As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Years ago, desperate to find a babysitter in a short period of time, I joined two local parents’ groups on the web and remained subscribed to them long after my situation had been resolved. I didn’t know then that I could receive digests instead of individual messages each time members emailed the group, so my inbox was flooded with messages I never read, messages I would delete ten or twenty at a time.
As I was deleting a group of messages I’d received from the Park Slope Parents listserv, a subject heading caught my eye as the delete function took it away: “Arab sex DSC-00465.jpg.” I opened my trash folder and found a number of emails under that subject heading, which usually indicates a conversation between members. I clicked on what looked like the most recent post but there was no text or attachment. As I searched the folder for the original message—wondering what it meant, what might be in that jpeg—my curiosity intensified into hunger, a driven disquiet.
“Race is like pornography in the United States—” according to Bob Herbert, “the dirty stories and dirty pictures that everyone professes to hate but no one can resist.” As I rifled through my trash folder with the same rush of adrenaline I’d feel flipping through a lover’s notebook to discover what they thought of me—to discover who I am from the perspective of another—all I could find was an empty message with an attachment that wouldn’t open, one the listserv’s filter undoubtedly kept from going through. Race, pornography, and the odd sense that the missing photograph would somehow have me in it seemed to hush around me, like a joke that couldn’t be told in my presence.
I follow the details of the mess in Iraq with a similar intensity: it is the I and the not-I that I am discovering, as though my identity were being revealed through the gazes of others. In college, reading feminist texts, I would read men and think they, women and also think they. I couldn’t manage to find myself in the us of them. I was on the outside looking in, stepping into someone else’s perspective in order to fit into one of the categories. I find myself in the same state of alienation when I read the newspaper: “Iraqis” are I and also they—a group I belong to but am separated from by the location of my birth—while “Americans” are similarly I and they—a they I belong to, thus also we, but a we I sometimes feel conflicted about being a part of because of the violence it has done to the rest of us, that other we of me.
There was a radio ad that used to play in the morning as my father drove my brother and me to school. “You’re driving,” a deep voice began. “Your wife is in the passenger seat. Your children are in the back …” Each time I heard the ad I would think, He’s not talking to me, and tune out.
And why listen? Unless something in the speaker, in the person you imagine the speaker to be, makes you yearn for inclusion, why keep listening, rearrange yourself to fit the shape of the addressee you’re picturing?
And why click on the jpeg? Such an impulse is recognizable when it comes to advertising, the illusion that you can transform your very being through a product—spray Beautiful, Allure, or ObsessionHappy, Princess, Fairy Dust, Fancy, White Diamonds, Fame, Romance, Forever, Infinity, Love Spell, Seductive, Bombshell, Heat, Black Opium, Killer Queen, Poison, Meow!, Exclamation, Euphoria, Angel, Alien, Modern Muse, Fantasy, Lovely, Live Luxe, The One, Good Girl, Yacht Man, 1 Million, Millionaire, Homme, Man, Eros, Cowboy Grass, Swiss Army, Only The Brave, Dark Rebel Rider, Ultimo, Passion, Joop!, Invictus, Thallium. onto your body and transmogrify into the beautiful alluring source of others’ obsessions running barefoot along the seashore, hair flowing, disappearing into smoke. These prototypes are clear, heavy-handed. But what would the urge to see Arab sex tap into?
Computer viruses are a form of art and prophecy. They make wagers about the unconscious at the same time that they create it. The lure at the end of the hook must appear real, juicy enough for us to click, take the bait. We bring our unconscious to the subject headings of the viruses that float into our inboxes at the same time that they provide us with a shape, a container into which we can project our unprocessed thoughts.
Walking my children to school one morning I noticed that each time my daughter took a step with her right foot, it followed a convoluted trajectory in the air, a makeshift demi rond de jambe, before touching the ground. I stopped her to ask why she was walking so strangely. She lifted her foot and showed me her shoe: the sole, partially detached from the boot, flapped like a thirsty dog’s tongue. Her peculiar gait was an adaptation created to keep her from tripping on the loosened sole. The shoe’s structure configured her behavior.
Human beings are subject to ontological design, the idea that we design our world and our world, in turn, designs us. The sole, like the soul Michel Foucault describes (“the effect and instrument of a political anatomy”) is something external that inhabits us, brings us “to existence,” the way language does: it exists before we come into being, lives inside of us during our lifetimes—shapes our thoughts, relationships, and experiences—then goes back into the world to live on after we die. The soul, according to Foucault, “is the prison of the body.”
We think through metonyms, associations that displace. Our cache, cookies, and history all store the trail of associations—individual and collective—that the censor, blocker, fails to keep from entering awareness. The innovation of private browsing helps us feel we are safe in consciousness, oblivious of the unconscious, until an autocorrect slips through, like a parapraxis of the machine.
My phone has an unconscious that, like the id, seeks to be expressed. If I behave appropriately, in a well-mannered way—try, for example, to apologize, my phone reverses my intent, changes sorry to dirty. I’m so sorry becomes I’m so dirty, or a genuine apology becomes suggestive, as in, I’m writing to let you know how dirty I am. Recently, I overheard someone use the word feckless. Having never uttered the word feckless before, I typed it into the Notes app on my phone. A few days later, I was texting with the mother of one of my daughter’s friends about plans. “Hoping ******* can sleepover with us tonight,” the mother wrote. “Only bummer is we have to leave early tomorrow to LI. Can you pick her up at 8:30?? Is that too horrible?”
My phone, perhaps having internalized the sense that I was feeling feckless, changed the word “actually” in my response to “act risky,” so that it read, “I may act risky have to come even earlier, like 8:00—” I’d unintentionally given the impression that I was going to stay out all night and would have to pick up my daughter on my way home. Perhaps we need parapraxes, slips from the unconscious, at times to nudge us to take risks. But what mind does a phone’s unconscious belong to, and is it always, even in invisible ways, cutting into our psyches?
As we become better able to clear our histories, act through avatars, tweak our profiles, we live in the fantasy that we are expunging the unconscious, deleting it, seizing the blank moment with cleared past, tabula rasa. Bookmarked tabs are the personal myth we prepare for an imagined Other—not necessarily the sites most visited, but the ones we identify most with ourselves, the outwardly directed persona we’d tolerate another person apprehending if they were to catch a glimpse at our screen.
Observing my daughter through the one-way window of her preschool classroom during free play, I noticed that when the teacher asked who was behind a transgression, my daughter looked up from her activity and caught the teacher’s eye. By turning around, she accepted the interrogation, stepped into the role the teacher’s question called into being. Louis Althusser gives an example of this dynamic, which he calls interpellation, through a scenario in which a police officer on the street calls, “Hey, you there!” and a person nearby turns. By turning, answering the call, the person takes the position that is being addressed and, in so doing, becomes a subject of the law—and subject to it, an effect and instrument of its political anatomy.
As soon as I wondered what Arab sex would look like, the seed of fascination had been planted, was ready to grow. I had been interpellated.
When I first saw the subject heading, I couldn’t call upon anything in my mind that could be used to imaginatively fill in the image in the promised jpeg. I googled “Arab sex” and saw dozens of hits of pornographic nature, mostly dating sites. A year later, as I was googling “Arab sex” again, it became clear that the virus had proliferated, at least in the collective unconscious. There were YouTube videos, porn sites. One site shows an image of a woman in an abaya that alternates with her naked genitals above frames of her having sex with a faceless man. The text reads, “Layla, liberated MILF from Qatar—Age: 31. Sexy Arab housewife Layla from Qatar takes it for the first [sic] from our white stud and loves it! This Arab mom has sexiness dripping from her … ” Another film plot reads, “Watch this pretty arab village girl get pounded in every hole and her pretty face plastered in cum for the first time on camera.” A photo for a different film shows a man grabbing a woman’s chin and her head by the hair as he (rapes) her. “Iraq Babes,” created by a Hungarian site called “Sex in War,” showed photos in which soldiers gang-rape Iraqi women. No one could confirm the rapes weren’t real, that the women were actors—agents who had chosen to participate in the project rather than objects manipulated in its execution.
The fantasy of Arab sex is a fantasy of domination. As the viewer steps into the role of a white stud, the sexual fantasy becomes a rape fantasy, aggression merges with lust. The sadistic element is portrayed as desired (and loves it!), a gift of freedom to be rewarded with flowers and candy—as Cheney once imagined the invading soldiers would be greeted—or a home cooked meal.
The radio was on in the kitchen as I was preparing dinner. We were spending a summer weekend in Woodstock. I could see my daughters through the window on the grassy hill, rolling, rolling. Water was running over vegetables in the sink when snippets of a story caught my ear: “allegations … US soldiers raped … body burned … house burned … ” I turned off the faucet, walked toward the radio and increased the volume, but the story had already ended. The voice recounted a different news story, but my mind spoke over it: soldiers … raped … body burned, house burned.
When I searched through my trash folder for the original post under “Arab sex,” I noticed a number of other email messages with lures in their subject lines: “fuckin karmasutra pics” and “The Best Video Clip Ever.” The text of one of these read, “R U ready 2 be fucked?”
“You know,” said film producer Brian Grazer, “in order to make somebody laugh, you have to be interesting, and in order to be interesting, you have to do things that are mean. Comedy comes out of anger, and interesting comes out of angry; otherwise there is no conflict.” Ethnic pornography, like the brand of comedy Grazer describes, often comes out of anger. It plays with fetishized tropes, transgressive taboos, and frequently expresses a sadistic relation to the ethnic group being pornographically displayed. Howard Johnson, in “The Chosen Peephole: Jews can do porn just as badly as everyone else,” defines Jewish pornography as ethnic pornography that fetishizes particular Jewish stereotypes and contrasts it with what he calls “Angry-White-Man-on-Muslim-Woman material [that] has proliferated since the first Gulf War”: “anti-Muslim porn, is less about religion than it is the embodiment of directionless hate in the form of sexual violence. It’s about ripping off that burka to see what’s underneath. It’s about the myth of the Manifest White Dick exploring and Christianizing the heathens in Holy scrotum-water.”
Is it this “embodiment of directionless hate in the form of sexual violence” that would lead a person to open the attachment, rip off that burka, want to see the jpeg of Arab sex?
On the beach in Cannes with her children, a thirty-four-year-old Muslim woman, wearing leggings, a tunic and hijab, was approached by three police officers who told her if she didn’t remove her head scarf she would be fined. People on the beach crowded around, called, “Go home!” And, “We’re Catholics here.”
“I felt like I was watching a pack of hounds attack a woman who was sitting down, in tears, with her young daughter,” said a French journalist who witnessed the scene.
If you want to hook someone, you need to lure them with bait. In order for that bait to be enticing, it has to induce a kind of hunger. For someone to want to see what’s in the attachment a computer virus’s heading dangles out, it has to be interesting, and to be interesting, it has to be mean. If you take the bait, open the attachment, your interest in what the subject heading presents—Arab sex—may resonate with something already inside you and provoke a response similar to what Alastair Clarke terms “it’s so true” humor.
Clarke’s theory is based on the notion that completing a pattern, like placing the last piece in a puzzle, elicits a cognitive pleasure that is often marked by laughter. There are different kinds of patterns that provoke this response, and sometimes they can span several psyches so that the element that completes a pattern in one person’s speech is supplied by a different person’s mind. It is this sort of recognition that stand-up comedy taps into: audience members match a comedian’s utterances with mental images that often had not previously made their way to consciousness. Recognition functions as a kind of surprise, especially when the thought, which had not yet been fully formulated in the audience member’s mind, is taboo. The pattern exists, according to Clarke, between “life” and “its representation,” with the “detail of the individual’s memory [acting] itself [as] a term within the pattern.” That resonance—between the external element and a detail within—is recognized, then disavowed through laughter.
The heading “Arab sex” lures you to participate, if only in the form of a leering audience member, in directionless hate in the form of sexual violence—assuming, as I do, that a person clicking on the attachment is expecting to see something demeaning and titillating, a much softer version of the arousal the US Army soldiers who gang-raped Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi, a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl they had been watching from their checkpoint, likely felt. The soldiers shot her parents and five-year-old sister, raped her, then put a bullet through her head, crushed her skull, set her legs and torso on fire. Directionless hate in the form of violence: the desire to fuck, the desire to destroy. The desire to fuck as a way of destroying: a detail of memory finding its element of resonance in the external world.
“Watch tour of the alleged crime scene—2:15” read the hyperlink in a news story about the soldiers who raped Abeer. I clicked on the link to see the girl’s burned-down house, but before I was routed there an ad for Viagra popped up. The connection was uncanny—that the crime scene of the premeditated gang rape, quadruple murder, flames set to destroy the evidence (the witnesses, the girl), would pop up erections.
Pop-up ads operate much like derivatives of the unconscious, seemingly random associations that flash before us. Browsing the web, pop-up ads are sprinkled about, along with links, associations, clips from our history—all of which operate like a version of the collective unconscious. As we go about our days, we have the equivalent of pop-up ads, and you-might-also-likes—associations, images, and memories—that intrude upon our thinking and reconfigure it.
During our waking lives, according to late psychoanalyst Jacob Arlow, a constant stream of data from the external world passing through our outer eye is met by a stream of data from our internal world, like two motion picture projectors flashing a continuous stream of images simultaneously from opposite sides of a translucent screen. One projector plays an unremitting stream of inner, fantasy thought while the other projects images from the outer world.
Each projector, as I imagine it, has a power knob that can be turned up or down. When sleeping, our internal projector is on high, but the external on low (we know it remains on because we can hear the car alarm outside our window, the dog scratching at the door). When focused on a practical task, such as setting up a wireless router, our external projector is on high and the internal on low. These two sets of input—introversion and extroversion, the inner eye and the outer eye—are negotiated by the ego whose job it is to judge, correlate, integrate, or discard the competing data.
Because the ego is operating in two directions, perception and fantasy thought get mingled, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between what is before us and what we see, what is said and what we hear. Reality testing is the ability to distinguish between inner fantasy thought and outer reality, as a way of determining whether or not you are connected to the external world. Experiences and memories from the past influence our perception of and response to present reality, dictate how we take things, shape our expectations and interpretations. The manner in which we process these two simultaneous projections has everything to do with what’s on our minds, what inner thought will match with an external perception.
When the internal appears to be coming from the external world, there’s a degree of psychosis. When the external feels as though it’s coming from inside us, we’ve been interpellated.
I was in high school, in the back seat. My mother was driving—my father must have been there as well, or I would have been sitting in the passenger seat. I was crying—sobbing, actually—because my mother and I were having an argument. I don’t remember what the conflict was over, only that she was turning onto an exit ramp when I wailed, “You don’t know me! You don’t know me like my friends know me!”
“I may not know you the way you want to be known,” she said calmly, “but, believe me, I know you.”
A man peeping through a keyhole, absorbed in looking at what he sees on the other side of the door, suddenly hears a creaking in the floorboards behind him and realizes he has been seen. Jean-Paul Sartre uses this scenario in Being and Nothingness to explain the loss of subjectivity that occurs when a person shifts from being a subject looking out at the world to an object in another’s field of vision. Once the man peeping through the keyhole realizes he has been seen, his attention shifts from the world he’s just been apprehending to the Other’s look, of which he is now the object. His perspective has been decentered.
As this man at the keyhole becomes a self-as-object, a self that has its core elsewhere (in the Other-as-subject), he imagines this core, now belonging to the Other, as a kind of knowledge about who he is. The Other, he then imagines, knows him as he cannot know himself: he now knows himself only by reading the Other’s knowledge. This transformation from being a subject with agency to an object in another’s world to be evaluated (what do they see?) results in existential shame—the shame of having been caught in the act of being who you are.
For years, I thought my dog had an uncanny—almost prophetic— ability to read people. When someone entered the house, he was able to instantaneously assess their character. One day, however, as we both backed away from a guest simultaneously, I realized it wasn’t the other person he was reading, as I’d always imagined. He was reading me. After watching me closely for years (his well-being, after all, depended on it) he became skilled at picking up on my microexpressions, perceiving the thoughts and feelings that, though belonging to me, had not yet made their way into my consciousness. The same is true of my children, Facebook, and many other entities that develop invisible algorithms to know—and reconfigure—me.
If what’s deepest within, our very soul, comes from the outside world, then what is being seen when another person looks at us? The dog in me attends to the thinking of the Other-as-subject, particularly pertaining to survival, with such vigilance that I apprehend the object being looked at, which is to say my self, through my inner dog, which is fed by the Big Other, that invisible all-pervasive agency. The shift from subject to object occurs so frequently, and with such facility, that, in effect, we are always, even in our most private moments, keeping all eyes on the Big Other and using the resultant shame to stay in line. And, for this, we receive a treat.
Nuar Alsadir is a poet, writer, and psychoanalyst. Her most recent book, Fourth Person Singular (Liverpool University Press, 2017), was shortlisted for the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Collection. She is a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities and a professor at New York University.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.