CELLULAR PHONES AS SEXUAL OBJECTS AND HUMAN IMPLOSION
By EMILY LACY
"A child grasps at everything to find out what it means. Tosses everything aside again, is restlessly curious and does not know what about. But already here the freshness, the otherness lives, of which we dream. Boys destroy what they are given, they search for more, unpack the box. Nobody could name it or has ever received it. So what is ours slips away, is not yet here"
-Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope
Perhaps all of us have found ourselves in a new moment in the spectrum of human experience: A stranger sits down next to us on a train and begins a social battle, a spectacle of rationale, or a performance of some kind, in which we witness the intimacy of another human body at work, busily communicating through a cell phone. The cellular phone has begun to dominate not only communication, but the whole social landscape, as it has indelibly left an imprint upon the surface of ideas, and how we choose to connect with one another. The cell phone represents a human desire to connect with others, to be sexual and capable of sex anywhere. There are no boundaries anymore; we can talk 'til the end of the world. I am continually confronted with my sexuality because the cell phone is a signifier of my sexual and social life, which has now become somehow more unbearably "endless". The portability of the phone allows for a constant intercourse of communication, and it is done via a machine. This machine is producing a sense of presence, but of what exact material does it consist? The characteristics of this new medium of human intimacy further meld sexuality and machines together, into one moment. The space of the personal has become disrupted, and it is causing traffic jams of the mind.
A girlfriend of mine recently told me that when she sees her boyfriend's phone number on her phone's caller ID window, she has an instantaneous sexual response. It's a sense of just-after-the-orgasm, in what is now to her a totally sexual moment (the reception of a call from a lover or potential lover). The phone number of the lover becomes local and fetishized, and it comes to represent something sexy, as the pattern of the number itself becomes so over-identified as a sign of the lover. The same could be said for screen names, which are the digital identities one creates when joining instant-messenger groups on the web. I can remember a screen name that used to make me shudder, although I know it was an arbitrary sign, a set of symbols that came to embody something more. If the letters had been attached to someone else they would never have held the same significance, as it was totally subjective and local to my own fetish, my own desire. I had a catharsis with the sign nonetheless because it represented a connection between myself and the individual--a very hot connection in my mind that felt immediate, instant, and close.
The heightened sexual presence associated with the cell phone is facilitated by a unique containment of the idea of "person" within the phone. Phones for years have been a vast river through the nodes of sexual ritual through courting, conflict, apologies, ideas, news of death, and of course "staying in touch" with someone. Telephones have provided a means of global communication to come into the private space of the home, connecting two parties or two spaces at once. But what is special about cellular technology is that it heightens this sense of individuality and ownership of personality as related to this idea. It's as if to say "this phone is my gateway to the world, a gateway to myself, and I have control over it, I can carry it anywhere." It becomes a signifier for the self, for entrances into the self, and entrances into the self of others. Something about the containment of the object into a four-inch rectangle must contribute to this sense of control, of ownership over an idea. A tangible object helps one to contain, to signify, a thought, a feeling, a statement toward others in ones mind.
Sexuality and personality are further achieved by the means of which one feels that the other has ultimate access to oneself in all spaces. The room for association is expanded, because the physical space for personal communication is expanded. You can and probably will get a call at the grocery store. This is one area where the phone begins to facilitate the idea of a cinema of the mind. When you are passing through the city, the grocery store, the broader human landscape, it's as if there is a new sense of interactive voice-over, a new movie being produced, just for you, in the four dimensions of real life experience. To hear another's voice as we are out and about, otherwise engaging in a different moment that only we can see, must have an effect of perhaps a voice-over in a film, where two effects (one of sound and one of image) are melded together into one idea, or one association. Now we can increasingly project other people onto our own world. They are becoming something else. Our idea of them changes. Near the turn of the century in France, people spoke about how the bicycle created a new perspective on life, because it seemed to fly by in a more rapid way, and this new experience of talking mobility must too have an effect. It is harder to draw a line between the exterior world (one's vision of it) and interior thoughts (a great deal of which occur through the medium or sense of sound).
What does a thought sound like? There is an analogy too to be made between the sound of one's own thoughts and the sounds of another's words as they come through the phone. The fleeting, motion-oriented path of both resemble each other and because the Other's words are dislocated from their physical body the argument could be made that there is a sense in which the thoughts of the other are bled into an idea of ones own thoughts, ones own mind. The utterances of the Other, devoid of the body, represent more of the mind, and perhaps what is produced more is an ambiguous collective mind, where the thoughts of the Other become fragments that inform and resemble the thoughts of the self. We enter an era of infinite projections, and the metaphor of public and private spaces being liquefied together is completed, brought full circle to the idea that self and Other also bleed into one aqueous thing. What we are capable of experiencing then in this time is an overabundance of identity: an overflow of information, constant entrances and exits into some unknown space, some new type of self. My body itself even feels rather ambiguous in terms of its own material, what it is made of, and what influences it to take the shape it now has.
The cellular-phone-camera is illustrative too of the broader trend toward collapsing cinematic media onto other forms of technologies, and in fact the convergence of disciplines together, into a cinematic-media of technological objects. To a large degree advertising makes this possible. It collapses photographic media, or cinematic reference, onto portable, small, personalized devices, and contributes to a situation where we remain in some close proximity to the apparatus, the medium we can say, at all times. Phones that can record video and take pictures encourage this idea. Located within this collapse of various reflections and informations onto one single object, we witness some centralization that characterizes the device as some kind of greater revolving point, or gravity-bearer, for existence. It becomes more than a phone, it far supercedes that function, and it begins to take on more global, dilated, if ambiguous qualities. It has become a billboard, a computer, a clock, and a vehicle all at once. It splatters the market.
Like the United States Post Office which now utilizes the film Shrek for its advertising scheme, Hello Kitty is now used to sell cellular phones which are marketed toward children. The age of the theme - phone is here. The cell phone is the new movie screen, and it's also the new Times Square, a raging carnival of lights, amusement, downloads, and advertisements (in the palm of your hand, nearly attached to your ear). For many young people the cell phone has replaced the watch or timepiece, and when asked the time instead of looking at a watch they will commonly grab into their bag to find the time, as it reads in the center of their phone dial. It is also used as an alarm clock. Text messaging has also become popular as a means of communicating between young people, similar to the effects of email, but perhaps more portable and thus more impulsive, more free in a way. As McLuhan has suggested, the modes which we have, the mediums we have available to us, will change the nature of the way we communicate, and what we communicate for that matter.
The simple aspect of sound alone is not to be ignored. The many diverse sounds and sound collages which these machines permit to exist in so many locales creates an expanding palette of information which is spreading constantly. Between the sound of the ring, and then the sound of the human voice that it is provoking in response, what occurs is a new opera of sounds and signals, which are inevitably filling out what is already a busy atmosphere of information. We are all getting an ear-full of something, although it's not quite clear of exactly what.
A great deal of film work I have done has tried to deal with what I believe is this inherently sexual moment and the cell phone. The way we hold this technological object so close to our mouths and talk so intimately into it (as if it were our lover's ear) makes for a remarkable visual scene. The human can parade through public space while simultaneously participating in the most private moment. Photography I did for a film on Las Vegas as an apex of simulation and excess had extended film-moments of various people talking on phones, but the shots were cropped at the mouth, zeroing in on the lips, the mouth, and the apparatus, so as to show the physical gestures and moments which were taking place in that space of the phone. The fusion here between machines or media and the social and sexual moment is both heightened and blatant.
The designs of the mechanism, and the sense of personality embedded in a feature like custom caller ID, (where a name can be punched in to represent the caller), in addition to picture phones which display a picture of the person calling, personalize and paint the experience with a rich sense of immediacy, community, and livelihood. There is really the sense that when one receives a call one is really receiving the person, or a small replica of her, through the phone. The fact that the name appears in some kind of nonchalant, controlled, finite and miniscule symbol when they call (the letters of their name typed out in small text on the display screen) makes one think of her as being truly contained into this technological identity of the object. And it is easier to objectify him definitely in this respect as one can choose to never pick up when "so-and-so" calls. There is the feeling that one has an ownership over that situation, that one can deny the person access because the symbol is there on the display screen and it can be rejected. It can be deflected. The text is denied access to the self, and the person is deflected like an actual object. There is a sense of control, and a definite sense of objectification of the Other into a graphic symbol. It is a game of technological media signs which plays out in terms of power, human relationships, and our desires to connect, or not connect with one another. We must notice too that those who don't have cell phones do have an air untouchability to them, that they are somehow unreachable, beyond something, they reside somewhere else on the social spectrum. They reside off the map, they are nowhere in terms of those little graphic, physical, digital symbols that the rest of us are used to exchanging and throwing at each other on a daily basis. I am constantly drawn to the term "global" when trying to describe this new mode of communication, because it suggests something which is perhaps more broad in its definition of space, and more fluid in its concept of time. But how does information truly move at this level, in this space, in this new medium that is evolving, right in front of us? I picture calling a friend in Tokyo and being able to talk to him, lovingly if I choose, about the day, space etc. But however ours is a simulated conversation is it not? As real as it seems, he's still in Tokyo and I'm still in Los Angeles, and we are conducting our conversation via a satellite in space. Needless to say there is a lot of physical, geographical space between us even if the emotional space seems to have collapsed into a kind of intimate moment (which appears close). It allows for a more total form of "contact", but it is of a totally simulated nature. The conversation becomes real to me physically, though when I consider that if I tell him to move an object and he moves it within the room where he is, then I have exchanged or imparted a kind of information to him. An action of objects has occurred. But here there is a paradox, a problem, which is yet to be discovered or solved.
A recent advertisement for a cellular company, Cingular, showed a series of images where a teenage girl is on a date with a boy, and her father keeps on appearing at the most inopportune, odd times. Just as they are about to kiss the father crops up out of nowhere, and says "Oh hi!" The next shot is in a black and white verite style, and the young teen addresses the audience as if they were her father: "Dad? you know how you want to be everywhere and keep an eye on me?...Well, now you can". The metaphor of phone-as-sexuality is complete when we see that it is being marketed as a way for the father to keep close to his daughter, even if only in a virtual sense. What is most relevant is the idea that it is her sexual space that is being marketed for protection: the phone-as-chastity-belt. In terms of cellular phone technology, let us look at this term "wireless", and probe it for more significance. Beyond "progress" or simply one more trophy in the case of "technological advancement", I think you have to consider wireless networks as a physical phenomenon. Plainly said, they enable humans to be located instantly. Could these not be read as complex tracking devices? It is not hard to imagine a system that uses these phones as a simple means of tracking, and if it were deemed necessary, could not these objects and the waves that they emit be used and charted graphically to locate a person's point or position on the globe? Personal anxiety is one thing, an unwanted call from a lover or a relative at an inconvenient time, that exerts a kind of emotional-spatial violation is another. But what about violations of these kinds as hypothetically administered by the State? As a human in the year 2005 I feel tracked in my own body as I know that the phone which I carry could find me anywhere. It's not a chip in the body, but one must admit it is held close to the person, to the head. How might one be able to trigger the technology used in cell phones to enable other kinds of reactions, or events in space? If a sound, (which is a physical signal although that is neglected most of the time because it is invisible to the eye), can be triggered with such ease at long distances what other forms of action, or triggering, might be possible at such a distance? Is it really that difficult to imagine that these devices could trigger bombs or other forms of explosions?
Recent events such as the bombings on commuter trains outside Madrid that killed hundreds of people, in fact utilized cell phones for this exact purpose. The imagination of this essay unfortunately theorized about a possibility such as this as much as 6 months previous to those acts of violence, and it was jarring when the theory presented itself as a reality. The confirmation was horrifying. The exact technology which was engineered to create contact among people in a social sense did just that, but it was a violent contact, almost atomic in nature.
Terrorism is interesting because in many cases it has employed the taking back and the reversing of one technological symbol to restage another. As with the massive jet planes which were used to crash the Twin Towers, the symbols of progress (both in the airplane and in the architecture) were taken back to consume different goals for different societies. The terrorists made a mark with their reversal of image which was one of ideology and power, the destruction of western "symbols" themselves, in order to produce broken images and signs of threat, sado-masochism, disruption, and danger. In both New York and Madrid, technologically advanced symbols, of airplane, skyscraper, and cell phone, (all hallmarks of a technologically privileged society) were taken back in order to represent inequality, lack of progress, and lack of privilege, to signify a great marginalization, some great disadvantage or lack of privilege. Baudrillard in his "Spirit of Terrorism" (1) describes a similar equation where the terrorists in the September 11th attacks, like other suicide bombers, engage in a taking back symbols, a reversing of their power, but through the body of the self as the central symbol. The symbol for them which is being reversed is life, their own, and the medium of the weapon becomes the body. They are the gun. They reverse the value system we have for the Body through sacrifice, and in this way their mission becomes "successful". They puncture our value system by essentially saying "No, my one life is not as important as this cause, I will become a zero." It is remarkable that such a set of privileges would create such a disruption of such magnitude, through so many individual deaths in time. One has to wonder what draws us in to such a collision, and one has to wonder what lures us back.
1) Baudrillard, Jean. "The Spirit of Terrorism" Verso, 2001
ABOUT EMILY LACY
Emily Lacy is an emerging experimental filmmaker based in Los Angeles who has enjoyed public exhibitions in painting and cinema widely over the last several years. Her work spans from film and video making, to painting, to critical essays, to folk music. Topically, she is interested in identity as it is constituted by both a physicality of being, as well as the societal construct "politics". In all her work she has been documenting and discovering these different forces which all contribute to one's conception of "self": The narratives we build, the stories we tell ourselves, and the language we use to communicate these ideas to one another. To a great degree she is interested in how machines and technology influence our idea of cultural "knowledge", and how we can disrupt or deviate from these modes when aware of their anatomies.
This essay is co-published with Viralnet.net