexual object while simultaneously wanting to inhabit the desired eroticized flesh (Van den Berg 1972: 70-71).
The anatomical-physiological heart tells the truth about this ambiguous “moment.” The reddened face reveals an “astonishing complex dialogue” between two bodies, each with power to quicken the blood. The face broadcasts spontaneous emotions easy to decipher (Lynch 1985: 205). Medically speaking, the blush protects the integrity of the cardiovascular system; its truth-in-the-flesh is also the key to ameliorating our emotional isolation (Lynch 1985).
Sketch 3. The Hickey: Embarrassing Badge of Burgeoning Sexuality 3
Online, we cannot receive or bestow a hickey. It is pure flesh-to-flesh
contact, as far removed as possible from sex-in-the-head. The hickey is
an unstable and ambiguously embarrassing emblem, an “intensive point”
that marks “excesses” of pleasure, pride, pain, and torture (Lingis
1983) 4. Unlike a fantasy-image, or a text vanishing at the click of a
mouse, the hickey lingers. Unlike the blush, which radiates and then
fades, the hickey persists. Unlike “the great ephemeral tattooed skin,”
a “micro-political act...fixed” until purposefully removed, it is a
permanent fade that lasts for a protracted period of time (MacCormack
2006: 72, 579). Indeed, like a painful phantom limb, it might remain; a
stigma signifying either pure glee or broken promises.
The hickey is an epiphany of ultra-material sexuality, not a “text” willfully inscribed. The individual self is not expressing itself or defying authority. Rather the transaction takes two who trade the mark with motives ranging from passion to possessiveness to wanton power-ploys. “You’re mine,” the male crows, as if the deed had colonized the body of “his” girl. But a female need not condone the transgression. She can bite too, to stake a claim of her own. One adolescent female wore her hickey as “an accessory” to her “wardrobe”; for another the “love-bite” was her “alarm clock signaling the end of sexual play” for that particular night.
Like the mythical moment with the apple in Eden, the hickey steals innocence. After the “young wolf has make his mark,” the “fleshy tattoo” is undeniably present there on the throat, sensate and resistant to a quick fade-out. After the young maiden’s “love-suck” has fashioned “her erotic handiwork,” spots of prey splatter like glowing paint in shades of purple, crimson, and yellow... distributed on the neck or etched above the collar-line; or at the spot where the neck and the chin meet; right below the Adam's apple; or below the eye socket. Wherever it marks the body, it is equivocal and emotionally laden.
The hickey is most often inscribed in places where it flashes for the whole world to see. Therefore the “marked woman” hides it from her parents by donning a scarf or turtleneck sweater. Or by wearing an open-necked blouse, she flaunts it to selective friends and classmates. The hickey is a “flashlight.” Depending upon who might notice its glow, one either wants it “on” or “off.” In our de-ritualized culture, the hickey—just like tattooing, body piercing, body mutilation and body painting—substitutes for passage rites analogous to practices common in non-western societies (van Gennep 1908/1975: 65-115).
The “passion-mark” is sometimes etched where nobody else ever will see it: on the breast, thigh, or near the genitals. One young woman calls her hickey “A sweet secret that excluded everyone else and sealed a pact between him and me.” A young man titles his “A Purple Heart earned during the heat of passion.” Another fellow writes that in the afterglow of their first intercourse “We traded hickeys as tokens of commitment.”
Sketch 4. The Caress: The Miraculous Movement of Tenderness 5
What is the difference between being caressed and being pawed? What
does that difference reveal about sexual encounters? Objective
instruments, either a questionnaire, the measurement of galvanic skin
responses, or film-data, are useless to show distinctions. At best,
they would record a transaction. Only a “touched” human subject can
report its qualitative meaning. Only a woman could tell us that she
felt “manhandled” and that it made her flesh “creep.” Only a man can
say that getting “jacked off” reduced his tension but made his skin
Pawing is “hit-and-run” touching, the movement of lust, need, pleasure, or thrill-seeking. For example: He grabs to “cop a feel”; repulsed, she feels “felt up,” violated, and infringed upon. “Let me do you, give you the best blow job you ever had,” she boasts, wanting him to want her. “I’ll get you off,” he promises, hoping to impress her with his sexual prowess and consideration that she “come” too. Pawing is the technique of crass seduction and crude manipulation.
During moments of tender fondling, sensible flesh communes with sensible flesh. With largesse, one gives gifts by biting and sucking; with squeezes and hugs; by sniffing and tasting; with nibbles and licks, by cooing, snuggling and cuddling: “This is my body. With it I love every part of you. Give it to me.” It is an act of existential donation.
The caress is an ambiguous double of material and immaterial contact. “Touch me on the outside,” the words flow “and make me feel it on the inside.” The hand that caresses is not reducible to muscles, bones, and nerves -- as if it were an instrument, a tool, or a weapon. The hand that caresses is my hand. The fingers are mine. I have my hand in lots of ways. This is my loving hand. When I gently stroke my beloved, softly rub her and probe, my actions express far better than mere words: “My heart is in my hands... This is my very soul... This is my entire life.”
The caress is play too, complacently enjoying carnal intimacy and relishing the nearness and accessibility of my beloved. I apply light friction against soft, smooth skin, silky hairs, and hot thighs; more firmly and deeply I rub the “hard” organ or the “moist” lips and button at the delta. Skin against skin, locked in an embrace, chest to chest: that’s voluptuous; that’s home! Nothing feels more natural. Lovers swoon.
The caress also searches daringly, restlessly, and blindly beyond the tangible. It reaches for an elusive feeling without knowledge or plan... reaches for her who is always more than the body stretched out at my fingertips... reaches for him who is inexhaustible. Thus the caress craves absence. Fingers stretch and the hand aches for a future that cannot come quickly enough. The caress seizes upon nothing. It solicits what ceaselessly slips away (Levinas 1961/1969: 257-258).
Under the caressing hand, I am vulnerable. Paradoxically, by surrendering I create surprises, evoke unprecedented emotions, and bring ordinary miracles to pass. She asks, “How do you want this touch to end?” “I don’t want it ever to end,” he answers. “I want your touch to be first, last, and only.”
The caress is non-climatic. Always I want another “feel,” one more “rub,” one more kiss, and then another, and yet another still. An intimate sex act does not end with climax. Orgasm does not put the “finishing touch” to the sexual “moment.” Potentially the lovely spasm, spurt, and little scream are just the beginning of the lovemaking. Intimate lovers continue to cuddle, not wanting the moment done with. Or rather, then and there in the afterglow it would be “super fine” if the world came to an end. Lovers relish the prolonged embrace, as much a part of the love making as the in-and-out twist and thrust.
If the motive for sexual coupling is “recreational sex” or “a one night stand,” then the accent falls on skillful foreplay, proficient performance, and the pleasure exchanged. Then the curtain comes down quickly on the afterglow. Talk is meager: “Oh good, you came.” “Yeah, I got off.” Or else, “I’m sorry, I…” “Never mind, it doesn’t matter... Next time…” The act is some version of “wham-bam, thank you, madam.” She almost crows, “I knew you’d ‘get off’ on my body”! Instead, she bites her lip before betraying her self-satisfied self-aggrandizement. Sexual intercourse, lacking a tender caress and passionate embrace decays into cold-hearted fucking.
Contrariwise, risk-talk, raw but respectful, trickles from the lips of intimate lovers: “I can’t get enough of you.” “You’re too much.” “Whatever you are doing, don’t stop.” We hear words we can build love upon: “I could die for the touch of a woman like thee” (Lawrence 1928/1983: 135). We say words that we can build a life upon: “Anybody, or almost anybody, can have sex. No matter what we do, we are making love all the time.”
Cyberbodies, Cybersex, and Cyberspace Romance 6
Lacking the touch of flesh, what fuels the dynamisms in cyberspace?
Within the virtual forum, there are no limits, boundaries, rules,
traffic signals, or border-crossings. Secondly, the inherent structure
of sensory deprivation maximally fires the imagination. You can
interpret the other's initiative to fit your whim, and attribute
qualities that set your head a-spinning with sexually and romantically
tinged fantasies. Indeed in virtual politics, fantasy is the key
strategic tool. The total setting elicits projections of wishes, hopes,
dreams, and fears. One easily attributes characteristics, desirable or
detestable, to the ambiguous figure at the other end of your computer.
Sigmund Freud’s “einfall” (free association) method demonstrates that
speaking to an unseen other in the absence of threat is freeing. On the
Net, basic facts about the other’s looks, color or length of the hair,
height and weight are like Rorschach cards. One concocts an image out
of the ambiguous “texts” and glamour shots or out-dated photos -- that
may or may not correspond to my co-respondent’s actual physiognomy. In
flesh and blood encounters, what you see is what you get. Faceless
flirting, therefore, safeguards one’s psyche. Unencumbered conversation
and interaction also spawn powerful sexual and psycho-spiritual
attachments. These days, the number of people taking advantage of the
unfettered format continues to increase geometrically.
Meeting in anonymity and with no density also promotes opening up, sometimes in a snap. In the face of seemingly equal self disclosures by your respondent, one can fish for and garner satisfactions of both conscious and obscure needs. Society bulges with rules and norms about social conduct. Until familiarity develops between the genders, typically reserve marks encounters in public places. In most normative social situations, we are typically circumspect and careful what we say the first time we meet another. But “red lights” don’t dot the information highway. Over the net, one can say almost anything immediately. Cyberspace grants a free breath of fresh air. Nothing stops you from revealing your innermost desires and wildest imaginings. For example, if your yen is a one-in-a-row sexually oriented conversation with a specific erotic outcome in mind then you easily toss politeness to the four winds… which then bellow and wildly rage.
We might as well say in the same breath Internet and control. You shape the situation to fit your own whim in the virtual forum. Confronted by strong lures, we can hide safely behind the computer screen or can orchestrate intense “music.” Only one’s own moral standards and emotional boundaries set limits. You direct the play and juggle concocted personalities. In an eye blink at the flick of a mouse, you can stop the whole show. “Heady” control.
Text-based communication is slow… peck-peck-peck. Such sharing is perfect for gradually building a bond. One creates something out of nothing by repeatedly staining the blank screen. Baring one’s soul builds relationships as personal as face-to-face encounters, particularly along the dimensions of affection, immediacy, receptivity, and trust. Whatever shape it assumes, consistent, reliable, sustained contact is nothing to sneeze about. The ambiguous snail’s pace of text-based communication facilitates the gradual development of a long-term bond. Likewise, the direct style and focused jargon of cyberspace fosters “recreational flirting” and the rapid emergence of pseudo-intimacy.
Who is the other upon whom you squander your words and emotions? Odds are no better than 50-50 that the person is who and as she describes herself. Simulation reigns in cyberspace. So the initial major tasks of those tackling online dating are to fetter out the frauds and to build trust. The situation is “a-pass-and-a prayer.” Dating profiles of both men and women reveal an over-arching concern with deception. “No lies and no games, please” expresses a very human plea. “Please be real. Be serious. Be as you write.”
A cyber-interaction differs qualitatively if the partner is a new acquaintance or someone with whom you already have bonded. Temporarily separated intimates experience email as a lifeline that shrinks distance. Your heart skips a beat when the electric voice chimes, “You’ve got mail!” The text functions as substitute touch. Cybersex with an (im)perfect stranger, however, lacks a shared carnal history. So communication promises a future that may come true or explode in your face.
Thorny questions emerge. What makes sex… sex? What is the meaning of sexual gratification over the net? Doubtlessly, cybersex grants temporary release, tension-reduction, plus the additional pleasure of believing that your correspondent is sharing and co-generating the excitement. Virtual sex fills a lack. What about the quality of the fulfilment? One might easily feel angered and cheated at the possibility that one’s own imagination, not the partner in cyberspace, generates the sexual élan It boils down to the “reality” that one is masturbating self in the presence of an absent other. After the mouse is touched...when no more “pop ups” flash on the screen... which then darkens... or the stars turn blue...it gets lonesome, empty, and cold.
Richard Alapack, Mathilde Flydal Blichfeldt and Åke Elden (2005) argue that techno-sexuality is an ersatz for fleshy sex. As such, it satisfies our societal clamor for “safe” sex. From this perspective, the Internet is a giant condom that shrouds carnal contact sexuality. This political tactic is also hypocritical: “Safe sex is an oxymoron. Cybersex is only safe because it is no-sex” (Alapack, Flydal Blichfeldt and Elden: 2005: 60).
In a nutshell, an ambiguous question concerning simulation hovers in cyberspace and haunts regular and infrequent users alike. In spite of cleverly crafted profiles, face-to-face will her picture fit her text? Push comes to shove whenever two users decide to meet off-line. In the terrifying moment, one risks finding out that “virtual reality” and “real life” don’t square. A flesh and blood encounter may pleasantly surprise or devastatingly disappoint you. His smell might turn you off. Or when she puts her tongue in your mouth, you gag at its thickness as if you had swallowed an eel. It rattles our brains and tugs at our hearts. Too often something dies.
Jacques Lacan’s (1977) seminal idea of the “mirror stage” provides a
powerful heuristic for understanding the power of these fantasy-driven
interactions in Cyberspace. What does mirroring mean? In a moment of
self-recognition and bodily wholeness, a six month old presented in the
mirror by mother or father squeals with joy. The moment is alienating
too. The parent crows with enthusiasm and talks up a storm; the baby
assumes the parent’s glee as if her very own. Thus the mirror reflects
back both the personal je and the objectified moi. Lacan aptly calls
this dynamic entrapment “mirror-enchantment.” The image the wee one
puts on henceforth will transfix her. Captured in the mirror, she will
incessantly addictively seek to re-evoke that original jubilant
instant, will identify as “love” whatever triggers the same pleasure,
will be raw with misery--suicidal even-- when the pleasure fails or
fades, and will become adept at projecting “it” onto the least likely
“texts.” It becomes an ongoing human chore to decipher, even in the
face of spontaneously surfacing pleasure, if it is one’s own
satisfaction (jouissance), or merely the pleasure of the other.
Simply put, social beings that we are, we walk around in a hall of mirrors, trying to catch the eye of one here or one there, looking for the look. Lacan is not damning us to hysteria, however. Consciousness also has the capacity to stand outside the hall to watch the self watching the self… and to watch the self watching the self watching the self… ad infinitum. So we are not trapped in a mirror, unless we prefer it.
Vignette of a Cyborg: The Bionic Woman
In Jameson's (1991) “cultural logic,” artifacts of popular culture
mirror their historical circumstances and lay bare the obfuscated
political-economic conditions in which they emerge. The first female
cyber-body on prime time television is Jamie Sommers. Lindsay Wagner
plays The Bionic Woman in an immediate hit show which premiered 1976
January and continued for three seasons (Bionic Woman Files, 1998).
Jamie has two bionic legs, a bionic right arm, and a bionic ear that
allows her to hear a whisper a mile away. Her “superhuman” powers
include the ability to run 60 mph, bend steel with her bare hands, jump
to the roof of a twelve story building—to catch villains endangering
the national security of the USA.
The Bionic Woman ushers into popular culture a new bodily dualism. Weekly on the TV screen, the average citizen confronts the blurred boundaries between the biological body and an artificial technical hybrid. Jamie also harbingers technological body modifications, our current obsession with “extreme” make-over procedures, and the raging theological-political debate over stem cell research.
Jamie is a traditional female masquerading as a “new” breed of the ‘70s woman. Male supremacy blitzes the series. Oscar, who gave Jamie life after her near fatal accident, controls her from pillar to post. Without even consulting her, he procures her a salvage worker position. At the work site, Jamie dresses in overalls and boots like one of the “boys,” and functions in step with them. However, she wears pigtails, twirls her hair, lowers her eyes, plays with a kitten, and in certain situations resorts to a young girl’s tone of voice. Regularly she complies, pacifies, and goes girlish in order to gain information or to accomplish her aims. The entire series, in fact, pivots around the father-daughter relationship. For instance, in obviously non-sexual, non-sensuous ways, Jamie hugs and kisses her coworkers--comportment they never ape. So sexism, male ignorance, and patriarchal prejudices run rampant throughout the episodes. The 1960s’ revolutions had publicly and furiously assaulted the patriarchy. Now the Bionic Woman embraces phallocentrism and cradles male dominance.
This vignette of Jamie betrays political motives and powerful vested interests. “Masculinist dreams of body transcendence and …attempts at body repression”-- restructure and re-assemble Jamie’s new hybrid female body…. according to cultural and ... ideological standards of physical appearance (Balsamo 1996: 233, 226). The burgeoning 1970s cyborgian technology conservatively covers the bare breasts of the Age of Aquarius, curtails the liberated sexuality of Woodstock, and sabotages feminists’ projects of equality and liberation.
Since this popular program successfully realizes the “desire to return to bodily “neutrality’” and be rid of the “culturally marked body,” it provides a metaphor for traffic today along the “information highway” (Balsamo 1996: 233). Nowadays, visual technological images serve as regressively reactionary weapons of power and social control (Foucault 1975/1979). In spite of her incredible powers, the Bionic Woman falls prey to patriarchal oedipal dynamics. Remember, the Internet is a condom.
The Theoretical Debate
Concerning the relative valence of the “lived” and “virtual,”
ideological standpoints polarize. Allucquere Rosanne Stone (1996)
posits a raging war in cyberspace between desire and technology.
Welcoming Donna Haraway’s (1985) view that the postmodern subject is
now a cyborg, Stone (1996) rejoices that subjectivity and embodiment
have decoupled, and crows a schizodynamic fantasy: “I want to see how
people without bodies make love” (37-38).
Others, however, bemoan the transmutation of the living flesh into a cipher. Karen Bard (2003) writes with irony that “the only thing that does not seem to matter anymore is matter” (801). Capitalizing on the double meaning of the phrase, “beating the meat,” Vivian Sobchack (1996) argues that we should stop “it,” and passionately pleads that we reclaim the bleeding body, racked with our pain, and empathic for the suffering of others. She warns that if we do not cherish our “subjectively lived flesh ...as we negotiate our techno-culture ...we may very well objectify ourselves to death” (Sobchack 1996: 212-213).
I am not the first to note that such polarized discourse mirrors the Cartesian-Platonic dualism (Holland 1996; Heim 1993). Cyberspace, an electronic paradise with ideal or virtual forms, is both a work in progress of this rationalistic-dualistic metaphysics and its destination. It debases human embodiment.
Nietzsche’s Dismantling of Platonic-Christendom
According to Nietzsche, nihilism constitutes the core of Plato’s
dis-eased vision?7 What does he mean by nihilism? Plato describes with
horror this patch of good earth we live and die on. Earthly life counts
for nothing; be-coming has no real existence; time is merely the moving
image of eternity. Eternal, ideal forms constitute the privileged
“real.” Our pre-existing souls, trailing clouds of glory, plop into our
bodies and crash land into a cave. With our legs and necks chained so
that we cannot move, we face a wall. Behind us, a fire blazes. On a
raised ledge, a puppeteer plays with dancing marionettes. As the parade
marches, the world’s veritable panorama flickers on the wall, yielding
shadowgraphs. Unable to turn to see the light, we cast our own shadows,
too. Our lying eyes deceive us; the beautiful scene we think “real” is
merely simulated (Plato 1942: 398-402). Ideas, grasped through reason,
are superior to actual material corporeal things. Our individualized
mortal flesh is just a contemptibly corruptible shell, a container of
dark dangerous lusts imprisoning the eternal spirit (Plato 1942:
114-117). Plato cheapens earthly life, etches war as inevitable, and
sanctions violence. Our tasks are to escape our temporary abode in dank
dungeons of soil and motley flesh, and to sight eternal light beyond
this vale of tears. Our true home is elsewhere, beyond our
Earthy time, a mere mirror of eternity, equally is debunked. We act out charades in which our seeming striding is only apparent motion. In Platonism, authentic development or change is impossible. Indeed, time horrifies western culture. Because why? It is the cunning enemy, a python that chokes us. We are mortal; we are finite; we die. This touching-touched flesh is corruptible. Inspired by Heidegger, Paul Colaizzi articulates the interlink between sexuality embodiment time death and technology (1978): “Sexuality must be repressed because it is bodily activity; the body must be repressed because it is the vehicle of life; life itself must be repressed because life and death go together... man represses death... and to repress death successfully... creates technology” (6-7). Foucault (1976/1980) completes the picture: “death is so carefully evaded” because “death is power’s limit, the moment that escapes it” (138).
For 2,500 years, the marriage between Platonism and Christendom has prompted praise. Western civilization exalts this abstract mythical vision as intellectually lofty and spiritually superior. Nietzsche (1889/1982), however, exposes Plato as a “coward before reality,” rails against his other-worldly orientation, his “decadence-values,” and unmasks his “hostility against life” (558-59; 572, 574). Nietzsche (1889/1982) shows that Plato’s writings about love, the body, Eros, and sublimation are contrived: “The pure spirit is the pure lie” (575).
The Phenomenological Alternative to Dualism
Building upon Husserl’s phenomenology, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas provide a comprehensive theoretical framework for my work on the kiss, blush, caress, and hickey. Merleau-Ponty does full justice to embodiment, and Levinas to the primacy of relationships. The phenomenological concept of intentionality arguably heals the splits that riddle western thought. Intentionality means that consciousness always takes an object that is not consciousness itself (Husserl 1973/1929: 49-51). Consciousness is not coiled inward, limited to thinking its own thoughts, but is oriented to and in-tends an object outside itself to which it is linked; consciousness trapezes to things; it connects directly to the lifeworld.
Spirit-in-Skin: Merleau-Ponty on the Lived Body and Sexuality
The lived body is an object of observation for others, an ambiguous
meaning-creating subject, and a medium of culture (Merleau-Ponty, 1962:
167). My body is both a thing I have (anatomically and physiologically
subject to physical laws of gravity and to vital laws of respiration,
digestion and sexual reproduction), and the subject I am
(co-determining imagination, creativity and choice). Incarnate
consciousness is never reducible to brute materiality or pure spirit.
Merleau-Ponty locates consciousness in the body and links it to sexuality. My body is “a general medium for having the world, a power to take root in different situations... of gaining structures of conduct” (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 146, 158), Body, world, and the Other are of one “flesh,”geared to each other and “intertwined” so thoroughly that they form a “chiasma” (Merleau-Ponty 1964/1968: 49, 160, 248). The lived body “knows” the sensible world better than the conscious “I”: “The blind man’s stick has ceased to be an object for him… its point has become an area of sensitivity, extending the scope and active radius of touch, and providing a parallel to sight”; the French woman wearing her favorite long-feathered hat glides through the doorway “without any calculation… She feels where the feather is just as we feel where our hand is” (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 143).
Sexuality enters our lives as an atmospheric change (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 168-172). Don’t construe his words to be poetic fancy. Instead, remember an experience of such a change. Perhaps you are sitting in a library, restaurant, classroom, or just in a shop getting your haircut. You are gazing off, lost in thought. Then someone disturbs your being at home with yourself, your dwelling chez soi (Levinas, 1961/1969). Another looks at you, speaks, gestures, or touches you. Perhaps you catch her scent. Maybe you get a whiff of his recently smoked Cuban cigar. Suddenly, the atmosphere shifts. The room becomes electrified. It gets hot in your chair. You skin perspires; you get goose bumps. All you can see is light. She is a-glow right before your eyes; you become erect. He is beaming and your nipples harden.
Sexuality is this warm and bright field of contact, this ambiance of sparkle and shine, of textures, sounds and scents. We are at-tracted, pulled outside ourselves. Sexuality envelops, animates, and energizes me. Inside, I quiver, enervated and buoyant. “Hot and bothered,” “on fire,” “all shook up,” and “restless,” either I move or else burst! On the outside, we flush, blotch or blush. In gender-specific ways, we get “hard” or become like “jelly.” Will we swoon soon, or explode? If pure preference would be granted to us, we would be everywhere and do everything. We would be all hands, all mouth, and all genitals.
Levinas: The Phenomenology of the Face and Carnal Sexuality
“The eyes do not shine, they speak,” Levinas writes (1961/1969: 66).
Nothing is more naked than the eyes; everything else is naked by
analogy to the stark, raw vulnerability of the human face. Whenever two
people exchange glances and lock eyes, both are exposed. If they do not
turn away for some finite reason-- anxiety, guilt, shame or racial
hatred-- speaking ensues. I meet the other in the vocative mode. Naked,
defenceless eyes appeal: “Look at me; above all hear me.” This
invocation is also imperative. It shakes me out of my own sphere,
contests my living at home (chez moi). It is an ethical demand.
Concerning Eros, Levinas makes a revolutionary move. He insists that blatantly exhibiting the bare body does not banish “the chase nudity” of the visage, or pervert risk-talk. The nakedness of face and flesh, authentically understood, are two sides of the same coin. Simply put, both the face and the body equally are carnal and erotic. Alfonso Lingis (1994) writes, “Only one who faces can denude his or her body” (32). For Levinas, the standard for measuring carnal eroticism, for pinpointing what makes sexuality precisely human sexuality is the confluence of the hand and eyes, gracefully caressing.
This “metamorphosis” announces the “deep mystery of the differences” between the genders; sexuality emerges ambiguously as “a terrible thing of suffering and privilege ...and a terrible power given us and a new responsibility....It is the hour of the stranger….Let the stranger enter the soul” (Lawrence, 1923/1974: 193, 105, 113).
The Final Punctuation: Death
Who would gainsay it? The carnal body rests at the nexus of love and
death. Death, nevertheless, is chronically absent from the discourse
about cybersex and cyberbodies. No surprise. Plato, who inaugurates the
attitude of technology, also etches death-evasion into the core of
western thought. In Martin Heidegger’s (1950/1975) words, “The
self-assertion of technological objectification constitutes the
constant negation of death” (125).
Heidegger (1954/1993) distinguishes between technology and its essence, Gestell (325). Being manifests itself equally technologically and poetically. It is vanity gone amuck or hubris to imagine we can control technology, stop it, or advance it. Technology is the perennial human possibility of creating, building, and bringing forth. Technology coincides with life. Nowadays it shows as virtual reality, cyberspace, cyberbodies, and the information highway. Thus it is not lucid thinking “to affirm or deny” technology, “merely represent and pursue” it, “put up with, or evade it” or “regard it as something neutral” (Heidegger 1954/1993: 311-312).
The non-technological essence of technology is incessant striving after efficiency for efficiency’s sake. Gestell pursues efficiency not for the sake of optimizing production, generating wealth, or garnering power, but to be ceaselessly efficient. So easily Gestell spins out of control and proliferates that it becomes cancerous, blurring the radiance of other ways of coming-to-presence and swallowing other values. Colaizzi (1978) argues that the technological attitude is “seeking after a false ideal security in the face of death” (62).
We humans, nevertheless, are deathbound. The kissing-blushing-hickey-bestowing body also bleeds, aches, suffers, and dies. The person I face eye-to-eye everyday, maybe belly-to-belly, whom I kiss and caress, dies on me. My breaking heart grieves. Menaced by my inevitable but indefinite death, I have time to be for the other. Such is the vitality of the living body; such the vitality of death. To this study, therefore, Death puts the proper period: “Under the lurking shadow of death… we sense that there is someone who waits for our kisses and caresses… We sense we have in our hearts and in the sensuality of our hands a love to pour upon someone like no love ever poured forth” (Lingis 1998: 154).
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(1) Two stimuli generated these results: “Please describe your first real adolescent kiss, the one that was not just a peck on the cheek”; and “What place has kissing held within your romantic-erotic involvements?”
(2) I asked subjects, “Please describe the most memorable time that you blushed in the presence of the other gendered person.”
(3) I asked subjects, “Please describe an unforgettable episode when you either received or bestowed a hickey.”
(4) Other such ceremonies or cultural exhibitions include: folklore about vampires; stigmata on mystics; “the liturgy of punishment” (by branding and public spectacle) unfolded by Foucault (1975/1979, pp. 33ff); burned tattoos of identification numbers in the flesh, the permanent “crack in the wall” Nazi executioners make in the soulscape of the holocaust victims (Kruger, 1966/1986); Cain, marked on the forehead (= tattooed =stigmatized) by Yahweh both to exhibit his crime and to shield him against blood vengeance.
(5) I asked subjects, “Based upon your own experience of being erotically touched, describe the difference between being ‘caressed’ and being ‘pawed’. “
(6) This section leans upon, summarizes and elaborates finding of a double hermeneutic study done by Alapack, Flydal Blichfeldt, and Elden (2005).
(7) Plato’s Republic is most pertinent to the issues of embodiment and to the nihilism of which Nietzsche accuses him. Book VII contains the parable of mankind in the dark cave. The entire Republic, however, is a pernicious work, living proof of what Levinas calls the “totalizing” thinking of the west: violent, racist and fascist. In it, Plato argues for the permanent possibility of war; censorship, and banishing poetic passion from the republic. Few books would better show the roots of the rationalistic-dualistic mess that characterizes our world, with the cycles of revenge and counter-revenge that swirl through it, a world favoring power and money over the poor and disenfranchised, a world given to segregating, humiliating and racially cleansing our ‘neighbors’, a world deficient in forgiveness and mercy.