While the times are inarguably grim, and dystopian literature suddenly seems all too real, the strange relevance of one of The Opiate Books’ first published works on the imprint, The PornME Trinity, is perhaps a more cautionary tale than ever as we move into forced self-quarantine. Below we discuss everything from the genesis of the project to the advent of coronavirus fetish porn.
The Opiate: Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of this project? Was it all helmed from a porn-fueled night of boredom or mere commentary on modern society?
David Leo Rice: It really came to me in the aftermath of the 2016 election, where I felt myself spiraling down a bottomless news-hole. For the first time, I was physically desperate for data, as if one more tweet, one more think piece, one more podcast could explain and, more importantly, soothe, my feelings about what had happened. Or maybe it had reached an even more animalistic level: it wasn’t that I had any mental expectations of what this data would do, it was that my body literally craved it, just as much as food and water. My mind was irrelevant to the process.
I started to realize that this response was in line with the forces that had caused that election in the first place; it felt like the completion of some process by which screens and entertainment had cannibalized reality, allowing us to elect someone whose only qualification was being entertaining onscreen, and whose main goal seemed to be to promote disregard for any reality outside his own constructed one. I felt terrified of what might happen to whatever reality did still exist outside of that, yet also numbed by the assurance that, no matter what it was, I would only ever experience it through a screen–and, as such, would gulp it down as more data, and be grossly satisfied by that.
At the same time, I found myself both fearing and longing for something beyond this: some traumatic event that would break through the screen, just as the trauma of that election had pulled me so deeply into it. So, when I started this story, porn was elevated into a complete mode of being, a sense of treating the real, even at its most intense and upsetting, as just more images to consume, while wondering if there could ever be an end to that state, or if it was a state that could incorporate its own end and thus prove eternal.
The Opiate: Was it always your intention to build the narrative out into three installments? Or was there something about Gribby’s character that kept calling back to you, begging to you to give him more pain?
David Leo Rice: I wrote the first one in a fugue of panic, as I was watching my attention spiral down the rabbit hole. It was really a means of trying to rescue my ability to write, by shunting my worst fears about my own lack of control onto Gribby. He was like a voodoo doll, absorbing my disgust at my own inability to disconnect from the churning meat grinder of the internet.
The other chapters came later, each about a year apart, as I realized that this could be a grander narrative. They were based on the strangeness of the feeling that the world was constantly ending, but hadn’t yet actually ended–this is why Gribby’s own death is fed to him as just one more flavor of porn. It’s a state I call “unworkable equilibrium,” in the sense that everything feels totally out of balance and yet, even as such, is in a kind of balance. Our lives feel permeated by fear and strangeness, but most of us are still able to go on living, perhaps even against our will.
I did want to subject Gribby to more and more pain, yet I also wanted to see if I could follow his narrative through to some redemption, even if only a porn-ified, pseudo-redemption.
The Opiate: Considering that the dystopia you depict in the book is already pretty much here, what boundaries, if any, do you think porn has left to push? And, speaking of, how do you feel about the fact that there’s already coronavirus fetish porn available?
David Leo Rice: I don’t know if it has any moral boundaries left to push. I suppose they’re all technological at this point, in terms of how immersive VR porn can and will become. What’s most interesting to me is how non-sexual forces, like climate change and war and political collapse, are also consumed as a kind of porn, stimulating us in this queasy middle zone where we know they’re real and yet still perceive them as fake. Classic sexual porn is the opposite: we know it’s fake, yet try to perceive it as real.
[The idea was] based on the strangeness of the feeling that the world was constantly ending, but hadn’t yet actually ended… It’s a state I call ‘unworkable equilibrium,’ in the sense that everything feels totally out of balance and yet, even as such, is in a kind of balance. Our lives feel permeated by fear and strangeness, but most of us are still able to go on living, perhaps even against our will.”
In terms of coronavirus fetish porn, that doesn’t surprise me at all. Building off of artists like William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg (the holy trinity of the PornME Trinity), I think there’s both beauty and horror in fetishizing disease and even death in this way. On the one hand, it’s obviously a callous response to something that may claim a great many lives; on the other hand, it shows the ever-evolving nature of human sexuality, which is, at least in some sense, a life force. It shows that our reproductive instinct can be awakened by our own demise, a fact that has some poetry to it.
And it’s fascinating to note that this seems to happen automatically: though I’m sure there are real people behind the coronavirus porn, it feels like an emergent principle, like somehow the world porn-ifies itself as it goes along, and humans are only here to lap it up. The most interesting question to me, if we think about fetishizing our own doom (as all apocalyptic thinking, no matter how justified, does) is whether this is a means of accepting death’s immediacy, or of further denying it. This is the essential question of porn itself: are we aroused by certain images because they feel real, or because they don’t (even if they are)? I wanted to explore this question in the book.
The Opiate: With regard to how intimacy is essentially a thing of the past, do you feel that a dependency on screens and porn has made actual human touch more or less devoid of meaning and importance?
David Leo Rice: I don’t know if all intimacy is dead, though I do think humanity is going through a transformation, wherein our instinct to reproduce is diminishing, probably for good reason in terms of the planet’s health. I don’t yet buy into the whole “we’re evolving into computerized beings” theory, but there’s no doubt that our sexuality is evolving away from one another, and toward digital spaces. What interests me about porn is the question of whether we use it to imagine sex with other humans, or whether we actually use it to engage in real sex with the computer. How much is it a fantasy of taboo or out-of-reach human contact, and how much is it engaging with the reality of being a person alone behind a screen?
The Opiate: What’s your take on porn-induced erectile dysfunction? Is it mere myth or does it hold weight in terms of men being desensitized to the sight of a “normal” IRL woman?
I’m sure it’s possible. In general, I think we’re developing an aversion to anything that comes to us unmediated. We’ve gone so far through the looking glass that screens now make reality real, rather than making it unreal. It’s like the tweet confirms the event now, rather than the event confirming the tweet–in a terrifying way, it almost doesn’t make sense to talk about “fake news” anymore, as we now only believe what we read, not what we see. If we meet someone IRL, without first “meeting” them digitally, they often strike us as suspicious, like we can’t imagine where they came from.
The current corona-quarantine will only exacerbate this, forcing everyone into even less physical contact, while tracking the virus through social media. Maybe it has to do with millennials having grown up not only in an age of ever-accelerating digital convenience, but also amidst the omnipresence of foreign wars that were (for most of us) never directly experienced. It was like a video game where we knew the stakes were real, yet could never perceive them as such. Same with mass shootings, for all but a handful of us. Most young people today, at least in the so-called “rich world,” have a vast breadth of digital experience but comparatively little IRL experience. Sex is just one facet of that, like a relic of how people used to be made.
The Opiate: If you could give Gribby–and all those like him–one piece of advice about how not to go down the porn rabbit hole, what would it be?
To have faith in something outside that matrix. For me, it was writing the story, and writing/art in general. I still, perhaps irrationally, or at least religiously, have a belief that these processes are worthwhile on a very high level. I believe they’re life-redeeming, in a way that, for me, nothing else is. I’m glad that I don’t (yet) have to question this belief. It’s an arbitrary but necessary determination of the “really real,” outside all digital contingencies. Maybe this is why fundamentalism of all kinds is growing around the world: people are desperate to put their faith in something, and there’s no longer any way to derive that faith from the perceptible reality around us.
…humanity is going through a transformation, wherein our instinct to reproduce is diminishing, probably for good reason in terms of the planet’s health.”
As such, the drive to produce art serves as my anchor at the edge of the rabbit hole, keeping me from spiraling all the way down. Gribby, though he’s not a bad guy at heart, has no such anchor.
The Opiate: Do you feel that, in some sense, society was better off when it was forced to go into the trenches, so to speak, for its porn?–i.e. the “glory days” of 70s Times Square? In other words, does porn have more clout when it’s not so “at one’s disposal”?
David Leo Rice: Nostalgia interests me because I have such an ambivalent relation to it. On the one hand, yes, definitely. When I read about the seedy experiences that someone like Burroughs or Francis Bacon went through, with all the drugs and prostitutes and orgies and disease and even death, or when I watch the films of John Waters, it’s hard not to romanticize that as a kind of pirate freedom that we now lack. Images of old Times Square, or New Orleans, or Paris, or any famously seedy locales from bygone eras, are immediately romantic to me. And there’s an intrinsic fetish quality to anything forbidden, like the famed “back room” of the video store, where kids know the dirty movies are kept.
At the same time, I’m skeptical of any “it was better then” kind of thinking. People always, it seems to me, romanticize the past while being glad they don’t live in it. If you asked me, right now, if we live in the worst of all possible worlds, I might glibly say yes, but if you then asked if I’d like to go back to any previous era, I’d say no.
The Opiate: Is this one of the more taboo/lurid subjects you’ve addressed in your work? And does it come from a more personal place than some of your other pieces?
David Leo Rice: I’m always trying to push boundaries in ways that feel productive, to kind of “get under the hood” of people’s consciousnesses by making them just uncomfortable enough to engage with a different perspective on reality, one that hopefully rings true to them if they’re willing to consider it. This book is my most sustained onslaught of X-rated material, though it’s also my most overtly mystical. The medieval mysticism I studied in college often posited a sexual relation between the individual and the cosmos–each endlessly penetrating and generating the other–so this was my attempt to update that style of writing for our digital age.
It was more personal in that it came from a reaction of visceral disgust at myself from bingeing on so much data while also fixating on my own impotence in the face of what seemed like a global catastrophe, though it was also less personal in that most of my work takes place in towns like the one I grew up in, whereas this one takes place in a deliberately generic “megacity,” and partakes of the media theory I read later in life.
The Opiate: What other projects do you have in the pipeline for 2020 and beyond?
David Leo Rice: The next few years, if we come through this virus and upcoming election season in one piece, will be busy. A Room in Dodge City: Vol. 2, the sequel to my first book, is coming out later this year, and Drifter Stories, a collection of my stories from the past ten years, is coming out in 2021. I’m also working on a new novel that takes a lurid, surreal look at the rise of ultra-nationalism across Europe. It’s my first attempt to thematize world politics within my bizarre fictional framework, though now I need to resist the temptation to filter the coronavirus in as well–the goal has to be making art from reality, rather than trying to mirror or “keep up with” reality, a project whose futility (both in the sense of being impossible, and of being pointless, even if possible) should now be clear to everyone.
Rice’s book can be purchased here. That is, if you’re not too busy fucking the apocalypse away (whether that means masturbating or otherwise).