EssaysMedia/Publics

The Nude in the Library

A tale of two anachronisms

October 2015 was a big month for obsolescence. First we heard reports that the OCLC’s classic library card catalog was finally being retired. Then we heard news that Playboy magazine had decided to no longer feature fully nude models between its pages. As someone who grew up taking for granted the existence of both cardboard catalogs and paper-based women, this was quite a lot to process. My reaction to the first piece of news was a twinge of nostalgia, but not exactly shock, as card-catalogs take up a lot of room, and are only likely to serve a tiny minority of the digitally averse. The second announcement was also not exactly out of nowhere, given the dismal sales figures of Playboy, ever since the arrival of the all-purpose pornography spigot known as the Internet. [1] But it still gave me pause. Indeed, I soon decided that the two examples of redundancy were intimately connected; to the extent, in fact, that the news of their mutual extinction could well signal the final gasp of “the long twentieth century.”

The OCLC library card catalog began its life as the Ohio College Library Center in 1967, but in fact had ambitions to collate bibliographic information electronically since its inception. It must be admitted, then, that the news wires were exaggerating the demise of the traditional card catalog (since there are sure to be many provincial libraries around the world using analog reference systems for many years to come). And yet, it is important to remain attentive to these symbolic changes with real-world implications. The press release from the OCLC quotes Nevine Haider, Head of Technical Services, Concordia College Library: “We’ve already jumped into the new world . . .We’ve had online public access to our collection for years. The print card catalog has served as our back-up. So we’re ready to move on.”

Playboy ’s announcement strikes a similarly forward-looking note. In an interview with the New York Times, the magazine’s Chief Editor, Cory Jones, observes: “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so . . . [nudity is] just passé at this juncture.” Instead, the once-venerable publication seeks to titillate once again, with a “less is more” approach. [2] Gone are the glossy goddesses of the expensive studio, replaced by seemingly spontaneous PG-13 images, modeled after popular, exhibitionist Instagram accounts. Commenting on this shift during a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live, the ever-brilliant Tina Fey noted: “The Internet cut out the middle man. We don’t need an old man anymore to choose which one of us gets to sell pictures of our boobs. We can all share our boobs now! It’s the sharing economy!” When the process of objectification has been effectively outsourced to the same bodies being objectified, we are indeed in new cultural territory. (Were he alive today, Sartre may have called the auto-exposure instinct of today’s young women: “the selfie-for-others.”) And whether you consider this a “sex-positive” reappropriation of sexualized imagery, or a further turn of the naïve auto-repressive screw known as “post-feminism,” it’s true that Hugh Hefner’s concept is looking as old, tired, and embarrassing as he does, both relics of a very different age.

But is it really that different? After all, the business model is still the same — young-woman-as-eye-candy — just the delivery methods and the aesthetics have shifted. Pubic hair may have been replaced by vajazzling in the past few decades, but the concept is still the same: soft porn. Hugh Hefner’s specifically American genius, in the post-war boomer years, was to connect the male libido with desires for upward mobility (what we now call the aspirational lifestyle). Today that tradition continues, as Playboy’s spokesman notes, “The difference between us and Vice . . . is that we’re going after the guy with a job.” (A smart move in terms of appealing to those with disposable income, but potentially risky, given that jobs are increasingly at the level of subsistence wages.)

The day the Playboy nude disappears is probably the day we should be considering what nudity means to, and for, the new millennium. It would be easy to emphasize continuity through history: the aesthetic fascination of unclad women, whether they be on frescoes from Pompeii, on picnic blankets with fully-dressed men, or unfolded from the center pages of a girly magazine. But these three examples — plucked from millions of potential ones — also manifest different aesthetic experiences, libidinal occasions, historical conjunctions, ideological symptoms, and political opportunities. The hirsute and “natural” 1970s Playboy playmate was, in some important respects, a different creature from the airbrushed and surgically enhanced 1980s version (just as she was distinct from the coy pinup of the 1950s). One could indeed write a whole book on these differences, which emerge within a more generalized continuity.

Today, the modern nude — whether this appears on a computer screen or a billboard — is denaturalized, or estranged, on at least five levels, linking the semiotic and the somatic. First, the nude is always already figured in the negative, as a body stripped of garments. The human is nude in a way that animals could never be, given our reliance on the technology of clothing. To be naked is to be “caught” and exposed in lack of our originary, enabling prosthesis — from fig leaf to Prada dress. Second, denaturalization occurs by virtue of self-conscious bodily gestures. The nude is either bashful or defiant, or some combination thereof. This attitude is itself a form of drapery or artifice, covering or informing the natural animal body. Third, the nude is captured by media representation: paint, film, pixels, and so on. When discovered in the pages of Playboy, it is highly mediated, and grasped only with the eyes and imagination. Fourth, the nude is estranged from us via technical enframing and distribution (the mode of delivery). Whether sourced from the Internet or the postal system, the nude is delivered as a commodity, like milk bottles or other industrialized objects. [3] It does not offer itself to us in singularized grace or humility, like Aphrodite from the ocean, or the baker’s daughter from the six o’clock bus (even as Victoria’s Secret attempts to mimic such an event through their brand-imaging). And finally, the nude body is a site of technical intervention, whether this be navel piercings, Brazilian waxes, dental work, gymnastic sculptings, diet regimes, or the more invasive forms of plastic surgery. Nudity signifies a natural state, our most organic condition. And yet it is also one of the high figures of contemporary alienation. Being nude is to appear in the oxymoronic formal-wear of “the birthday suit.” And so, we could say the same thing about a nude photo as Magritte does about a pipe: Ceci n’est pas un corps. This is not a body. (Despite the fervent hopes of the average subscriber to Playboy . . . the treachery of images, indeed!)

Visual representations of the nude body, usually gendered as female in our public spaces, have migrated from material support structures, like stone, canvas, and paper, to the more elusive media of the digital. From this perspective, we can perhaps see the kinship and shared fate between Playboy and the library card catalog, since both were designed for the tactile navigation of erotic possibilities. (Assuming that the pursuit of knowledge is an erotic one, as Plato insisted in his Symposium.) Textuality — which includes the materiality of the medium itself — is intimately intertwined with sexuality. (To say nothing of the role of the library in erotic daydreams, including those featured in sexy photo shoots.) Playboy could thus be considered a kind of Dewey Decimal system for the male gaze.

The libido is under-threat, depleted by sheer access to visual stimuli (whether one is actively seeking it out online, or simply assaulted by it, through advertising). As Herbert Marcuse argued half a century ago, hyper-sexualization is equivalent to de-eroticization. [4] The executors of Hefner’s erotic estate understand this, and are trying to resuscitate the frisson of promised and deferred revelation. [5] It remains to be seen, however, if they can revive their sales figures by this strategy. And indeed, it remains to be seen if anyone will be even paying attention; busy as they are, taking photos of their own junk, and hitting “send.”

NOTES

[1] The New York Times piece linked above notes that, “Playboy’s circulation has dropped from 5.6 million in 1975 to about 800,000 now, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.”

[2] In the dark UK television series, Black Mirror, one episode (“15 Million Merits”) depicts the citizens of the near-future living in a small room, in which all four walls double as TV screens. These people are – in contrast to their 20th century grandparents – obliged to pay in order to make pornography go away. Otherwise, they are assaulted by sponsored sexual images 24/7 – clearly a dystopian proposition.

[3] For more on the first point, see Agamben’s eponymous chapter in his book Nudities (Stanford, 2010), as well as Bataille’s second volume of The Accursed Share (Zone 1993). For more on the second, see Vilem Flusser’s chapter on “The Gesture of Loving,” in his book Gestures (Minnesota, 2014). And for a very interesting treatment of the fourth point, see Margret Grebowicz’s new book: Why Internet Porn Matters (Stanford, 2014).

[4] Marcuse once accepted an interview request from Playboy magazine, on condition that they feature him as the centerfold that same month. The magazine politely withdrew their request. (See the film Herbert’s Hippopotamus: Marcuse and Revolution in Paradise , NSFW). While Playboy did not secure an interview, they did run a “Portrait on the Marxist as an Old Trouper,” written by Michael G. Horowitz, in the September 1970 issue.

[5] See Roland Barthes on the striptease, in Mythologies.

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Dominic Pettman

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