Can Desire Go On Without A Body? Pornographic Exchange and the Death of the Sun

Dougal Phillips

‘While we talk, the sun is getting older’

 Jean-François Lyotard)


One statistic among many: Every day there are 68 million search engine requests for pornographic material, making up no less than a quarter of all searches. Pornographic websites account for as much as a quarter of all websites online, and there are no signs of growth slowing in this sector.1 The prevalence of pornography online is a well-known and often-rehearsed fact of mainstream media. So much so, in fact, that we may well be in danger of forgetting what it was like in the era pre-Net, when it was not so easy to lay one’s hands and eyes upon material classed under that rather quaint relic of state censorship: the mark X, or in its exponentially amplified promotional version, XXX.2 As the libidinal sun sets on the era of mail-order and VHS tape trading, we are left with a question not about the past but about the future: From this point on, will there ever be a day in which pornographic material is not readily accessible from — and on — a screen?

All signs point to no: the rapid advances in wireless and mobile broadband services and the ever-mounting body of pornographic content available online (paid and free) will no doubt ensure that even if the consumer’s access to a fixed-line system is blocked by authority or by remoteness, relief, if you’ll excuse the pun, will always be at hand. So as terabyte upon terabyte of image and video files piles up in servers across the globe, a central issue emerges: Where does this growth in the online economy of sexual desire lead us in the thinking of desire? In this paper I want to consider the structural operation of the economy of desire found in online pornography, in particular the resonances it has with questions of the future of human technology and of the relationship between thought, desire and the body. Within this rather nebulous field of enquiry, I want to address two pressing issues in the contemporary scene: first, how we view the relation between technology and the body; and second, how a rethinking of the economies of the pornographic makes problematic the current theorisation of desire and of pornography. Or, to put it more simply, how technology and pornography may well be on the way to outstripping theory entirely and forever.

The issue of what is driving the rapid technological development of the economies of desire leads us to the concept of negentropy. Negentropy is a complex and difficult term which relates to the build up of information. It is not, as it might first appear, the opposite of entropy — although the term might suggest that information processes negate the second law of thermodynamics by producing order from chaos, this is not strictly true. We might attempt to correctly define negentropy by stating that it is a measurement of the complexity of a physical structure in which quantities of energy are invested: such as buildings, technical devices, and organisms, but also atomic reactor fuel, or the infrastructure of a society. In this sense, as one source has noted, organisms may be said to increase their complexity by feeding not on energy but on negentropy.3 So where is the build-up of information and of more complex networks and exchange protocols taking us? This article argues that we cannot even fully conceptualise this question; and this is where we come to the work of Jean-François Lyotard.

Can Thought Go On Without a Body?

I want to approach these questions in the light of Lyotard’s polyvocal essay ‘Can Thought Go On Without A Body?’ (Lyotard, 1991). Staged as a dialogue between a ‘He’ and a ‘She’ (a model used several times in Lyotard’s more speculative texts), the essay frames a discussion of the nature of thinking through a typically Lyotardian conceit, that of how it thought itself might continue in the wake of the imminent explosion of the Sun, an event of unprecedented catastrophe due sometime towards the latter part of the next four and a half billion years. Of course, as Lyotard tells us, it is impossible to think such an end, because an end is a limit, and you need to be on both sides of the limit to think that limit. So how could thought — as we know it or otherwise — go on?

The first speaker, the male, puts the case forth that in the instance of such an enormous end-event, and with the consequent cessation of the earth’s existence and the death of all that is earthbound, thought of any kind will by also completely cease to exist, due to the abolition of the very horizon of thinking (Lyotard, 1991: 8-10). This is, it is clear, a radical conception of death, a type of death beyond the ‘earthbound’ conception of death, which is normally framed in terms of survivors, remembrance; a limit witnessed from both sides. The death of the Sun, Lyotard’s speaker reminds us, will destroy all matter, and thus all witnesses. This galactic conception of death in turn impels a rethinking of the life of the Earth itself. Rather than a stable ground upon which life is played out, the Earth must in fact be recognised as a young (only a few billion years old) and merely temporary stabilisation of energy in a remote corner of the Universe.

It should be noted at this point that this modelling of the Universe conforms to the model used throughout Lyotard’s work. His theory is founded on a general model of the economy of energy made up of the circulation and temporary stabilisation of energies and ‘intensities’. This is how he models the foundational role played by desire in the social, political and semiotic fields — what he calls ‘libidinal economy’. For Lyotard, the Universe, like everything in it, mirrors the conceptual and figural logic of desiring economies.

So how can techno-science cope with the impending and holistic disaster? The prospect of solar death has, the male voice argues, already set thinkers to work trying to figure out how human thought can survive after the annihilation of the Earth. This work, Lyotard’s speaker assures us, is already under way in a number of different fields, including ‘neurophysiology, genetics and tissue synthesis, [in] particle physics, astrophysics, electronics and information science’ (Lyotard, 1991: 12). The female speaker responds in general agreement, but has some reservations and thoughts about the role of techno-science in preserving thought and the various techno-textual implications therein. More on that shortly. For now, let us consider the ramifications of this doomsday scenario for technology and thinking, and, more specifically, for that vital subset of thought — desire.

Lyotard conceives the body as the hardware to thought’s software. Thus without the body functioning properly there can be no thought. For the length of term Lyotard has in mind, this is a problem. The human mind, while wildly sophisticated, remains dependent on corporeal hardware, whose destruction approaches slowly but surely, and so the issue for techno-science is how to develop the hardware to allow the software to survive beyond Solar Death; in other words, how to make thought go on without a body.

What we need, it is argued, is some sort of thought-supporting technology (would we call this Artificial Intelligence? The term doesn’t seem quite right. . .) that can survive on cosmic radiation or some other galactic nutrient. This is more or less an uncontroversial proposition, one which Lyotard himself doesn’t dwell on for very long. However, the consequences of this problem for the philosophical conception of thought are profound, and Lyotard’s thinking through these problems provides a model for the thinking of the intersection of technology and desire.

Perhaps the most essential thing we can take from Lyotard’s essay is the point that technology must not be thought of as an extension or substitute for the body. Lyotard’s male voice asserts that technology is what invents us, rather than vice versa, and that anthropology and science have shown that all organisms are technical devices inasmuch as they filter information necessary for their survival and are capable of memorising and processing that information. This also includes modifying their environment in order to perpetuate survival.

So where does desire fit into this model of technology? This is where the model of online pornography is instructive. As a systematisation of (sexual) desire which preserves both the desired content and maps the movements of desire/thought, the Internet is hard to beat. Indeed, it must be agreed that the networked evolution of the economy of desire is an example of just such a technology: a process of the absorption, organisation and preservation of information.

If we look to the example of developing file-sharing communities, we see this ‘organic’ technology at work. In file-sharing communities there is an ongoing complexification and systemisation of the exchange of desired information, in most examples software and media content — music and mainstream and pornographic movies. These developments can be distinguished from the general desire for information that drives web-surfing, which operates more or less on a provider-consumer model with a much smaller scope for the user to put data into circulation. In file sharing communities that are openly driven by sexual desire, such as porn-sharing sites, it is clear that information filters and the modification and modulation of the networked environment are all being set to work in order to perpetuate the economy of desire, with a self-generating energy comparable to the speculative finance markets.

If millions of individuals are investing enormous amounts of energy every day into seeking out and consuming pornography within these digital network structures, are we to assume that all this invested energy will perish with the earth and the solar system? This assumption would be incorrect, for these desiring energies are safeguarded in two ways: one, they exist outside of matter and thus will live on after that matter has been violently disassembled; and two, they are invested as technological data (as we will see in the case of the pornography file-sharing site Empornium), along with all other information on Earth. And if we are to commit all Earthly thought to technological memory capsules, it would surely be the most severe repression to exclude that swelling quarter of the pornographic. In fact, given the movement into broadcast networking, surely the waves of data forming our desiring economy have begun to make their way out into space on their own, much as all of history’s radio and television broadcasts have.4

Indeed, what we are beginning to see in the desiring-communities online is analogous to Jean Baudrillard’s observation of the contemporary phenomenon of Orbital Capital. Couched in his concept of the ‘disappearance of the referential universe’, Baudrillard’s reading of the extremities of capitalist economy describes the ‘flying figures’ of the mounting global debt cycle, which gives the impression that

the debt takes off to reach the stratosphere . . .. The speed of liberation of the debt is just like one of earth’s satellites. That’s exactly what it is: the debt circulates on its own orbit, with its own trajectory made up of capital, which, from now on, is free of any economic contingency and moves about in a parallel universe (the acceleration of capital has exonerated money of its involvements with the everyday universe of production, value and utility). (Baudrillard, n.d.)

Orbital capital, Baudrillard suggests, is only a transitional phase as capital will soon escape the gravitational pull of solid objects like the Earth, and the new horizon of capital will be an ‘ex-orbital, ex-centered, ex-centric’ universe (Baudrillard, n.d.). Given that, for Lyotard, capital and desire are involuted images of one another, it is no surprise that libidinal economy is heading the same way. Indeed, there is nothing to say that some sort of future artificial intelligence will not have desiring energy (including the desire forenergy) as a main driver of its survival and evolution.

What I want to suggest here is that we are witnessing the very early glimpses of this future. Networked computers are giving rise to self-perpetuating economies of data, driven in the first instance (currently) by human bodily desire but beginning, it would seem, to take on a ‘life’ of their own. Surely we cannot assume that the livelihood of technologies driven by desire is tied to the longevity of human bodies? However, this does give rise to a central question, one adjacent to Lyotard’s: can desire go on without a body?

The Libidinal Economy of Online Porn, a Case Study: Empornium 5

As a form of thought, desire is reliant on the body as a venue, and of course desire also turns to the body as one of its sites of investment. But can desire go on in a post-body world? If so, what will happen to all that energy? Where will it go? Does it need a body to go on? What Lyotard shows us in his essay is that the answer to this is yes: it does need a body to go on, but that body in fact has to be a body of data rather than the vulnerable flesh body, due inevitably to meet its fiery end.

What I am suggesting here is that in the contemporary scene there is evidence that desire is gradually becoming invested in the structures of preservation rather than in the ephemeral earth bodies of classic erotic investment. This, I believe, brings up the question of how we conceptualise desire and pornography. By briefly considering one example of such an economy, I want to underscore the prevalence of the screen in desiring economies, as well as flag the importance of exchange as a self-perpetuating mechanism in the technological investment of what Lyotard would call ‘desiring intensities’ (more on those presently).

The most rapidly developing realm of online pornography is file-sharing. Paysites continue to prosper, but there is a growing community of peer-to-peer sharing of pornographic material. The exchange of images and videos which originally began in Usenet newsgroups and in IRC chatrooms has graduated to P2P software clients such as Limewire and Kazaa, and more recently has taken another leap forward with the introduction of the BitTorrent protocol.6 P2P clients are prone to dropouts and incomplete downloads, and often have bandwidth issues and lurking viruses disguised as media files. BitTorrent costs nothing to use and includes no spyware or pop-up advertising. With BitTorrent, the simultaneity and multiplicity of downloading and uploading streams makes for a much faster downloading experience, one that can be paused and resumed and one that allows much bigger files to be released and acquired. It is not uncommon for entire feature length pornographic movies as well as ‘site rips’ (that is, the entire content of a paysite) to be available as one file. It should also be noted that websites such as this one have a self-governed list of prohibited content, such as child pornography, that if posted will result in the user being banned from participating.

The BitTorrent format is now the basis for stable Web-based P2P communities, one example of which is Free to use (but requiring registration and password access), the site works by members ‘seeding’ files, which can then be accessed by all other members. One key function is that you can get different parts of the file from different seeders, rather than from one fixed file on another user’s machine. Once the user has downloaded a complete copy of the file, he or she becomes a seeder and begins gifting the file to others.

Thus a community of exchange develops where each user is alternatively vendor and consumer, often simultaneously. The barometer of one’s ‘sharing’ is called, naturally, one’s ‘share’, and in the case of Empornium, once a user’s share goes below a certain ratio of taking-to-seeding (each user is required to share approximately half the volume taken) the user is limited to only sharing until the ratio is restored. This currency of gifting has developed into an interesting metaphorical figure, wherein having a large ‘share’ (that is, seeding a lot of files, often) is a point of pride, the share being known jokily as one’s ‘e-penis’. This metaphor (which obviously reveals the steeply gendered environment of the site) came, as far as this author can tell, from a joke by one of the moderators, who began a posting offering special rights to ‘whoever has the largest e-penis . . .I mean share’. This has subsequently been colloquialised by users to ‘e-dick’. And so it seems we are in rich territory for the modelling, through analogy, of technology and desire.

What we are privy to here is a dual eroticism of volume, a swelling in two digital dimensions — in the swelling of the swarm around a particular file and in the individual’s ‘share’ (his ‘e-dick’) swelling as his seeds are downloaded more and more. The bane of the community is the leech, he who downloads without uploading, draining the swarm of its volume. The leech cannot live forever though: as his share ratio decreases, he is banned and drops off the swarm.

As a theoretical model, the swelling of torrents as a structure for the investment of desiring intensities echoes the swelling up of the ‘libidinal band’ Lyotard describes in perplexing detail in Libidinal Economy, and this leads us, perhaps elliptically, to the economic model of Empornium. What we see on a site like Empornium is users taking ownership of porn files in a completely un-mercantile fashion. Much has been written on the gift economy of file-sharing,7 but here we are interested not so much in the gift economy itself as in its technological manifestation — in the way an economy of libidinal gifting models itself technologically exactly as Lyotard models libidinal economy theoretically.

In this economy data is desideratum, and this impelling force has led to technology being colonised (or allowing itself to be colonised) by circulating desiring intensities. These intensities, like thought, live beyond the material, existing as energy. What Lyotard’s figuration of materiality — ‘matter taken as an arrangement of energy created, destroyed and recreated over and over again, endlessly’ — provides is a model of the swarming and gifting of the data of desire: the desired media given, received, and processed through consumption and consummation of the desiring intensity on the part of the user, who simultaneously evolves into the gifter.

We might consider how this libidinal economy relates to traditional capitalist economy, and what this relation means for the question posed above, namely: how will desire survive after the death of all objects, of all commodities? Lyotard is well known for mobilising figures of capital (investment, withdrawal, ‘interest’) in his theorising of libidinal economy, and in answering the question ‘Can desire go on without a body?’ it is necessary to follow his densely theoretic involution of capitalism and desire, particularly because that path leads us to a crucial figure for our task here: the figure of the screen.

Desire and Capitalism on the Libidinal Band

Desire and capitalism are, for Lyotard, inextricable, linked together in structure and poetics, and in Libidinal Economy (Lyotard, 1993) he draws out a complex formulation of the way capitalism operates to trap and manage desire. This book, which Lyotard later called his ‘evil book’, a ‘scandalous, honourable, sinful offering’ (Lyotard, 1998), is a provocative, polemical text, one which marks his turn from militant Marxist to post-Marxist postmodernist, and it operates in a grey area between theory and fiction. Indeed, the whole book is founded upon the theoretical fiction of the ‘libidinal band’. The libidinal band, to put it simply, is a freely circulating manifestation of desiring intensities — it is the figural image of libidinal economy.

The rapid circulation on the libidinal freeway slows as these intensities become invested in structures in the social field, including not only ideas but ‘phrases’8 and other representational dispositifs. Phrases and phrase linkages form a disjunctive bar on the libidinal surface, a distinction ‘this’ from ‘not-this’, a kind of semiotic fortress which swells up to take on volume, a volume distinct from the libidinal band which itself has the form of the Moebius strip, and thus has no inside or out, no border, no this and not-this. This is one of the main theoretical figures introduced by Lyotard in Libidinal Economy, and the entire book in general is an important critique of representation in the economies of the social field.

In the chapter entitled ‘The Desire Named Marx’ Lyotard makes the assertion that all political economy is also libidinal economy — the two are indistinguishable. Like Deleuze and Guattari, he collapses any notion that there are separate orders for the economy of money and power and the economy of desire and pleasure (jouissance). The notion (or moment) of jouissance is a key figure in Lyotard’s libidinal economy, for it denotes both the taking of pleasure in something and the force that drives the orgasmic economy of intensity and absence (the libidinal economy). Jouissance is a term developed by Lacan, who insisted it be distinguished from pleasure (plaisir), for pleasure indicates the quest for psychical balance through the release of tension, whereas jouissance is supposed to be a perpetual state, in violation of the pleasure principle — an impossible demand for total fulfilment.

For Lyotard, jouissance figures equally in capitalism as in desire (for instance, Lyotard states that the jouissance of money is what we call ‘interest’). This comes down to a fundamental analogue between jouissance as it is understood in the erotic sense and the operation of capital. In Libidinal Economy he uses the idea of libidinal energy to describe events and the way they are interpreted or exploited. He writes of an economy of libidinal energies which form intensities in the social field and he mobilises the terminology of capitalism to figure the investment and withdrawals, the deferrals, and the gaining of interest that is played out within the economies of desire. This shared poetics of capitalist and libidinal thought is a cornerstone of Lyotard’s theory of the vicissitudes of experience and the constitution of subjectivity, both in representation and in experience in general.

What Lyotard asserts is that the Lacanian gap of representation should not be considered as negative, but instead ‘be affirmed as libidinal stases’, as spaces of ambivalent exchange, a stasis in libidinal flows or pulsions (Lyotard, 1998: 91). Lyotard’s apparatus of representation is, then, an economy that repetitively produces libidinal stases, where moments of intensity are inscribed on the screen of representation. The desiring-subject invests their pulsional intensities in the screen, in a quest for fulfilment, and this desire is captured and fulfilled in the screen. As Lyotard writes, ‘the dividing screen or pictorial surface or theatrical frame fulfils a function of enjoyment (jouissance), and this function is ambivalent; in it are to be found, in conflict, a regulation of pleasure . . .’ (Lyotard, 1998: 91).

The figure Lyotard mobilises is a screen-form which is at once a technical screen, a skin, and a holographic or gel-like membrane which registers movement and energy. In fact, for Lyotard, this screen-membrane is the interconnecting fabric of the social network of desire. The screen-skin is the spatial figure of libidinal economy, a field upon which intensities conglomerate and amplify: what he calls la grande pellicule. Julian Pefanis suggests that in Lyotard’s phenomenology desire can be figured as the

intense sign read at the surface of the social, la grande pellicule. (Pellicule read here in both its senses: as a membrane capable of transferring here and obstructing there the flows and investments of a desire which is of the order of production, the libidinal economy; and as a photographic film surface, a screen or gel, a thick holographic plate capable of registering the multiple traces of this movement of desire as a phantasm). (Pefanis, 1991: 91-2)

Desire, it must be understood, images itself on the screen — it is one and the same as the screen, it is at once the screen’s structure and its subject. Lyotard uses the example of cinema for this libidinal transformation:

This can happen, for example, in the form of a projection into the characters or the situations staged by cinema or, in the case of so-called erotic images, to the extent that the roles presented can directly find a place in my own phantasizing or yet again, more subtly, when the film’s cutting or editing as well catch my desire in their net, also fulfilling it, no longer from the point of view of the image itself, but through the organisation of the narrative. (Lyotard, 1984: 70-71)

The screen is offered here as the site of the projection and fulfilment of desire, as it is a space for montage, the cutting together that forms a net to ensnare desire. The organisational dispositif (here he refers to a narrative) is an apparatus for the capture of desire, and the fulfilment of desire comes via the operation of the screen as a kind of machinic assemblage (to borrow a useful term from Deleuze and Guattari) which gives a real presence to the intensities of desire.

Two Screens

Here, however we encounter a problem — a problem of two screens. First, it must be noted that the investment of desiring intensities is predicated upon the presence of a technological form — the screen. As we have seen, the function of the screen-territory in libidinal economy is to capture these movements, to preserve their trace on the screen as a phatasmatic projection of the desiring intensity. This is the monitor-screen, the interface-screen. The second screen is more abstract — a figure of theory. We must acknowledge that these investments are made in representational structures, those semiotic obstacles which cause the libidinal band to ‘swell up’ and take on ‘theatrical volume’. What happens is the libidinally-invested screen forms a kind of bar of static intensities, the resistance of which (as in a light bulb) causes the band to ‘heat up’ and thus swell up.9 This makes for a kind of semiotic fortress, a structural distinction between the swollen theatrical volume, and the circulating non-volume of the rest of the band — to put it simply, a ‘this’ and ‘not this’. What we are dealing with here is two screens: the technological apparatus screen and the theoretical screen of language and representation. This second screen is, in essence, the theatrical volumisation of the libidinal band wherever desiring intensities are invested in a representational or linguistic structure.

An example of such a linguistic screen-volume is the categorical term ‘pornography’. In the current set-up within which we live, the concept of pornography has an important role to play in the demarcation of the social libidinal field, but is by no means immanent to libidinal economy. It is important to remember that pornographic is both a representational and capitalistic concept: we might recall that the etymological root is found in the Greek words porne meaning ‘harlot’ or ‘prostitute,’ porneia (‘prostitution’) and porneion(‘brothel’). The subtextual logic of pornography, then, is transactional commerce. So if the economies of pornographic exchange are finding new and uncommercial transactional models, the concept of pornography itself begins to look slightly less set-in-stone. If pornography is a capitalist model of desiring-exchange, then logically the categorical term will over time wither and die along with the structures that define it.

The energies which drive the economy, however, will go on regardless. In the larger scheme of affect and intensity, such linguistic structures merely serve as resting points for the circulating energies, but this is not to say that they are unproblematic. Lyotard’s libidinal philosophy, it must be noted, is concerned with the preservation of polysemia, with the prevention of the ossification of the sign into an object of singular meaning. He strives to block the game of structuralism, the game of the sign becoming a unitary lack either by referring to an absent signified or another signifier. What Lyotard wants to maintain is the intensity of the sign and the incompossible intensities that inform and exceed the sign; he wants to maintain the polysemic value of the sign as affect. The name he gives to this polysemic presence is the tensor, and the maintenance of tension in the sign or phrase is, for Lyotard, a defence against theatrical volumes of social representation. Structures of representation, for Lyotard, are merely a manifestation of the repressive captivity of affective intensities.

Pornography is exactly such a repressive theatrical volume. This does not address the question of whether pornography is good or bad for society, for gender relations and so on. It is merely a structural assertion: the structure of the pornographic does not allow for the free circulation of desire. The capturing of a desiring energy into the category of pornography is a libidinal investment of a sort, but it is also a defeat of the free movement of libidinal energies, one which, we might add, secures power on the side of the speaker/writer defining a certain investment of desire as pornographic.

What this points to is the fact that desire exists outside and in spite of such screen-structures as the pornographic and the screen-apparatus itself. The problem is that, since desire in earthly technology operates through the two screens – the image-screen and the language-screen – both these screens will have to be maintained in the post-Solar Death apparatus of thought-preservation. But this is not simply a problem that requires a technological solution. It is a problem of theory. Before we conclude with this problem, however, let us be clear what is at stake here. If desire currently functions in the screen-investment model outlined above, the question then is not only ‘Can Desire Go On Without a Body?’, but also ‘Can Desire go on without a Screen?’.

The answer to this is we do not know. And we cannot ever know, for on Earth, desire is always-already doubly screened — through language and through the technological screen-object. To conceptualise desire outside of the law and beyond contemporary politics, outside of categories of good desire (the desire to own one’s own home, for instance, or to fantasise harmlessly about mainstream sex symbols) and bad desire (the desire to explode one’s body, whether violently or figuratively — think of Artaud, or trawl the darker recesses of the internet) is impossible at a most fundamental level of thought. It is only through the destruction of the dual-screen that desire can be fully seen and fully experienced, and this will never happen for us.

But will it happen for the future? Perhaps. The only way in which this is possible is if technology wants it. And although technology will maintain some form of a body (in the broadest sense — perhaps a body of data) in which to invest thought and desire after the death of the Sun, through our double screen on Earth, we can’t possibly know what that body will be. All we know is that the current structures in which desire has become invested are merely one stopping point on a much larger journey, and the scope of that journey reveals those structures (writing, the screen, the law) as well on the way to extinction.

Conclusion: Negentropy and the Problem of Theory

And so we look to the future, unable to see or even think what it will hold. What we do know is that technology is radically complexifying itself, and being driven to such complexity by desire: the desire for more, now, faster, freer. This is the only way we can think of going forward and of preserving the trace of human existence and the potential of thought. Repressive structures of capitalist exchange and legal categories such as pornography cannot trap desire forever — libidinal economy will re-emancipate itself through negentropic means, thorough the complexification of information systems and the build-up of data. Lyotard reminds us that we need to think of energy as a tension, as a rhythm between entropy and negentropy, and it is only a systems fuelled by negentropy that can continue operating for the length of time he has in mind — beyond the death of the sun.

There are, it must be said, caveats attached to this. We cannot think of thought and desire as free from a sort of negative charge or existential burden. Lyotard’s female voice reminds us that what comes along with thought is suffering. Thought and suffering are inseparable, as suffering comes from the same thing that drives desire — difference. What we need, then, to truly preserve thought, is ‘machines that suffer from the burden of their memory.’ Furthermore, the female voice tells us, the preservation of thought must incorporate this difference, or in ‘her’ terms, be gendered. The female Lyotard makes the point that what is absent in the Male voice’s assertions (‘X’d out’ is the phrase she uses) is gender: the tension of difference. And thus, ‘the intelligence you’re preparing to survive the solar explosion will have to carry that force within it on its interstellar voyage. Your thinking machines will have to be nourished not just on radiation but on the irremediable differend of gender’ (Lyotard, 1991: 22).

Although this incorporation of gender is something of a circular theoretical exercise (pointing out that we cannot ever think thought without the baggage of thought), there are two important points contained therein: first, the concept of the power of the differend as energy source. The differend (another central concept in Lyotard’s work) identifies the power of one system over another, particularly in terms of language and representation. Lyotard’s idea that this can be a source of technical power in and of itself is not so outrageous. We might recall the fiery conclusion to Alfred Jarry’s Le Surmâle (1902, The Supermale). In this, Jarry’s last novel, the author states that ‘The act of love is of no importance, since it can be performed indefinitely’. This claim to endurance eventually comes unstuck. The hero of the erotic fantasy is a superman who wins a bicycle race against a six-man team, he has sex 82 times with a woman, and experiences the final climax with an amorous machine. In this climax, the protagonist André Marcueil has built a love-producing machine (powered by water turbines) which will fill him with love, a quality he feels he lacks as he is unable to say that he loves the woman with whom he has had so much sex. Hooking himself up to it, he discovers that rather than the strong power source running to the weak, he himself is so full of love that he and the machine perish in an amorous meltdown. The moral of the tale might be: let us not underestimate the driving power of the economy of love and sex as it resonates between human beings desirous of some portion of each other.

The second and perhaps more important point in introducing the differend is that it is a critique of writing and thinking (themselves) as repressive structures, which points to the impossibly of writing and theorising desire. Indeed, we might ask: How can we theorise where technology and desire are heading, when one of the main stumbling blocks is our need to do violence — through categorisation and attempts at prognostication – to their progress? And so we come to the problem at the heart of all of this: the problem of theory itself.

Although I have used Lyotard’s theory of desire unproblematically above (as a structural model), it is not really meant to be a map of some science-fiction future. It is in fact a problem of writing and of theory, and of course Lyotard knows this. He is one of the most self-reflexive of the critical theorists and underpinning much of his work is the knowledge that Theory is, ultimately, Theatre. We recall that the representational dispositifs that arise on the libidinal band (through investment) have a theatrical volume, and this serves as Lyotard’s metaphor for theory itself: the theatrical space has an inside and an outside, a ‘this’ and ‘not this’. As Ashley Woodward notes, Lyotard’s image of theory as theatre is based on the Greek etymological root theasthai, to look at, to behold, to contemplate, and the theorist is ‘like a spectator who views the representation of the world (outside the theatre) on the stage (inside the theatre).’10

The key conclusion might then be this: all the world’s a stage. That is to say, all writing and thinking is impossibly earthbound, and thinking and writing outside a theatrical model is equally impossible. As Lyotard says: ‘Thought borrows a horizon and orientation, the limitless limit and the end without end it assumes, from the corporeal, sensory, emotional and cognitive experience of a quite sophisticated but definitely earthly existence — to which it’s indebted as well’ (Lyotard, 1991: 9). We cannot think beyond the body, and we cannot write beyond it either — Lyotard again: ‘the inevitable explosion to come . . . can be seen in a certain way as coming before the fact to render [all] ploys posthumous — make them futile’ (Lyotard, 1991: 9).

Thus we cannot truly theorise desire or pornography or obscenity or any other facet of libidinal economy, because theory stops libidinal economy from taking on its true form. But if the desires are free of the screen, of investment, of repression, if desire is understood as tensor, not locked in repressive structure of pornography, the libidinal band circulates freely. Desire goes on, but not, Jim, as we know it.

So can desiring-thought go on without a body? The answer is no, as long as the definition of a body is almost impossibly loose. The technology aboard the Spaceship Exodus (as Lyotard charmingly christens it) will be modelled on the fact that thought is a corollary of technology, not the other way around. Lyotard’s female voice describes the future of thought as an analogue of the chiasmic merge of mind and horizon found in Merleau-Ponty. Thinking, for Lyotard, is not giving — it’s a being in the world, an allowing to be given to. The economics of file-sharing is but one example of this re-thinking of desire as a being-gifted-to by the technologies of the world. And, following the phenomenological model, the thinking-machine will need to be in the data, ‘just as the eye is in the visual field or writing is in language’. As a trivial contemporary example, the Empornium file-sharing machine is a very basic and unformed model of just such machinism operating solely through the circulation of energy through the bands and veins of the body of data.

Indeed, what we see in the case study of file-sharing is two things: on one hand, it is a present libidinal model of a swelling up of information based on exchange conducted under the rubric pornography. But this cannot last forever, because in the larger scheme of things, this moment of torrent protocols and file-sharing is actually a brief stasis of the larger economy of desire, and the logic of that larger economy is now very gradually beginning to presage the future through developments in technology. In the kind of de-commodified and self-regulating economy of desire we see in file-sharing it is becoming evident that desire and technology are in fact banding together to escape the screen repression of us mere earthlings — and to survive after our death, and the death of all the structures within which we have caught desire and technology. Technology invents us, and technology will abandon us when our structures prove too constricting. But where it will go will prove impossible for us to conceptualise, as we cannot think desire without at least two screens in front of us.


1 Statistics available online at [accessed 19.04.05].

2 David F. Friedman, board chairman of the Adult Film Association of America, recalls that the XXX rating was actually started as a joke, to distinguish ‘straight films’, such as A Clockwork Orange or Midnight Cowboy, whose mature content drew an X rating, from pornography. There is not now and has never been a formal XXX rating for the movies; it has always been a marketing ploy adopted by film distributors and/or movie exhibitors. See, [accessed 15.04.05].

3 I am indebted for this definition to the explanation posted on the online archive Principia Cybernetica Web, at
[accessed 5 May 2005].

4 Surrounding the Earth is an expanding sphere of radio waves, now over 60 light years in radius, the product of transmissions from radio and TV stations. As the wavefront of radio waves spreads out into space, it begins to deteriorate, but if given a boost by a relay station positioned every 9 billion kilometres or so.

5 All the observations and descriptions of the website are based on my own limited research into the site. Being a rather large, complex and evolving community, I cannot guarantee that all information presented here regarding the structures, rules and operation of the website is completely accurate. I present it simply as one example of an online, BitTorrent-based pornography-sharing community. I also wish to state that the site contains descriptions and images of hardcore pornography and any one accessing the site after reading this article should do so at their own risk and should not access the site in any circumstances where embarrassment or offence may result.

6 For further information see

7 See, for instance, Markus Giesler and Mali Pohlmann, ‘The Anthropology of File Sharing: Consuming Napster as a Gift’, in Advances in Consumer Research, Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook (eds.), Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, vol. 30, 2003; and Richard Barbrook, ‘The Napsterisation of Everything: a review of John Alderman, Sonic Boom: Napster, P2P and the battle for the future of music, Fourth Estate, London 2001′; available online at
[accessed 10 April 2005].

8 In his book The Differend: Phrases in Dispute Lyotard posits the ‘phrase’ as an empty, operative concept, one from which all categories derive, but which itself is not determined by categories. The phrase, for Lyotard, always carries the possibility of linkages between phrases to produce these ‘phrase-regimes’, and his concern is with the absolute heterogeneity that exists between different phrase-regimes – the gulf that exists, for example, between judgments in the cognitive or epistemic mode and judgments of a political, ethical or evaluative nature. The multiplicity of these language games within the dispersion of statements, each with its own self-generating criteria of meaning, validity or truth, leads to a fundamental dispute — le differend — which falls between various discursive regimes. See Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.

9 There is an interesting account of this operation in the glossary of terms at the beginning of Libidinal Economy written by the translator Iain Hamilton Grant.

10 Ashley Woodward, ‘Jean-François Lyotard’, online entry at, University of Queensland, 2002.


Baudrillard, J. ( n.d.) ‘Global Debt and Parallel Universe’. Trans. F. Debrix. First published in Liberation, Paris. Available online at

Lyotard, J.-F. (1984) ‘Notes on the Critical Function of the Work of Art’. Trans. S. Hanson, in Roger McKeon (ed.), Driftworks. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1988) Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event. The Wellek Library Lectures at the University of California, Irvine. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1991) ‘Can Thought Go On Without a Body?’, in J.-F. Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Trans. G. Bennington and R. Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1993) Libidinal Economy. Trans. I. H. Grant. London: Athlone Press.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1998) The Assassination of Experience by Painting, Monory = L’assassinate de l’experience par la peinture, Monory. Trans. R. Bowlby. London: Black Dog.

Pefanis, J. (1991) ‘Lyotard and the Jouissance of Practical Reason’, in Heterology and the Postmodern: Bataille, Baudrillard and Lyotard. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Dougal Phillips is a lecturer, writer and curator based in Sydney, Australia. He has taught a broad range of courses in art history, contemporary art and cultural politics at the University of Sydney and at the University of New South Wales (College of Fine Arts). He recently completed a PhD, entitled ‘Capitalist Realism: Disappearance and the Screen in Representational Painting’, at the Power Institute (University of Sydney). His research interests include critical theories of desire, deconstruction and the screen, the philosophy of art and the history of painting. He has also written several papers on the contemporary politics of the image, including work on the Children Overboard affair, which he has presented at conferences in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, and on the geo-political activities of the Bush Administration, which he presented at the University of Greenwich, London in 2004. He has published in journals such as Media/Culture and Art & Australia, and has curated and written about exhibitions of painting and new media work in Sydney.