Life on display
On summer, love/porn, the good/bare life, body/reality.
Everything is on display in the summer. City life is bare. Shirts fade into translucence, revealing bare, sun-flushed bodies streaked with sweat-beads. Summer is the most sensual season, and it is my favorite season — although I question the sanity of any melanin-deficient person who makes such a claim. Even the hot air caresses before it smothers you in its embrace.
I am on the second week of my adult summer break, a month of non-employment that I was fortunately afforded, before resuming the nine-ish to five-ish hustle in August. It’s the first summer since 2016 that I haven’t done any form of full-time work. There was a new moon in Cancer the week I left my job at Vox, which felt like a symbolic omen. It was the first lunation of summer, a sign of self-introspection, renewal, and reset.
My two years (and ten months, to be exact) with The Goods were extremely formative; I worked with editors who nurtured my fresh-out-of-college neuroses and ambitions, and allowed me space to read, write, and theorize with rigor. I was intent on spending July as an informal test-run of the unstructured writing life, working on longer-term projects I’ve put on my mental backburner. That means I’ll be putting off publishing gen yeet for the indefinite future, although I already treat this newsletter as a near-dormant catalog of developing thoughts to be updated once every few months. However, formally declaring it offers me a sense of closure — permission to move forward.
I’ll leave you with a mini-essay of recommended works — some texts, some films — that I’ve dwelled on enough to form a semi-coherent throughline: Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism as a coping strategy for disastrous thoughts amidst disastrous times; David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future on the body as tether to reality (and what it means when technology aids in its mutation and distortion); Byung Chul Han’s The Agony of Eros on consumer culture’s pornographic pall over love and desire; and Ming-Liang Tsai’s 2005 film The Wayward Cloud, a meditation on pornography and love, set in a world that’s running out of water.
This summer has felt more languorous than the last, now that the post-vaccine social frenzy has passed. It’s akin to the hushed stillness at the center of a storm. Between the vibe-cession and the gradual, Supreme Court-aided decline of the American empire, some are making the case for this to be the best summer of our lives before the crises compound further, potentially into what historian Adam Tooze has dubbed the “polycrisis.” This vision of a carefree summer is nostalgic for a time before — before the season became ravaged by cruelty and gun violence, before the second, third, and fourth waves of the pandemic, before the election of Donald Trump, before summer internships and adult obligations. Such a perfect summer was never a universal reality, but accessible fantasy.
“Fantasy is the means by which people hoard idealizing theories and tableaux about how they and the world ‘add up to something,’” writes Lauren Berlant in the introduction of Cruel Optimism.
Berlant is a cultural theorist and literary scholar, but is perhaps best known for their work on affect theory — a framework for analyzing politics and culture through individual and collective moods, emotions, and experiences. Or maybe a more apt description: “the formal study of vibes.” The vibe has soured. It has shifted. Today, our collective fantasies of “the good life,” as Berlant so presciently foreshadows in their 2011 book, are no longer collectively sustained. They’ve begun to fray. But humans persist. We adapt at a cost. Living is an optimistic act and optimism a “negotiated sustenance that makes life bearable,” in spite of pain, disaster, death, and crises that threaten to turn life unbearable.
The mind adapts, Berlant argues. So does the body, aided by and made malleable with technology. David Cronenberg wrote the script for Crimes of the Future two decades ago, as another one of his cinematic meditations on the human body. While he is often credited as the originator of the body horror genre, Cronenberg disputes the term “horror.” Instead, he says in earnest, it should be “body beautiful.” Cronenberg is an optimist, and discusses technology and its impact on the human body’s past and present developments with surprising reverence. “I think we are evolving, not devolving,” he told Variety. “I think our nervous systems are completely different from human beings 100 years ago. I think the use of screens, the use of digital technology has actually altered our nervous systems.”
In Crimes of the Future, surgery is both performance art and an act of intimacy. It is “the new sex” in a futuristic world where people are losing the capacity to feel pain, to digest whole foods. Bodies are rebelling against human norms. Some are capable of digesting plastic. New, seemingly unnecessary organs are sprouting up in bodies that must be registered with the National Organ Registry, a government agency responsible for tracking and assessing the proliferation of unruly body parts, lest they — the bodypolitic — become ungovernable and therefore, inhuman.
Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) mysteriously produces new tumorous growths, a painful process that renders him unable to eat or sleep without technological assistance. Saul and his performance partner-cum-surgeon Caprice (Leá Seydoux) stages his organ extractions, done via an automated autopsy machine, as performance art. These events draw throngs of mesmerized observers, eager to witness this display of pain-pleasure. Saul writhes with delight as Caprice’s scalpels slice into his abdomen. In this analgesic reality, heightened pain blurs into pleasure. Pleasure is elastic. A sensation has to surprise to elicit the erotic.
The eroticism inherent within Saul and Caprice’s performance reminds me of German-Korean philosopher Byung Chul Han’s thesis in The Agony of Eros: Porn is a matter of bare life on display. Han does not refer to pornography in its most literal sense (visual material of sexual organs and activity); rather, he considers pornography a capitalism-induced state of mind and being, of manufactured image masquerading as natural reality: “It has no concern for the good life — only for bare life … Its motion forward is speeding up more and more by losing all sense of direction. This is how capitalism becomes obscene.”
Cronenberg’s proposal of a “new sex” suggests that Saul and Clarice’s performances serve as a novel form of pornographic entertainment. The act of surgery might provoke and arouse, but ultimately reveals little about the inner workings of Saul. His body and his motives remain unknowable, relegated to the realm of Eros. In the film’s final scene, the audience is left to wonder: Does Saul surrender to the mysterious workings of his body, or will he keep extracting his new organs, one by one?
Similarly, Berlant addresses this decaying vision of the good life, except she provides no distinguishing factor between the good and the bare. We mistake the bare for the good — and remain attached to the elusive fantasy of its goodness, even when it proves to be hollow and false.
Nothing in a capitalist world is sacred; everything is readily commoditized and consumed — even sex. Han bemoans this loss of Eros, the unknowable Other, made wholly transparent by social media. We put ourselves on display as “entrepreneurs of the self.” On dating apps, a person is categorized according to certain desirous metrics and assessed as a known sexual object. Even intimacy can be billed as labor, scaled for the masses. “When otherness is stripped from the Other, one cannot love — one can only consume.”
Ming-Liang Tsai’s The Wayward Cloud lingers on this tension between true intimacy (love) and romanticized consumption (porn). The film is rife with metaphor, although spare in dialogue and plot. Set in Taiwan during a water-scarce summer, citizens turn to watermelon as their chief source of hydration. With the price of watermelon lower than water, people stock up on the fruit in their homes and slurp down tall glasses of watermelon juice. Watermelon is a symbol of love and an aphrodisiac, even used as a sexual prop in adult films.
Tsai’s protagonists are a male pornstar (Kang-Sheng Lee) and the woman (Shiang-chyi Chen) he falls in love with, who inhabits the apartment complex he frequents to film his scenes. Yet he is unable to have — or perhaps uninterested in — sex with her. Within these parallels, Tsai suggests: If watermelon can be a viable substitute for water, can pornography and/or sex serve as a replacement for love? The pornstar’s actions reveal his confusion between the real (water, love) and the hyperreal (watermelon, porn), as a figure straddling reality and simulation.
“At the heart of pornography, sexuality threatens to disappear. Everywhere we find the same stereophonic effect, the same effect of absolute proximity to the real, the same effect of simulation.” Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End
The adult film crew uses what little water they have for a shower sex scene. But when the scene is over, the pornstar realizes he has no water to clean himself. When he is offered watermelon juice from his love interest, he pretends to drink it but empties the glass out the window when she’s not looking. This act implies that he will only accept water from his lover — not its approximation. When the two edge closer towards sex, he shuts down, perhaps fearful of denigrating his love with the performance of sex. In one scene, she initiates a blowjob in the adult section of a local video store, only for him to pull her up into a tight embrace. In another, the two are crouched under a table after he pulls her down by the leg, but he falls asleep while caressing her foot, smoking a cigarette held by her toes.
The vibe of Tsai’s films, as I’ve written before, “is steeped in melancholic languor, featuring characters that are so close in proximity, yet remain perennially distant toward other people’s inner lives.” The woman does not realize that her lover is a pornstar until she encounters an adult video he stars in. She watches the tape, face inches away from the television. The television is something of a minor character in Tsai’s works, a portal that engages his protagonists with the external world and those they thought they knew.
The screen renders its subjects bare. Bare life that is barely enough for true intimacy, for a person to know and be truly known. Yet, we are drawn to this fantasy of knowing because knowledge implies certainty — about love, reality, the body, our future. I am trying to find comfort in the unknown and appreciate the small certainties of life: sunshine, seasons, ripe peaches, the ocean breeze. To quote Frank O’Hara: “I am sure of nothing but this, intensified by breathing.”
Thank you for reading this meandering thought-experiment of a newsletter. To clarify: I don’t intend to stop writing gen yeet — just please don’t expect any logical consistency to my future publishing schedule! These days, I am less on Twitter and more on Instagram. My inbox is open for freelance work solicitations, feedback, recommendations, and general comments. If you are feeling generous and wish to support my free work, please consider paying me via Paypal or Venmo @nguyenterry.
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