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]

With digital photography, the inadvertent revelations of the dick pic expand: each photo can bear a time stamp, a location stamp, and an IP address. Now, just as the image is embedded in the archive of digital communication technologies, written in the 1s and 0s of code and the predictive algorithms of camera phones, the archive's system of classification—its metadata—is embedded in the image.


Phallus Envy

As former Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) learned through a well-documented sexting scandal, the juridical function of the dick pic is often trumped, in the public imagination, by the psychoanalytic insight it is thought to yield. Indeed, the first recipient of a dick pic is always understood to be the person making it. Besides the genre's notorious penchant for compositional errors, this self-editing and self-exploitation makes the dick pic an urgent object of psychoanalytic as well as photographic critique. From a psychoanalytic perspective, dick pics attempt to biologize an icon: the phallus—that mutable, privileged signifier of power which has inspired the obelisks of the ancients and the Freedom Towers of today. Of course, the penis always fails. A "wounded instrument of penetration," as Judith Butler writes, the penis is always symbolized by the phallus, yet fails to be it or possess it: "the anatomical part is never commensurable with the phallus itself. In this sense, men might be understood to be both castrated (already) and driven by penis envy (more properly understood as phallus envy)."[7] If the dick pic serves as evidence of one's actual, bodily penis, it can also be read as evidence of one's lack of symbolic, ideal phallus—evidence, in other words, of one's castration.

That "pic" always appears as an abbreviation offers a linguistic parallel to this symbolic snip. Dick pics are spasms of phallus envy—missing the lighting, fluffing, photoshopping technologies of porn, which are presumably meant to close the gap, but seem only to make it more visible. Besides the inevitable share with the BFFs, a dick pic is neutered by its circulation through a wider puritanical public. As Weiner learned, the dick pic relegates its subject from the phallic sphere of politics to the embodied everyday of the penis—a pathetic #fail. Often, as in Weiner's case, this failure can be tracked in the photo itself. Its aesthetics were subjected to a proprietary overhaul, watermarked by tabloids and incorporated into their content channels and revenue streams. Finally, the castration is doubled, and the dick pic ceased to be a photo at all, its visuals eclipsed by its reference in written news coverage—the sexting scandal has its own Wikipedia page. It is not the photo itself that circulates, but rather the two words "dick pic" that evidences sufficient degeneracy or embarrassment, its own rhyming punch line.


The Organ Without the Body

If the dick pic is under-theorized, the same cannot be said for its #SFW twin: the #selfie, taken with a smartphone and shared on social media, the topic of countless exhibitions and think pieces. "A selfie is not a portrait," Brian Droitcour has written, arguing that #selfies differ from self-portraits in that the portrait inscribes the self into history—an image to extend beyond the subject's life—while the #selfie inscribes the self into a contemporaneous, networked present. Cogent, but ultimately over-eager, his theory overstates the internet's role: photographs have always assumed a place within systems that give them meaning in the present. Every portrait, Sekula wrote, was simultaneously a look up at one's betters and a look down at one's inferiors, indexing petite bourgeois subjectivity embedded in an invidious, comparative system of ordering, not unlike aspirational purveyor of the #selfie, tallying Instagram likes.

"Every proper portrait has its lurking, objectifying inverse in the files of the police," Sekula wrote. Surely, every #selfie has its lurking, objectifying inverse in the dick pic. The dick pic marks a stage in photographic representations of the self unlike the portrait or the #selfie. For if both the photographic portrait and the #selfie subject humans to representation and quantification within an archive and a social sphere, then the dick pic figures what happens when humans extend the logic of that subjection to objectify—and dismember—themselves. If the #selfie invites competitive likes and favs, the dick pic (when not also aiming for a grade) seems to invite more, ahem, detached judgments—likely because most dick pics are headless, shot from the perspective of a camera placed in front of the face, and so notoriously full of feet. The networked camera stands in for the subject's gaze, overtakes it, and looks at the self as if an external object. This is not Droitcour's invitation for #artselfies—"Let us see you see you"—but instead, "Let us see you see yours" panoptically elided into just "Let's see it." This is not Deleuze and Guattari's body without organs, but the organ without the body.


Index This


As I write this paragraph, somewhere in Los Angeles my dreamy little slave is waiting for further instructions. I have something for him. An image I think he will like. I want something in return. It is an image as well. Some forms of exchange in our recent interactions include: emoji, clothes, songs, texts, images, spit. More might be: vulnerability, power, pleasure, pain. There is a foreground and a background in a transaction of digital photos across two iPhones, with equally material realities. On either side of our recurrent (…)s are our bodies, their surroundings, their productions (verbal, emotional, and otherwise), but also the faux palm tree scaffolding broadcasting his cell signal, my neighbor's modem (how I steal wifi), the fiber optic cables that tunnel beneath the city, connecting our data (how romantic), the government satellites tasked with surveying it, the guarded server farms where it is inevitably stored.

Many feminist critics rightly read the non-consensual dick pic symbolically, that is, as a symbol of rape and sexual abuse. Of course, this feminist critique aligns almost tragically with the misogynistic fantasy of desperate senders. But the symbol is only one kind of sign. Under Charles Peirce's well-worn triad (yup), the symbol takes its place alongside the icon, which bears resemblance to its referent, and the index, which points to, or evidences it: i.e., the word "fire," the flame emoji, smoke. 

Whether consensual or not, the dick pic can be taken as an icon of the genitals or, more convincingly, of the ideal phallus. But what if we read the dick pick indexically? In Sekula's words, an index "registers a physical trace" of its object—even if only in the microscopic transistors of a smartphone's flash memory. As an index, the dick pic registers not only the sender's body, but also the relationship between sender and receiver, and the larger system in which the dick pic is exchanged. What emerge are not just tried and true tokens of patriarchy, but also a patriarchal system of capitalist circulation that operates constantly without our consent. Certainly, our consent was not solicited for the massive data exchange between Google and PRISM, for the pervasive surveillance apparatus installed in public space, for the budgets and militarized tactics of police; lack of consent is a fundamental term of service for citizenship itself.

The word "dick" itself emerged indexically: a name for an everyman that pointed to a part that every man was thought to have. A central index of capitalism, we might argue, is the logo. The logo, in the form of a swoosh, a golden arch, even Hello Kitty, signals nothing except the abstract value of a commodity, not its materials (synthetic fabrics, questionable meat, soft plastic) but (as Marx would call it) its Spirit, animated through the necromantic process of exchange. As the mark of a brand, a logo implicates a product in the capitalist transition from use to exchange-value, serving as a visual cue for how this value is added. As an index, the dick pic points to the economy of affect, attention, and libido that has come to define the century. Ultimately, the dick pic functions as our economy's crowd-sourced logo.[8]


Cum Tribute Capital

The dick pic registers two massive shifts in the production of value: the well-noted transition from material to (feminized) immaterial labor, and the less-noted transition from productive to reproductive industry. In areas where capitalism organizes itself around finance, industry moves from producing to securing the possibilities of producing in the future. Just as the production of stable gender identities (and stable links between the body's organ's and reproductive functions) is essential to reproducing the biopolitical order, literally by reproducing the labor force, the reproductive industry of financial speculation ensures that the capitalist system doesn't die each day.

Financial speculation twins with new heights of resource extraction from laborers: emotional and libidinal fracking. As scholars of post-Fordism insist, labor in the global north consists of information management or affective theater: from purchasing entertainment to generating unpaid content, consumers offer their creativity for the benefit of corporations and their attention as a material resource; from the conviviality of retail to the confidence that animates the spirits of investment, consumers don't just buy things, they buy experiences, and laborers don't just sell products, they sell themselves. "Is It Love?" Brian Kuan Wood recently asked, that allows the precarious labor ordained by late capitalism to continue—helping us survive, but keeping us hooked?

We should congratulate the dick pic for its capacity to make visible the processes that structure our social whole. Late capitalism in the global north puts to work traditionally feminine competences—performative and emotional labor—occasioning an (overblown) "crisis of masculinity" by re-distributing to men those special kinds of exploitation from which men were historically protected. Though equal exploitation is not the kind of gender equality feminists have been seeking, the dick pic's phallic posturing takes on particular theatrical impotence here. Or, perhaps the dick pic would do better to adapt to its current conditions, as in, "Your Dick Looks Great in Those Heels."

While on the surface a dick pic suggests we read its erection as a signal (desperate or otherwise) of (predominantly male) potency—that is, as a phallus—what an erection signifies in the context of late capitalism is not agency but attention—standing at it and asking for it, simultaneously. Within the context of communication technologies in which it appears and circulates, the dick pic is more subjection than subject. And this, often, is its great virtue.

"The attention economy requires one to be permanently erect," Paul B. Preciado wrote in Testo Junkie, his illuminating treatise on contemporary biopolitics. Surely, the dick pic reflects a profound libidinal cathexis in audiovisual industries and within communication technologies. If a logo is that which represents how value is added to a commodity through processes of exchange, then the dick pic captures precisely that moment when what's added is our very own attention and energy. To the circulation of images, affects, and information that sustains contemporary capitalism, we offer our bodies, ourselves. "The raw materials of today's production processes," Preciado insists, "are excitation, erection, ejaculation, and pleasure." If, as we've seen, photography was always inseparable from its disciplinary instrumentalization, then dick pics enact and—like pornography—extend this instrumental function: to discipline, and at the same time, to generate value-form arousal—that is, arousal easily re-circulated within systems of capital exploitation.

Leave it to a distinguished genre of the dick pic to portray this cybernetics best: the cum tribute, that dick pic that contains within it the image that apparently occasioned it in the first place. As dick pics go, cum tributes are raunchy mixed media works expert in a kind of graphic layering that epitomizes the digital age: a photograph, cum, and the obligatory hard dick. Certainly an uptick in cum tributes to actor Emma Watson since her recent foray into public intelligence might be a pitiful reminder of proprietary phallus-posturing; yet how easy it is, in the psychosexual imaginary, to reverse our perception of domination and submission. As every middle schooler knows, erections are almost embarrassingly literal: arousal and its cause. Who sacrificed a retina screen or a magazine? For what is a #tribute without sacrifice? And ultimately, fantasies (no matter what's in them) are as consensual as sex can get.

Truly, I defy you to find a pictorial genre that better reflects an exchange of information and affect. Fuck "semiocapital." Fuck the "pharamapornagraphic era." This is Cum Tribute Capitalism. In this economy of images and affective value additions, the dick of the average cum tribute might just provide a silhouette for our immaterial labor, the contours of our collective neoliberal shadow. Is it love? The answer, my darling fuck prisoner, is yes.

Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal is a nerd-based artist and sometime switch. If you are not her dad, you can find her at @un_frack or


[1] I take comfort in the first sentence of Judith Butler's "The Lesbian Phallus" here: "After such a promising title, I knew that I could not possibly offer a satisfying essay; but perhaps the promise of the phallus is always dissatisfying in some way."

[2] For example, Liet.-Col. William Marshall used phrenology to study "the mysterious process by which, as appears inevitable, savage tribes melt away when forced into contact with superior civilization." "Isolated races," he wrote, "present scarcely more differences in appearance and character than any one dog does from any other in the same kennel of hounds." (quoted in Kemp, 129)

[3] This predictive data has material bio-feedback. By positioning individuals according to their deviation from the mean, medical photographs are indispensible to the assignment of gender in newborns, a practice which has even involved surgical reconstruction of the genitals. See Suzanne J. Kessler, "The Medical Construction of Gender: Case Management of Intersexed Infants" in Signs, Vol. 16, No. 1, (Autumn, 1990), pp. 3-26.

[4] It seems essential to contextualize epistemologies of race here. Certainly, the biologization of racial meaning was equally essential to modernist aims: racist ideology is often concerned with black male (hyper)sexuality, just as racist practice often involved castration. Secondly, pornography's bizarre linguistic repetition of racial signification in stupidly close proximity to a sex organ, i.e. "black cock," seems intuitively to demonstrate a twin anxiety about how neither race nor gender can really be said to inhere as properties, and to highlight race and gender as discursive categories.

[5] See Martin Kemp, "'A Perfect and Faithful Record': Mind and Body in Medical Photography before 1900," in Beauty of Another Order: Photography in Science, ed. Ann Thomas (Yale University Press, 1997), 122. 

[6] Suzannah Biernoff, "Flesh Poems: Henry Tonks and the Art of Surgery," Visual Culture in Britain (March 2010, 11(1)), 25–47.

[7] Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 2014), 62, 85.

[8] Harry Dodge's 2010 video, An Analog Comments on Itself, perhaps predicted this argument: a slimy tenderloin-as-cock with a gash for a mouth wiggles to a breathy beat and smugly reminds us, "there are no holes or gaps in the machine."