Written for HACU 237: Power: Philosophy, Politics, Art taught by Christoph Cox, December 5, 2019
PHARMACOPORNOGRAPHIC POWER AND SMART VIBRATORS
“I think desire isn’t lack, it’s surplus energy— a claustrophobia inside your skin” - Chris Kraus
Utilizing the litany as a literary device, Paul B. Preciado, in his book Testo Junkie, establishes a cartography of what he calls “pharmacopornographic power” in all its interconnected webs of material-somatic production. The invention, development, production, and implementation of WWII-era medical prosthetic devices, synthetic hormones, playboy, prosthetic and pharmaceutic treatments for impotency, methadone and secobarbital, the first lethal injection, the global internet, surgical skin reconstruction, cosmetic and sexual surgeries, plastics, transuranic elements, pornography monopolies, hetero- and homosexual identities, anti- sodomy laws, and artificial insemination of animals: all of these find their way onto this slippery landscape.(1) This plethora of artifacts exemplify the ways in which our bodies are traversed by pharmacopornographic power.
Producing an acute analysis of the present condition— one dominated by countless new pharmaceutics, high-speed internet communication, a constant onslaught of pornography available at any given moment, and silicone prostheses working their way into the interstices of our being— is imaginably difficult. Any attempt at analysis must necessarily be an analysis of the self in many ways, given how permeable the boundaries between body and apparatus are. Preciado does a remarkable job of this. He traces from his childhood in the Fordist era of Spain through to the present, post-Fordist world wherein his experimental hormonal transformation using Testo-gel arises in the midst of pharmacopornographic power. After delineating his analysis of the pharmacopornographic era and its differences from Fordism, disciplinary power, and biopower (as put forth by Foucault), I will examine one jarring example of this powers materializations: the “We-Vibe 4 Plus” bluetooth vibrator scandal.
Preciado evokes the Fordist mode of production (and consumption) by describing its properties as a “sleek polychrome aesthetic of the inanimate object, a way of conceiving of inner space and urban living, a conflictual arrangement of the body and the machine, a discontinuous flow of desire and resistance.”(2) Fordism typically adheres to the assembly-line structure of production, and is characterized by functional specialization and job stability. It overlaps with and is developed by what Foucault calls disciplinary power, wherein bodies are disciplined in various discreet institutions. Foucault uses the model of the Panopticon to describe the architectonic disciplinary process that exists analogously in those institutions, for example the prison, factory, school, hospital, and army barracks. In the panopticon subjects are organized rigidly in cells surrounding a central tower. The tower may or may not hold prison guards, it is impossible to say for sure given the light it shines in all directions on the prisoners, rendering the center invisible. While not all of the disciplinary institutions are physically structured like this (though some are), Foucault uses the model to depict how they all function: through rigid spatial organization and the constant threat of surveillance and punishment. Through these architectural techniques disciplined subjects are produced, subjects that are normalized and compatible with the Fordist world. In the factory in particular, the assembly line structure and lack of flexibility, coupled with the ever-present watchful eye of the manager operates like the panopticon, and through its discipline it produces a particular kind of subject that works.
Preciado points out that power doesn’t seem to exert itself in such rigid, stratified ways anymore. Pharmacopornographic power, he argues,
"confronts us with a new way of understanding the production of power and subject, distinct from that suggested by Foucault in his description of the orthopedic and architectonic disciplinary mechanisms of the prison or the panopticon."(3)
He even goes on to say that “In the pharmacopornographic regime, the difference between “apparatus” and human being [...] is put into question.”(4) As opposed to the disciplinary regime, where there was a clear distinction, even conflict between body and machine, body and technique of power, body and other-than-body, it is now difficult to place a clear boundary between the body and the mechanisms of power that confront it. Rather than facing its subjects as external techniques to regulate the movement of the body, it confronts the body in much more diffuse and sinister ways.
So, if not producing acceptable subjects by processes of discipline and normalization, how does pharmacopornographic power operate? Preciado breaks down the word itself to give some clues to its operation: “The term refers to the processes of a biomolecular (pharmaco) and semiotic-technical (pornographic) government of sexual subjectivity.”(5) He expands on this point further on:
"Contemporary society is inhabited by toxic-pornographic subjectivities: subjectivities defined by the substance (or substances) that supply their metabolism, by the cybernetic prostheses and various types of pharmacopornographic desires that feed the subject’s actions and through which they turn into agents."(6)
What produces a set of subjects under pharmacopornographic power is the substances and desires that flow through and amongst their bodies. As opposed to the exterior techniques of the prior regime that produced disciplined subjects, interior techniques of pharmacopornographic power produce “techno-subjects.” The science that produces these flows establishes authority and legitimacy by transforming previously abstract concepts into material realities, they transform “our depression into Prozac, our masculinity into testosterone, our erections into Viagra, our fertility/sterility into the Pill, our AIDS into tritherapy.”(7) These substances have material impacts on the conduct of those that use them, and thus their realization as agents comes about through their interaction (or, rather, intra-action, as these substances grow increasingly immanent in the bodies that they occupy).(8)
Just as modes of the power over production have changed over time, so have the modes of power over reproduction. Foucault’s conception of biopower, or power over life operated in his time in more rigid and disciplinary ways. Statistics, disease management, population control, and other fields of knowledge established themselves as sciences and aided in the management of global life. Sexual difference was pathologized and the systematic disciplining of those subjects that deviated from heterosexual reproductive sex became commonplace in hospitals. But as the distinctions between body and devices of control, between the organic and inorganic, became more malleable, biopower transformed into “techno biopower.”(9) As more and more the body becomes an extension of global technologies of communication (as opposed to those technologies previously being an extension of the body), even distinctions between life and death become somewhat superfluous. Rather, all that is considered under techno biopower is whether a given subject and/or object can be integrated into the web of pharmacopornographic production.
What pharmacopornographic capitalism puts to work, Preciado argues, is Potentia gaudendi, or orgasmic force. Potentia gaudendi is “the (real or virtual) strength of a body’s (total) excitation” and “the sum of the potential for excitation inherent in every material molecule.”(10) This malleable, fluid workforce is what is conscripted by capital for its reproduction. Under disciplinary power, potentia gaudendi was put to work for the reproduction of the species. Thus the disciplining of nonproductive sexuality via the restriction of masturbation and the pathologization of homosexuality was productive of capital as it reproduced normative heterosexual capitalism. But when it becomes possible to benefit from this previously illicit nonproductive sexuality biopower must change its tactics. Under pharmacopornographic power potentia gaudendi is put to work to aid nonproductive sexuality via pornography, sex toys, and the production of contraceptive devices.(11)
Sexual work even becomes a process of subjectivization under pharmacopornographic power, Preciado argues. It makes its subject into an “inexhaustible supply of planetary ejaculation” which can be converted into abstraction and digital data, and thus capital.(12) He pushes the argument even further, drawing on Giorgio Agamben’s description of “naked
life” (zoē) to propose “naked technolife,” arguing that the incessant potentia gaudendi subjects must produce renders them stripped of all vitality which would make possible living beyond just bare existing.(13)
The pornography industry is the ideal model of pharmacopornographic capitalism according to Preciado, given that it strives to produce maximum profitability.(14) 21st century internet porn is able to produce instant satisfaction in real time, what with live webcam models streaming 24/7 on countless platforms and the plethora of data available for mining to inform all aspects of pornographic film production.(15) Instant satisfaction paired with minimum investment and the direct sale of products in real time leads to an unimaginable potential for profit. Pharmacopornographic capitalism’s raw materials are “excitation, erection, ejaculation, and pleasure and feelings of self-satisfaction, omnipotent control, and total destruction.”(16)
The sex toy industry does not operate with such an intense ferocity as that of pornography, but as Preciado points out,
"pharmacopornographic production is characteristic today of a new age of political world economy, not by its quantitative supremacy, but because the control, production, and intensification of the narcosexual affects have become the model of all other forms of production. In this way pharmacopornographic control infiltrates and dominates the entire flow of capital."(17)
We can look to the sex toy industry as a partner in crime with the pornography industry. Both, along with many other industries, operate under the all encompassing logic of pharmacopornographic capitalism with the purpose of producing and profiting off of potentia gaudendi.
Standard Innovation stated that the information was collected for “market research purposes, so that we can better understand what settings and levels of intensity are most enjoyed.”(20) “Market research” is conducted ubiquitously throughout consumer capitalism. Hypothetically (and, to some degree, actually) profits are able to be maximized from a greater understanding of the consumers desires. Through Preciado’s analysis though, what we can see from the perspective of the consumer is their subjectivization through rendering them a mere producer of potentia gaudendi. Users intimate desires, decisions, and somatic reactions, whether alone or with partner(s), are abstracted and converted into aggregate data from Standard Innovations two million plus users. In this way, even the most intimate moments within the body are turned into labor and the production of capital. It is no longer just sex workers and those otherwise employed directly under pharmacopornographic capitalism that are the producers of potentia gaudendi; those constructed as consumers also aid in this production. Anyone and everyone can be plugged into the global web of high-speed pharmacopornographic subjectivization.
It’s easy to reflect on this example and see the ways in which power now faces us in different ways than previous models delineated. Power barely even fucks us anymore, it is more and more the voyeur that watches us fuck ourselves with it.
"It is not power infiltrating from the outside, it is the body desiring power, seeking to swallow it, eat it, administer it, wolf it down, more, always more, through every hole, by every possible route of application. Turning oneself into power. Baise-moi, fuck me."(21)
But in examining these microscopic technolibidinal moments we can begin to examine the ways our potentia gaudendi is put to work, and perhaps how we can mobilize this ever- present force for at least more interesting, if not more revolutionary forms of life. I don’t yet know what this would look like, but desire must be urgently reimagined, daydreamed about, and fantasized if we are to hope for any understanding of the potential of our potentia gaudendi.
(1) Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, (New York: the Feminist Press, 2013), 26-33.
(2) Preciado, 24.
(3) Preciado, 160-1.
(5) Preciado, 33-4.
(6) Preciado, 35.
(7) Preciado, 34.
(8) I think it’s worth briefly cautioning against dichotomizing the organic and inorganic here, even in reference to a past state. I do not wish to argue that bodies were once pure, prediscursive, or existing in any stable way prior to recent infiltration by biotechnological devices of pharmacopornographic power. It would be easy to tremble at the thought of our virginal bodies being penetrated by new biochemical and semiotic devices, but striving for an edenic return to the purity of the organic body is essentialist wishful thinking at best, and reactionary ignorance at worst. It’s important to bear in mind the ways in which the “self” has always been an unstable object of knowledge, with varying, historically situated modes of destabilization over time.
(9) Preciado, 44.
(10) Preciado, 41-2.
(11) Preciado, 47.
(12) Preciado, 46.
(13) Preciado, 49.
(14) Preciado, 37-9.
(15) Catherine Rampell, “Is data mining replacing artistic genius?” The Day, October 29, 2019, https://www.theday.com/article/20191028/OP04/191029452.
(16) Preciado, 39.
(17) Preciado, 40.
(18) g0ldfisk and follower, “Breaking the Internet of Vibrating Things: What we learned reverse-engineering Bluetooth- and Internet- enabled adult toys,” August 4-7, 2016, Def Con 24: Paris & Bally’s, Las Vegas, Nevada, YouTube video, 20:05, https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=v1d0Xa2njVg.
(20) Alex Hern, “Someone made a smart vibrator, so of course it got hacked,” The Guardian, August 10, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/aug/10/vibrator- phone-app-we-vibe-4-plus-bluetooth-hack.
(21) Preciado, 208.
g0ldfisk and follower. “Breaking the Internet of Vibrating Things: What we learned reverse-
engineering Bluetooth- and internet- enabled adult toys.” August 4-7 2016. Def Con 24: Paris & Bally’s, Las Vegas, Nevada. Youtube video, 20:05. https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=v1d0Xa2njVg.
Hern, Alex. “Someone made a smart vibrator, so of course it got hacked.” The Guardian, August 10, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/aug/10/vibrator-phone-app-we- vibe-4-plus-bluetooth-hack.
Preciado, Paul B. Testo Junkie: Sex Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. New York: the Feminist Press, 2013.
Rampell, Catherine. “Is data mining replacing artistic genius?” The Day, October 29, 2019. https://www.theday.com/article/20191028/OP04/191029452.