First, let me say that I enjoy a lot of David Foster Wallace’s ideas more than I enjoy his fiction. I know that statement might be something like blasphemy in literary circles. In truth, he reaches a level of Americanism in his novels that loses me. Something I don’t think he intended to do. I’m not American and I did not grow up in the environment he and, I think, a lot of his fans did. So reading him feels anthropological to me, and it is an unengaged, clinical sort of anthropology. I don’t think he would have liked it.
Nevertheless, it is impossible not to acknowledge his mastery as a writer, and his contemporary significance as a writer/thinker, an observer and commentator on his culture. And so I highly recommend you listen to this outstanding BBC radio documentary on him, presented by Professor Geoff Ward.
One of the most important ideas that DFW addressed lies, with beautiful and simple elegance in his question: “Who would want to live when you can watch?”
Here’s the quote in full and makes the question clear:
“…our experience is weird now…something weird and thrice-removed from the real world.. What is at stake is in many ways human agency the way we experience the world. Would I rather go muck around by the sea shore or watch a marvelously put together documentary about the death of egrets. I have already experienced the smooth documentary so many times that it becomes quickly incoherent to talk about an extra-mediated or extra-televisual reality. I can go to the ocean I’ve never seen before but I’ve spent a 1,000 hours.
Who would want to live when you can watch?”
If you recognize this question as relevant to many aspects of contemporary life, I challenge you to imagine how much more relevant it is to the topic of eroticism. Because not only does the perfectly produced, cleverly edited, cinematically breathtaking mediated sunset walk seem so much more alluring than, say, the lived experience of walking along a beach in the sun, with all its possible physical discomforts, the time required to get there and get back, the sand in your shoes, etc. but when it comes to something like sex with another person, there are so many more complex, nuanced aspects that can get in the way of embarking on a real sexual experience instead of watching a mediated one.
A more complex but important part of Wallace’s question requires us to consider the impact that having first ‘seen’ a remediated version many times has on our first actual experience of it. We’ve already been primed to find the experience falling sort. As if the platonic ideal of that walk on the beach has been established at the apex and all subsequent experiences of it will fail us. And so when we have the real experience we are, in a strange way, performing a revisitation.
It reminds me of the Lacanian differentiation between phallic and feminine jouissance. If you accept the first, remediation of the act as the publicly shared fantasy, the experience itself will always fail. It also, because of its disclosure in image, text and sound, preclude the experience of any feminine jouissance of the event, as it previously and forever been trapped in the Symbolic order for us.
This, for me, is the troubling aspect of visual pornography and, to some extent, with most erotica. In thinking about this, it forces me to question whether I am participating in this process of presenting my reader with ideals that will rob them of the pure, unanticipated erotic experience.
This is why I have been trying, more and more, to write about what eroticism might mean to characters, and how it shapes them than to focus on the acts or situations that bring it about. This is why, I think, I try to focus on what holds us back more than what allows us to enter into it. This is why, as time goes on, I find I have a growing horror of stylising the characters or the acts in a way that presents a textual erotic parallel with that slickly produced, beautifully edited, sunset walk.
I think examining how our erotic lives shape us, fuck us up, bring us to life… I think it’s important to write about that, but not at the risk of participating in the project of setting my readers up to believe that real experience fails their expectations.
And I have to wonder if that means I no longer write ‘erotica’. I hope it doesn’t. I hope the genre is more fertile, more expansive and intelligent than that. But I fear not. Greatly.