Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal

Towards a Theory of the Dick Pic (NSFW)


Preliminary Materials

At this very moment, countless dicks compete for your attention. Some archived and waiting to be accessed through the same internet search tools you use to find new restaurants, some directed at you personally through the same applications through which you tell your family you are doing just fine. Surely, in your 5-block radius, someone is in the process of organizing his, her, or their junk for a photo, and someone has, to their disdain or delight, on a phone or computer that looks remarkably like yours, just laid their eyes on one.

Despite its omnipresence, the dick pic is remarkably under-theorized. Besides the click-bait paradigm of pathologizing individual senders (albeit sometimes deservedly), the aesthetics, history, and (yes) cultural significance of dick pics has yet to be worked out. But I'm taking up the task today. With a bit of panic and a lot of excitement about debasing my philosophical heroes, I will attempt to place the dick pic at the intersection of anatomical and juridical photography, the #selfie, pornography, and finally, the global brand.[1]


Photo Forensis

Even while the Tumblr Critique My Dick Pic urges its users to think beyond size (and, crucially, beyond gender), it seems essential to remember that measurements—size, width, length, girth, whatever—are some of the dick pic's primary obsessions. Consider how many include a lighter or pencil for scale—or, most literally, are framed against a measuring tape (as in a mug shot). This desperation to quantify persists despite the reams of seemingly excellent advice that sex partners couldn't care less, and the intuitive or experiential evidence that some particularly endowed forms do not function during sex. Size seems inherent to the dick pic's peculiar forensics.

Why the obsession with measurements? In the now-familiar narrative, photography served the essential modernist drive to link vision and truth. Allan Sekula's seminal text "The Body and The Archive," essential for discussing our collective compendium of single body parts, traces photography's perceived truth-function to its mobilization by the police. Indeed, the interpretive conventions of the photograph were established within phrenology and physiognomy, two disciplines bent on interpreting the body's "truths" through its measurements, most often to diagnose criminal or medical pathologies. Of course, during a period of European colonial expansion and in the midst of the emergence of Darwin's theory of evolution, the "truths" photography exposed were often classist, racist, and sexist fictions intended to legitimate class, racial, and gender differences "on organic ground."[2]

Two architects of the medical and criminological image serve as instructive examples for the dick pic's hermeneutics. In the late 1800s, French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon invented a schema for identifying suspected criminals that required their photo archived according to 11 measurements of their body—identification made possible through calculated comparison. Embedding each new photo in this expanding archive, Bertillon called for what Sekula described as "a massive campaign of inscription, a transformation of the body's signs into a text." That dick pics are, on some level, streams of textual 1s and 0s makes this inscription literal.

Around the same time, as Sekula tells it, Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, invented the composite photograph as a tool to determine a generic criminal type. Galton would take a series of photos on one piece of film and underexpose each according to the ratio of photos in the series so that, he argued, only the visual similarities would emerge. Here, the process called for by Bertillon is inverted: the archive is embedded in the photograph. Galton's methodology is a disturbing precursor of the algorithmic tools that construct our every photo, separating the signal from the noise according to predictive data generated by prior images. Each dick pic, then, bears the marks of all others that came before.[3]

Dick pics suggest that masculinity as we know it was a product of modernity's visual regime. Not only did modernity seek "a biologization of existing class relations," pathologizing the proletariat, as Sekula wrote, but a biologization of existing gender relations as well. It's not that modernity created the demand for a visual basis for masculinity—for centuries, at-birth gender assignments have violently enforced a binary schema on a continuum of genital cues. What modernism added to the farce of gender was the absurd idea that masculinity could exist as a rational quality on a scale, which makes some "more men" than others, and it proliferated the even more absurd idea that that "more" could be marked by the visual cue of a larger cock. At the heart of a dick pic, then, is a profound anxiety about value and the modernist notions that have governed our world.[4]

The dick pic, though, is rarely just about genitals. The discourse around 19th Century medical and juridical photos was characterized by a constant anxiety about extraneous information, prompting a need for what medical scholar Martin Kemp calls "visual pointing."[5] The crumpled sheets, bad lighting, and dirty bathroom floor of the average dick pic take the place of the extraneous details of fashion and setting in the early medical or juridical photo. The very conventions of the genre—and the lack of visual information in the average cock—ultimately promote the ground over the figure of the dick, and, by the logic of conspicuous consumption, highlight mise-en-scène—and not the dick itself—as the ultimate assessor of the dick pic's impact or import. In Suzannah Biernoff's words, "as historical and cultural artifacts, they inadvertently reveal too much."[6]

'Phillip Seymour Hoffman Died, Are You Over Me?'

Promotional images for Tex (Penny Ante, 2014)

In my brief appearance in Beau Rice's new book, TEXItell the narrator he lives in a perpetual state of "topping from the bottom." I submit the whole book as further evidence. Compiled from about a year of the writer's digital correspondence, TEX brandishes a kind of authorial whip only the masochist understands. It is an ultimately relational authority, diffused into multiple voices of friends, potential Craiglist sex partners, and mostly "Matt G."

If it was possible to say exactly who Matt G was to "Beau R," the book would lack one of its central joys: tracking the shifting relationship between Beau R (an employee of an alt bookstore in LA) and Matt G (a social worker in Austin, Texas), or Beau R (socially dysfunctional, well read) and Matt G (socially dysfunctional, well read), or Beau R (biting) and Matt G (deadpan), or Beau R (texter) and Matt G (textee), or, finally, Beau (the lover) and Matt G (the loved).

Long Live Immortality: Art as cryogenesis at Ashkal Alwan

Still image from the documentary Transcendent Man (2009), featuring Ray Kurzweil.

Bills, letters, clothes, books, records, photos, DNA samples—these are some of Fredric Kurzweil's personal effects, collected and stored by his son Ray, who will one day use this material to bring his father (who died when Ray was 22) back to life. Cataloged in a temperature-controlled room in Kurzweil's own home, this material betrays a personal basis for the noted futurist's most famous fixation: triumph over death.[1]

Kurzweil's home could be an off-site extension of A Museum of Immortality, which opened at Ashkal Alwan in Beirut last Wednesday. Organized by Anton Vidokle and based on a curatorial concept by Boris Groys, the exhibition takes its inspiration from Kurzweil's now obscure predecessor in the field, Russian cosmist and theologian, Nikolai Fedorov. In the mid-1800s, Fedorov beseeched humanity to join together in "The Common Task": resurrecting every human being who has ever walked the Earth. Both a devout Christian and proto-transhumanist, Fedorov believed that controlling the forces of nature and exploring the far reaches of space carried out God's will. For Federov (as for Kurzweil) death is an obstacle which technology must overcome.

Trolling Anal (Or, recent performance in LA)

Thursday, 2:30 am, four drinks deep, at the old Night Gallery Space, some schmoe is coming around the crowd with a lockbox and deck of cards, telling us to hand over our cell phones. "None of this can be recorded, you guys." I get a pat down, give up nothing, phone tucked safely in my coat. Most get snagged with a grunt or a whine. The process is endless. My traveling companion is on his third cigarette. (If there is one redeeming quality of this VIP-themed performance series / curatorial-themed party called Top 40 that has smeared across my last few weeks, it's that you can smoke inside.)

We're recovering or repressing. We just watched Vishwam Velandy leave a series of messages for women he claimed to have slept with, informing them, between "uhhs.." and chuckles, that he had seen a doctor and they'd better too, because he'd just been diagnosed with HIV. Then, after endless minutes, I'm getting squashed with elbows and shoulders, alternately averting my eyes and craning for a view of the floor in front of the DJ booth, where, with frat party fanfare, Eugene Kotlyarenko's girlfriend is inserting a zucchini into his ass, and a curious, deeply unpleasant combination of boredom and offense is flowering in my insides like Giardia.

Namaste, the ad begins: Bernays & Assoc. sells the e-cigarette

The following image-essay accompanies a performance given by Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal at This is the ENDD, a forum on the e-cigarette held on February 22. Video of Rosenthal's presentation can be found here.


The Bernays & Assoc. Strategy
for Vuse E-Cigarette, Appendix #2


Figure 1:

Figure 2: