On Paris Hilton and Other Undead Things

It’s the threat leveled at teen sexters, oversharing vloggers, anyone with a thirst trap Instagram. As Philip Rosedale, founder of the San Francisco lab behind Second Life, says, ‘Things are real because they’re there with us and we believe in them.’
It is this faith in the nonmaterial that unites the poet and the gamer, the psychic and the techie, as they reject the flesh in favor of signs, be they Foucauldian or paranormal. Physicality is a moot point; sex is not an act but a headspace. Once I went all the way to the fifth floor of a Holiday Inn near Times Square only to learn, after fiddling with my keycard for ten minutes, that I was in the wrong hotel. I still remember the video-rental store I used to go to as a kid: Silver Screen, smack dab in the center of a dying strip mall. She lingers in every ‘like’. The trash looks alive. This actually happened, the sex tape insists of its bodies, with their stretch marks and sad rooms. One might think of the tense quiet of an Uber. Will this body haunt the distant-future you with her youth, her ease, with embarrassing noises you’ve since learned not to make? This renunciation of matter can make you feel like a god (omnipresent) or a Popsicle (melting fast). Clarity and the absolute are rejected:   in 2018,   they are neither   probable nor hot. It’s the threat used to dissuade girls from doing porn. A non-place is somewhere my architect father, always snooty about vibes, might call ‘soulless’, like a big-chain multiplex with fluorescent lights, inexplicably decorated in oranges and tans. Off-screen, it is the threat of climate change and its slow ravages, of individual actions in a globalized world, of gossip and cigarettes – that first drag will haunt you. Perhaps this explains the specific kicks of watching a sex tape, the thrilling sense of infringement as one observes Paris flicking her belly ring. Is it the younger you in the sex tape, the body made foreign by grainy reproduction and an outdated belly ring? We lie down in our parks and close our bars early. If all that is solid melts into air and the Amazon superstores are run entirely by bots, it would seem physicality is a moot point; what matters most in the drone age is faith. Digital cameras would help shape the sex tape in its evolution from cheeky Polaroid to in-group DVD to hacked celebrity file. Everything is up for grabs. Our babes are not airbrushed, but air brushing past. Let’s talk more about ghosts.  
 
Photograph ©   Steve Granitz / Inactive What happened to you?’
‘I never was,’ she whines. Paris Hilton herself alleged that she was not-all-there – in her words, ‘out of it’ – when 1 Night in Paris was recorded. She is responsible for so many of the things I associate with my pre-Y2K childhood: belly rings, tiny purses, tabloid fever and, come the 2000s, reality TV. As new technologies make the body feel diffuse (which can be sexy) and irrelevant (which can be grim), I find myself seeking spaces or zones in which I feel contained. I agree with the songs that say people are gentler here, more submissive to the flux. He wants to get so big that a woman can comfortably recline on him. We’ve all fucked Paris Hilton. At twenty-three I am haunted by the memory of far less sensational things my body has done, on- and off-camera. To watch a sex tape is to be aroused while simultaneously unsettled, to be an anthropologist and also a kid – nudging open closed doors, shocked by your findings. I am attracted to these looser uses of the term, as ‘non-place’ morphs into a shorthand for the sense of unreality alleged to define our post-postmodern existence of half-truths and year-round avocados. It will come back to haunt you: in 2018, this is not only the threat of the sex tape but also its promise. – chase Paris as she moves away from, then toward, then away from the camera. She points out a better position. They get up to no good in windowless break rooms. I’m interested in the spaces that exist within these so-called non-places. Paris is hairless, but grainy. Or is it the video itself that does the haunting, the redirect to porn sites that haunts all future Google searches for your name? She is present, but low-res. Be careful what you put out there, people warn, as if you were a camper putting out food scraps for bears. the market bellows. What sex tapes offer, on a hauntological level, is an impossible closeness to that which is neither dead nor alive. One need not have a body in order to be touched: this concept has long gone mainstream, and makes sense to anyone who texts and thus understands the gravity of the red-rose emoji. Enter the ghost, another instance of compromised realism: the body both real and phantasmic, familiar and freaky, the arresting figure not-all-there. His off-screen laughter and cokey commands – say hello to my little friend! My Holiday Inn was across the street. One might recall Rosedale’s statement: things are real because they’re with us and we believe in them. My friend told me about a man she met on Grindr whose fantasy was to be small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Let’s not forget, then, what started it all – the seed of their empire: Kim’s sex tape. After all, it’s not a regular porn film one has chosen to watch, but a sex tape: an artifact, whose status as real is underscored by its amateur aesthetic.  
This is the keystone threat of the digital age. Fantasy fixates, and thus fixes the parameters, such that one knows where to go when one wants to feel good. It will come back to haunt you. The phrase ‘sex tape’ feels directly opposed to the spacy feeling of non-places, evoking the material, hard shiny black plastic, long after the sex tape has morphed into a transnational tele-digital commodity. I grew up seeing her name in every checkout aisle; I remember the free paris T-shirts after her arrest. The bars may shut at two in SF, but the gyms are twenty-four hours. The speed with which sex tapes are transmitted, seen, copied and compressed speaks to the placeless network of relations that defines globalization. It is historical, yours to observe from the allegedly firm ground of the present. And yet, with a sort of techno-utopian exuberance, it also insists: This can happen again, over and over, forever, for you! It is a fantasy: yours for the taking, yours to express yourself with, yours to spread over the internet and send to your friends, yours to go into whenever you’d like. The graininess is proof. People with money theorize utopia, drink fresh-pressed juice. One is absorbed by the erotic action, yet never unaware of the device recording it, nor the video’s status as just that. Paris zings through the ether at nonhuman speeds, but it’s really really her you’re seeing on your screen. According to realcore expert Sergio Messina, the amateur fetish boom began in 1997–98 when digital photography first became popular. ‘Ewwww!’ she cries when the cameraman teases her. I like the term ‘sex tape’ for its anachronistic conjuring of videotapes, things filmed on a camcorder and stuffed into the VCR: compact, discrete and holdable. The sex tape is a haunted house, or should I say, a haunted hotel, a haunted Hilton, in the spectral California dusk of a fixed 73 degrees. The threat evokes the rapid speed of transmission and circularity that defines internet porn, and has made sex tapes like 1 Night in Paris the stuff of sleepover lore – indeed, the eerie use of night vision makes that tape’s ghostliness explicit. It seems important to note that Derrida was conceptualizing hauntology in 1993, when hackers were sexy and the internet new: a Baudrillardian moment of techno-tele-discursivity, Simulacra with a capital S, and hot pink. Who or what carries out this haunting? Long car rides have been passed in this fashion: Withering Heights! She shuts the door in his, our, face. My questions are, when all the world becomes a waiting room, how does one preoccupy oneself? We were there, in that bedroom. We watch it shift from side to side. In our contact lists? ‘What if your kids see it?’ my mother screamed when I briefly considered posing for Playboy. Cue George Michael, a recent ghost: you gotta have faith! Or perhaps one recalls a song played in waiting rooms and airport bars the world over, a song that, for better or worse, will never die: Plenty of room at the Hotel California… What is a non-place? One might think of refugee camps. It will house us, with its fantastic infrastructure. In order to define the current moment, which some call post-postmodernity, some reach for examples of late capitalism at its most demented, of environmental destruction that crosses national lines, of AI and transhumanist propaganda. In the loneliest of places, an airport bar or Hilton hotel room, you need not feel alone; you need not even feel human. Sex can be a non-place too. The Simple Life, ethics aside, is an incredible document with regards to white privilege, self-surveillance, female intimacy and the American imagination. Before I go further, let me say plainly: I love Paris Hilton. My Big Fat Greek Penis! Watching the tape, I believe her. One might think of the comments section on a political article, into which one is sucked for hours. Like, even if you never see the tape again, you will be kept awake by the suspicion that somewhere, through the time warp of cyberspace, a zitty citizen might be watching you get off, nursing a semi as he clicks other links. I never got to see what was behind the red curtain; by the time I was old enough, the store was long gone. I reach for the sense of unreality relayed by Paris Hilton in black underwear: her real/digital/hyped body as the site where the viral and desirous collapse into one, an overdetermined symbol that can’t be controlled. We pulled aside the velvet curtain. Once armed with the term, one can see non-places everywhere. And it is precisely her semi-presence, not-all-there, that continues to circulate, on the internet and in the mind, as one recalls her baby voice and limp, long limbs. And why not? The strip mall that once housed Silver Screen, alongside a bagel shop and a stationery store, was a non-place. All that is solid melts into air, and the amateur sex tape, echoing innumerable theorists, fetishizes this smeary state as the realest of real. Any time of year, you find it here. Another example: the fast-growing condos in San Francisco’s former meat market. Realcore fetishizes realism, but it is a special brand of real: the compromised realism of fragmented bodies in flux, of jump cuts and bad lighting, born of the digital age. Within seconds, the fourth wall is broken, like a champagne glass. I live in San Francisco, a city haunted by missions, Aids and the fog. ‘Over there.’ The cameraman, still unseen, suddenly
a perfectionist, mutters: ‘Actually, it looked better before.’
These unscripted moments in 1 Night are gold. But of course, in the parameters set by the fantasy and the duration of the tape, there is no escape. These need not be brick-and-mortar locations. One might think of the Metaverse. His username was, aptly, VerySmallMan. The Simple Life follows Paris and BFF Nicole as they bounce between non-places, sampling drab summer jobs at Burger Kings and Walmarts and factory farms. This aesthetic includes shaky camerawork, off-screen breathing, jerky zooms, unflattering angles, mumbled asides and long, unedited, unpornographic interludes. These things might come back to haunt you. The amateur (also called realcore) is a genre of porn defined by its claims to realism. Paris always squealing ‘siiiick!’ in any Hilton of your choosing. Their bewilderment at the American landscape is meant to be funny, a consequence of their alienation as celebrities, but watching Paris get lost in the frozen-food aisle of a chain supermarket (like, what makes it, like, super?), I relate. He illustrates this fantasy on his Tumblr with stock footage of tropical-print beanbags. Realcore pivots on this eerie return. It is the sense that she’s ‘gone’ in multiple senses that makes the tape so haunting. But beware the reggae-inflected threat: you can check out any time you wish (flash to Paris’s out-of-it body, checked-out, not-all-there), but you can never leave. The camera can’t focus. The bodies in the tape are real, or used to be, but the threesome formed by your attention, your jollies, rewrites history. Colin Davis neatly describes the concept of hauntology, coined in 1993 by Derrida: ‘Hauntology supplants its near-homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.’ Say it again: things are real because they’re with us and we believe in them. I understand how she could be both deeply in and out of it. Later, his off-screen voice teases: ‘I thought you were a wild party girl! Here is a genre perfectly suited to   supermodernity, in which uncertainty and blurriness are understood as keystones of reality. Like Irish ghosts, they roam forever. I’m reminded of that stoner truism, that if you can think of a title for a porno, it must already exist. ‘Is this thing on?’ Paris asks. Paris flops in a standard-issue armchair, spike heels on the bed. ‘You’re, like, obsessed with filming me,’ Paris tells the bodiless cameraman. A fantasy can be entered again and again, quietly, easily, in the non-place of one’s choosing. This audience of one will haunt you; you, with your belly ring, might haunt him. What makes a sex tape signify as real are its ghostly qualities. Which California is up to you. Everything in the room is the color of oatmeal. The sex tape will haunt us too, as its viewers and inhabitants. Most people watching would probably rather be Paris. One might think of online shopping emporia like Amazon, which are literally malls located nowhere. On an affective level, it is a threat invoking memory, that which we will be haunted by no matter how wild or mild our escapades. Lord of the Cock Rings! It is also, on a scale both private and global, spanning hard drive to market to ether, the threat of the sex tape. Sex tapes would seem to be a prime example of the body made commodity, a literalization of the late capitalist truism that there is nothing which is not market, including (or especially) shaky fellatio in motel lamplight. In a post-body landscape, I’m interested in where touch will take place. Is the sex tape ghostly because it follows you around, like a stigma, or because you can’t touch its bodies, no matter how real they seem? By assuming his point of view, do we become him? Like a ghost, he flits in and out of visibility, appearing sporadically in a corner of the mirror, bulked up by white towels. Yet for all its force, the threat is unclear. I’m haunted by its plastic smell, its inch-thick carpet and the red velvet curtain in the back, with a sign that said 18+ only. It is a threat suggesting the undeadness of digital images, their lack of mooring to one time or place. I think she is a prophet of the watched age, disarmingly sweet. An airport, with its sterile cheer, is the classic example: better yet, an airport bar, with its pseudo-European fixtures and French fries in a wire cone, its line of soft-bellied businessmen playing footsie and watching the game. She’s not a poster, but a ghost. There are many ways to define the term, put forth by French anthropologist Marc Augé to describe ‘a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity’. But the threat goes both ways. Perhaps my nineties childhood has instilled in me a tenderness toward VHS, on a par with my attraction to hot pink and Kelly green. She’s been the ghost in my closet and throat since ’02. It is a threat concerned with both the future and the past, pitting the soon-to-be-past you (so craaazy) against the distant-future you (with a reputation, with kids). Express yourself!!! The blurs, the shakes, the I-think-that’s-what’s-happening-there; the sense that physical bodies, once real in the classic sense, have been imperfectly conjured, and are now real in a different sense. The bleariness of her reproduction, against the bland drapes of a midsized hotel room, makes this statement of nonbeing feel poignant and true. It could be in Hollywood, or San Francisco, or an anonymous rest area off CA-1. Perhaps the naysayers are right: perhaps that sex tape will come back to haunt its eighteen-year-old star, her belly ring long since removed. In our parks? Rhetorically, it’s a curious phrase. The style swings from art film to Planet Earth documentary, MTV behind-the-scenes to The Blair Witch Project. One night in Paris becomes a lifetime supply, an unending season in Paris if that’s your go-to happy place. Things have always had the shimmer of the too-good-to-be-true. When the muzak plays, where does one dance? One might think of endless bureaucratic hallways, or endless bureaucratic email chains. She’s the reason I wore my pants ultra-low, the reason I draw out my vowels and talk slow. Personally I’m OK with getting rid of my body; I see the appeal of newer, better containers. This claim triggered a defamation suit from then-boyfriend and substandard cameraman Rick Salomon. In these televisual documents, one is presented with a frightfully candid world, replete with nonfictional objects like garbage and dogs, white noise, dirty linen, makeup strewn on the counter. Cut to my interest in amateur pornography, or, more sweetly put, the sex tape. These things might come back to haunt you. Later still, the camera is set on a table. Realcore prizes the uncanny, the creeping familiarity of piled towels and beige walls, of famous bodies bunched and bored in hotel suites. According to the logic of the non-place, to be in a Hilton hotel in Dallas is the same as to be in a Hilton hotel in Dubai or Dublin. We own her; she, a billionaire, owns us. Or vaguer still, is it the mere knowledge of the sex tape’s existence that will haunt you? There are those who say that you can learn everything you need to know about the twenty-first century from the Kardashians. The fantasy world one enters has more of the quality of memory, imperfect and banal, than cinema. Take your pick. Clutter becomes a signifier of authenticity, as does a certain distractibility. Regarding 1 Night in Paris, one might go so far as to say that to be in Paris Hilton is the same as to be in Paris, France, which is the same as to be in Paris, Texas. The sex tape presents realism for those who know that nothing is real. In her novella, dominatrix Reba Maybury describes a sub, nicknamed Humpty Dumpty, whose fantasy is being force-fed until he is so massive that he becomes a genderless blob.