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Global Obscenities: Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Lure of Cyberfantasy

Author: Zillah Eisenstein
Publisher: New York: NYU Press, 1998
Review Published: September 2000

 REVIEW 1: Rebecca Zorach
 REVIEW 2: Edrie Sobstyl
 REVIEW 3: Katrien Jacobs

"Global Obscenities and Parish Perverts: Reclaim the Net!"


Pornography as sexually explicit electronic traffic and a bubbling entertainment industry has pervaded the Internet from its very infancy, and is now causing fear and headaches amongst citizens and rightwing organizations. While porn consumers are frantically buying access to state-of-the-art sites, the unwieldy empire of the senses is stirring up new modes of chaotic conservatism and censorship legislation. Where are the responses from activists and critical thinkers to this perceived mass compulsion towards Internet pornography? The intellectual's good old sense of bodily detachment and cynicism towards sexuality problems, the feminist debates of the 70s and 80s generations, the introverted rhizomatic geeks of the 90s, all have contributed to an epoch of sexual sleepiness -- ie. weariness and refusal to participate in forms of online sexual experimentation and revolution.

Zilla Eisenstein's Global Obscenities: Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Lure of Cyberfantasy is a raw and angry book, a passionate attack against American capitalism, the Clinton administration, privatized telecommunications and Internet companies that manufacture "global obscenities." When I picked up Eisenstein's book (with marketable cover and title), I was hoping to find a critical analysis of Internet pornography and cybersex. However, Eisenstein does not attack pornography, but a soiled capitalist mindset and new economy which produces (top speed) patriarchal hierarchies and inequalities in global information technologies (IT) networks. Eisenstein's treatise against obscenities does not cover pornography as mediated sexual scenes, is neither an instance of anti-pornography feminism, but introduces a new form of anti-pornography marxism. The book intends to investigate how "Karl Marx's theory of exploitation can be adopted in new media criticism as a radical feminist recognition of women as a sexual class" (3). This recognition is highly pessimistic.

What then is the marxist definition of pornography? In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno point to the emergence of corporate enlightened sex education exemplified in the works of de Sade: "Enjoyment becomes the object of the manipulation until it is entirely extinguished in fixed entertainments" (106). From the Enlightenment period onwards, obscenities become fixed products of a (compulsively) calculated entrepreneurism rather than fantasies acted out in amorphous festivals or grotesque productions. Following Eisenstein, one could define pornography as a calculated screen presence representing commodity culture's most banal fantasies. Internet pornography is always present as a material obstacle to sexual utopianism, a hyperreal showcase of strategic seduction mechanisms transforming the masses and challenging transcendental definitions of cyberspace and eroticism.

According to Michael Heim, we plunged into cyberspace escorting a titillating transcendental adventure. In The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, he explains our fascination with technology as an aesthetic detachment from sensuous loving, indicating a revival of "the escalating spirituality of the erotic drive" (87). The machinate Eros mind skips age-old modes of seduction (e.g. sensory appeal) and locates willing partners in the frictionless, timeless, and non-descript bodies of the WWW. Fearless minds attract each other and invent a new kind of compulsive sexual loving. If Heim's erotic conversant is typically made out of wired geek existence and excessive communication, his contemporary partner netporn adheres to an orthodox business mentality. Netporn has no time for erotic gaming nor sneaky love-letters. While geeks develop secret languages and intimate codes to look inside the other, netporn meets the masses to demonstrate the bland commercial software programs and wallpaper designs of the Internet.

Internet pornography as a commercial industry is also believed to contribute to the erosion of the Internet as a public space (a space for openness, education, noble eroticism) and thus gives shape to new appearances of the straight-laced imagination. Conservative feminists and the Christian right in the Anglo-Americas have had a solidly mediated tradition of "porn moaning," and commercial netporn's tendency towards hypervisibility is erasing the work of small-scale pornographers and artporn collectives who present porn noise as fantasy rather than complaint. While the Internet is quickly becoming a commercial goldmine for tame pornstars and enterpreneurial feminism, it can also be used by women in their deviant sex visions, excessive lust patterns, or critiques of a uniformly netting of pornographic bodies and sexual encounters. Beyond an emphasis on the (racist, sexist, ageist, fascist) exploitation of women by netpimps, designers, and porn manufacturers, we need to reclaim the Net for melting down sexual hybris and cynicism, for renewing "private" desires as significant collective outbursts, for capturing positive sexual energies and supporting refusals to be sexually cloned.

Even if we cannot find valuable bodily knowledge in pornography today, what if the Internet were to be hijacked by right-wing industries and stop producing pornography altogether? Eisenstein's Global Obscenities is not very interested in a discussion of radical alternatives to pornography, as she believes that the new privatized economy has destroyed human values and community networks, promotes conservative family values and sexist, racist ideologies. The book unfolds as a historical political study of the USA in the mid 90s, focuses on the Telecom Act of 1996, and bemoans the existence of "a cyber-media-corporate complex" that helps to dismantle the remainders of the welfare state. The book is interesting as an oppositional testimony to the emerging cyber-media-corporate complex and gives a compassionate overview of the effects of globalized communication on developing countries, women workers, and feminist networks. However, it does not commit a detailed analysis of cyberexploitation nor suggests positive strategies for third world communities and minority groups to utilize Internet communication towards political activism.

Eisenstein is peculiarly angry at Bill Clinton who promised health care reform and a renewal of the public sphere "where the needs of individuals merge with the collective whole: roads, education, drinking water, social discourse, interactivity, and so on" (19). It is disconcerting to see that so much of Eisenstein's anger is directed towards the "waffling" president and his sexual tricksters. Indeed, the Clinton sex spectacle became a primary example of mediated fear as "pornography," as Eisenstein indicates: "Scandal, almost always sexualized and racialized, becomes a kind of pop-cultural aesthetic in which corporate consumerism orchestrates new layers of deception" (35). The fall of Clinton was a mass orchestrated simulation of sex as sin, an ultimately archaic-puritanicalstrategy which suggests that the Internet could indeed fall prone to older forms of sexual disciplining (from Jesuit Memory Training to Spanish Inquisition). Eisenstein knows that there are alternative routes to such corporate deception, "the struggle of the twenty-first century is to control the new flows of cyber-media corporate power," yet she spends a lot of pages demagoging against the fall of Clinton without offering insight into his remaining flows of power (33).

To move beyond this point of anger, we can browse the Internet and locate feminist media art such as Catherine Sokoloff's Fauxmemory Archive. The Fauxmemory site aims to "re-see us through the traditional mass media and discuss what is not yet history" and introduces visual anthroplogy concepts and advanced new media imaging techniques to unfold American mythologies. Eisenstein's analysis of Clinton assumes similar mythical proportions as his governmental and corporate bodies are assumed to exist but never named, explained and demystified. The book is groping for an overview of the capitalist and patriarchal agents of the Internet and an appreciation of decades of activism (eg. RTMarks's public fight against the Etoy corporation). There are plenty of vibrant activist networks on the Internet reporting on corporations, revolutions, warzones, demonstrations, and minority support groups for this book to be stuck in complaint. A rigid analysis of current webowners and oppositional practitioners within the Web could have given this book a more actual political and multi-cultural edge. Of course, such efforts have only been fairly recently documented in (non-academic) organizations such as the mailinglist Nettime or the Institute for New Culture Technologies in Vienna. In a recent exhibit in Brussels, the Institute for New Culture Technology collected an impressive and insightful world-infostructure (click on "world-infostructure") covering very detailed information about global markets, access, security, and content channels. While this exhibit lays bare the entire corporate materialist foundations of the Internet, it also gives room and funding to artists and subversive collectives such as Rtmark to develop and display their work.

Eisenstein refers to canonical media and cultural theorists such as Arjun Appadurai, Paul Virilio, Mark Dery, and Saskia Sassen to back up her marxist-feminist critique of the Internet, but she is ambivalent about the validity of new media theory. For instance, the blurring of "materiality" and "virtuality" as concepts in political networking is discussed, but the book seems more convinced that political (and blow) jobs should take place outside discourse networks. Global Obscenities informs us about new media theory yet struggles to endorse it; fancy theories are easily dismissed as examples of neoconservative, privatized thinking. Eisenstein firmly believes that offline platforms, such as the 1995 meeting of feminist organizations in Beijing, offers a superior space for exchanging ideas and strategies between third and first world organizations.

The last section of the book "Net Feminism and Virtual Sisterhoods" gives a brief overview of feminist Net operators who have been able to carve out potent and influential webzones. This is one of the most optimistic and promising sections of the book. Take the work of Francesca da Rimini who started out as a pioneering cyberfeminist artist in the Australian collective VNS Matrix. Da Rimini's archive contains samples of correspondences between her online personas and cyberlovers (eg. IT professionals on their lunchbreak), and later HTML work which combines text fragments with image and sounds. The archive is not a collection of solidified ideas but of fluid webvoices or webpresences attracting navigators, sampling old and new art work, guiding us through further Internet searches. The feminist navigator today is deeply affected by fluid voices, specific to and critical of electronic networks. Feminism today may require journeys through cyberspace, not only to gather information about feminist movements as Eisenstein outlines, but to meet ghost presences which haunt and question the patriarchal-pornographic roots of the Internet. This is how da Rimini's Doll Yoko invented the slogan: "All Women are Ghosts and should be Rightly Feared." It only takes a certain number of women to read and apply such wisdom for Internet searching to become a more political, decentered, and less predictable feminist activity.

Citing Arjun Appudurai, Eisenstein believes that consumption in our time has become a "disciplining the imagination." Culture produces a transnational imaginary that views the globe as unified, tunnels and disciplines our vision, and so the imagination becomes conformist and universal (102). While right-wing activists believe that such obscenities are still a dangerous and immoral presence to the unprepared navigator, the intellectual opposition seems to have been completely turned off by pornography. This is a dangerous attitude in the USA, where outspoken anti-porn attitudes, primarily generated by extremist religious groups, are too easily adopted in everyday environments such as home and school. Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, rightly describes this cult of sexual negativity in higher education as the "hells of academe" where attitudes of silencing and discomfort easily permeate all manners of sexually oriented expression. This stifling climate is a burden for students and educators as it produces a total rift between educational content, sexual activity, and activism. At this point in US history, scholars and artists could reclaim the Net and mock-preach like the Christians, admit and confess that they are sexual (online and offline) beings and beg not to be punished by the corporate climate. The subversive cyber porn art and base obscenities in the work of VNS Matrix, Sandy Stone, Geekgirl, Gash Girl, Shu Lea Cheang, Guerilla Girls, and sci-fi heroines emits a spirit of courage and humor to younger generations and subverts the calculated designers of the Internet. However, a shortcircuit of communication between obscene artistry, industries, and academic thought is visible in Eisenstein's Global Obscenities. The book is a uniquely dark testimony to Internet deterioration and capitalism in the 21 century, not suited for the non-prudish and witty investigators of cyberspace's underbelly.

Michael Heim, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1993).

Katrien Jacobs:
Katrien Jacobs is assistant professor in New Media at Emerson College. She has published several articles on feminist filmmaking, pornography and new media art in journals such as WIDE ANGLE, PARALAX and GEEKGIRL. She is also an emerging new media artist who is devoted to visualizing theories on the body, sexuality, and performance art. A Ford Foundation Grant (-Ism, 1996) and Research and Learning Grant (Edith Cowan University, 1998) enabled her to conceptualize and carry out video/diversity teaching projects for undergraduate students. Her documentary Joseph Beuys in America won a Rosebud Award in 1996 and was screened for PBS television and the American Film Institute.  <Katrien_Jacobs@emerson.edu>

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