In 1996, when Slate was about to launch and Culturebox was its culture editor, she argued often with friends who thought that the magazine had to be “Webby” and “participatory” and more like the Well than like the New Republic. Culturebox thought Slate would do fine as an old-media-style magazine that happened to publish on the Internet. Culturebox was wrong, obviously, as Slate (luckily) shows. But she didn’t realize how unfungible the Web and print had become until this weekend, when she picked up a copy of Nerve, the new print publication of Nerve.com that’s being “closely watched” (according to the Wall Street Journal) to see whether “a cyberspace publication can make it in the real world.”
The online version of this so-called “erotica” magazine, with its arty pictures and confessional meanderings and tony authors and a certain amount of silly science (such as the writings of gay-gene guru Simon LeVay), is beautifully suited to its medium. It’s the ideal five-minute distraction for those late nights when you’re working on an overdue project. A quick peek at one shadowy nude, and no more, honest! No off-putting sexism or exploitation, no embarrassment in case one of your stepchildren happens to wander in. Just old-fashioned “literary smut” (as they like to call it) that becomes boring at exactly the same moment your eyes get tired of staring at the screen and you realize that you have to get back to work.
But now there are 120 pages of literary smut to read, and what seems charming on slight acquaintance palls upon closer scrutiny. The magazine’s most cloying trait is its grad-student tone, a strain of earnest intellectualism that seems at first like a forgivable function of professional anxiety: The magazine’s editors don’t seem ready to become the randy outlaws that executives in the sex industry are invariably perceived as being. So the news articles in the front of Nerve make big claims for sex. Submissives in s/m bars have the power to subvert the patriarchal order. Desire is the mechanism underlying evolution. Talking about sex can lead to a more sophisticated humanism. Nerve.com co-founder Rufus Griscom lays this position out in an essay on the Nerve sensibility: “Its essence is this: The complexity of life is to be savored; little is more complex (and worthy of savoring) than the human experience of sexuality. It’s about a more modern, less judgmental attitude toward sex, and through sex, life.”
This may or may not be true (Milan Kundera is fond of arguing the contrary: that the modern refusal to make judgments about sex is reductive and dehumanizing), but that’s beside the point. As you page through the magazine, what you really hope is that all the improving discourse is a titillating cover for some juicy money shots later on–that it’s the editorial equivalent of the white-coated doctor who was brought on to introduce 1950s pornographic films. This is not the case. Nerve is neither the pleasingly faux-clinical Joy of Sex nor an exercise in Hugh Hefner-esque self-delusion about the core of Playboy’s appeal being its “philosophy.” Nerve is an intellectual’s publication to its core, a cultural-studies journal about the sexual experience that’s printed on glossy paper.
The pink painting by happening young artist Cecily Brown of penetration a posteriori is amplified by an Emily Dickinson poem about the redemptive qualities of shame. The first-person essay on the penile-implant experience posits that an adolescence of impotence had a radicalizing effect on the writer’s male identity. Even the cover package with TanyaTV star Tanya Corrin, featuring her posing naked with an likewise naked lanky young man, is strangely sterile. The models’ private parts are mostly hidden, either by other limbs or by clean white underwear, and when you look at the fine print, you realize that the entire story is a send-up of the fashion shoot that’s clever in theory but puerile in practice. Culturebox can’t quite explain why a pseudo-scholarly disquisition on sex, offered up with due respect for the correct transgressive positions (victimhood is empowered, the body is a commentary on fashion) rather than as, say, a dirty-minded parody, should be so unsexy. As a former boyfriend of Culturebox was fond of pointing out, the thing about porn is, it works. She has a hunch he’d think that Nerve does not.
[Writing in Slate in 1997, Sean Elder praised the editors of Nerve.com, who, he said, “feel no need to be tasteful, God bless ‘em.”]