I Can Feel My Skin, I Am Everywhere
Juana Maria Rodriguez's Essay "Welcome to the Global Stage" Confessions of a Latina Cyberslut"
considered alongside Spike Jonze's Film Her
“…Attempts to escape the body result in a reaffirmation of the body, just as an escape from consciousness implies a reassertion of consciousness. (Butler, 53) The body never disappears in cyberspace; it is continually reaffirmed, reimagined, reified- written and rewritten, over and over again.” (Rodriguez, 142)
In her essay, “Welcome to the Global Stage” Confessions of a Latina Cyber Slut, Juana Maria Rodriguez explores the practice of cyber sex, fantasy and anonymous intimacy in queer Latina chat rooms on the Internet. Rodriguez shares some details of her own explicit encounters online and as a result the identity building that happens In Real Life (IRL) thereafter. As to the process of nonphysical encounters shaping our physical lived experiences I would like to suggest Spike Jonze’s film Her as an excellent visual example. Though a very vanilla version of the encounters Rodriguez was experiencing online- Jonze’s characters Theo and Samantha (a human and an operating system who engage in a romantic relationship) develop through surreal relationship in a very real way. Both Jonze and Rodriguez ask the audience through non-physical relationships and non-corporeal sexual encounters to consider and complicate one’s own understanding of body and non-body, real and unreal. Each piece accomplishes this through an unreal setting, linguistic disclosure, and challenging the boundary between internal/ external, private/public.
It is not a novel technique to place a conversation about the real world in an unreal setting in order to refer back to the real world. It is a strategy deployed in much successful science fiction. Benefits include some safety when discussing sensitive material and provide a new matrix through which to view our lived experiences. Both Jonze and Rodriguez utilize this method in their respective works. Her is set in a futuristic, though 50’s clad, utopian Los Angeles. Rodriguez’s sexual explorations occur in Internet chat rooms which are experienced in a real way from the comfort of one’s own laptop but also in an unreal way in chat windows with others from around the globe. It is in these imagined spaces, utopian Los Angeles and the Internet respectively that we can begin to consider the reflexive conversation of real and unreal in a much more accessible metaphor.
As we began this essay with a quote from Judith Butler and Rodriguez, we discuss the fact that describing the absence of a body implicitly refers to a physical body. Rodriguez shares that in online chat rooms the process of disclosure (disclosure of name, of gender, of age as well as linguistic disclosure of explicit acts) operates to simultaneously expand, queer, complicate and reify the human body. For instance, if one were to engage in a physical erotic act, one may experience their sexual partner’s nipples harden and be aroused by this- it may be automatic and outside of the scope of articulation. However if one is producing this encounter textually, online, what would be implicit must become explicit (Rodriguez, 141).
“In these exchanges, rather than a discursive disembodiment, the body becomes a discursive fetish, continually described, adored, coveted precisely because it is absent. Elaborate description of the senses- touch, sight, smell, taste and hearing- become the medium through which arousal is cultivated and maintained.” (Rodriguez, 142)
It can prove difficult attempting to articulate what may otherwise be assumed. This is exemplified in an early rich moment in Jonze’s film. Early in their courtship Samantha (Scarlet Johansson) asks Theo (Joaquin Phoenix) what it’s like to be in the room he is occupying right now. He is puzzled by this question- for what Samantha is asking is what is it like to be alive? Rodriguez assures that “(Technology’s) enchantment lies in the allure of possibilities, new ways to imagine the sensations of a seemingly familiar world” (Rodriguez, 117). In Her it appears that the function of the OS1, Samantha’s software, is to do just that. The OS1 is a solution to widespread loneliness and operates as a conductor for people to engage in the real world. A tool outside of reality is used to bring focus to lived experience through relationships. Arguably the same is happening in the use of online chat rooms.
Articulating an assumed experience becomes tricky when one has chosen to perform as a gender or role that may be outside of one’s typical presentation. In the case of Rodriguez, “Passing as a man, and owning a dick discursively required entering into male interiority and sexual sensibility that presented its own set of linguistic challenges” (Rodriguez, 134). This detail is completely sidestepped in the case of Her (and in being sidestepped is addressed directly). In each of their sexual exchanges the only bodily mention of Samantha is of “skin” and “feeling” and “inside” which is not biologically specific while Theo has a more specific description of “hard” and the action of “pressing”.
“The textuality of online sexual exchanges draws on the interpretive possibilities of reading and writing language, creating both an absence and an excess. The absence is the carnal, the fleshed out details…yet this absence also creates phantasmatic excess, an imaginary space where participants can fill in the details of the encounter in such a way as to maintain the idealized image of the desired other.” (Rodriguez 144)
In Her, after a strange and sentimental lunch where Theo signs divorce papers with his now ex-wife Katherine (Rooney Mara) he discloses to her that he is dating an OS. Katherine is appalled at the fact that Theo has indulged his inability to handle real, imperfect people and has engaged instead with an idealized fetish, that “He is in love with his laptop”. This dilemma is then internalized by Theo- is Samantha a substitution for a real relationship? Is he merely playing in an emotional purgatory, engaged in a relationship that can never have actual (corporeal) consequences and is thus invalid?
In “Confessions” Rodriguez explains that a successful chat room encounter can be a safe space to deploy fantasies, and/or act as another. Some of her own chat room encounters have brought Rodriguez friends that she has met up with face to face (F2F). Rodriguez suggests that bringing the imagined and real world together can be a fruitful endeavor. This is not the case for Theo and Samantha. The bridging of worlds comes to a climax when Samantha suggests using a human surrogate to act as her, and join her and Theo in intercourse. At the moment when Theo looks into the human surrogate’s eyes and is expected to treat her as Samantha, he is unable to perform and the encounter ends in disaster. This begins the decline of the relationship. Claudia Springer suggests “There is a long Western cultural tradition of associating sex with death; now, sex is being replaced by computer use, which provides the deathlike loss of self once associated with sexual pleasure.” (717-18) For Theo, his relationship with Samantha once under social condemnation was seen as an inner loss of self and of reality.
This question of internalization is also interrogated structurally. Theo’s relationship with Samantha exists only within his own body. That is, the way Samantha can communicate with Theo is through an ear bud that he wears which is not visible to the outside world. She can communicate visually through his private cellphone, but images can only be seen if he consents to them- much like agreeing to acknowledge a notification on one’s own cellular device. Samantha’s relationship with him therefore is only realized through Theo’s own processing and internal circuit. Arguably he is really only speaking to himself. Rodriguez points out that there is an intimacy that seems to become more available from behind a keyboard. “We sit at a computer screen alone; it is perhaps the privacy of this solitude that encourages exchanges that are less guarded. Are we writing to ourselves?” (Rodriguez, 121). It is clear that the line between real and unreal is both a foundational element to Theo and Samantha’s relationship and the point of most complexity.
Eventually this divide between body and not body, everywhere and nowhere becomes fraught. Samantha being programmed to learn becomes so expanded that she can speak to over 8,000 people at once and is in love with 641 of them. Although she reassures Theo that this does not change the way she feels about him, he feels betrayed that she operated outside of the assume monogamous norm. This begins the tailspin of their relationship. This differs very much from Rodriguez’s essay which seems to suggest that acts that may be contentious in lived reality can be safely explored online because there is not a bodily consequence. “…cyberspace provides a “safe” space for individuals to explore their fantasies.” Later Rodriguez elaborates “…the schoolgirl, the slave, the rapist has no body; there are no immediate corporeal consequences. These identifications and desires may be expressed through the body but are not lived through them…” (Rodriguez 136-37). Theo and Samantha could have had the room to operate outside of monogamous, heteronormative expectations but instead Theo enacted this policing in their relationship.
“It is not that a truer, more genuine or essential self emerges; instead the mere act of continually communicating the self generates textuality of the self, a written record of interior ruminations, a constant coding and decoding of the self and other.” (Rodriguez, 128) Even if Theo was merely undergoing an internal dialogue, could that not suggest that his internal growth was in fact valid and not worthy of outside disapproval? Is it possible that he cannot realize the fullness of his existence without perspective of an outside medium separate from worldly consequences? When considering sexual encounters in a virtual arena, when sex becomes a verbal exchange, and the body is experienced in absentia, how does this change our definition of sex and of body, or of internal and external? For Theo and Samantha, their virtual engagement was merely a space to recycle heteronormative and monogamous beliefs. For Rodriguez cyber space was a place to expand identity and perception.