The German art magazine Texte Zur Kunst is planning a forthcoming issue “which deals with the production, reception and theoretization of pornography.” They are including a survey in which they ask a large number of people for brief statements about the status of pornography today, asking (among other things) Do you agree with the thesis of an increasingly pornographic logic of social relations and political conditions?” Here’s my response:
Why Porn Now? In fact, I don’t believe that Now is the time. Of course, there’s more stuff available these days than ever before: extreme porn, gonzo porn, DIY porn, and what have you. Explicit images are everywhere. No fetish, no kink, is so obscure that you can’t find a group devoted to it on the Net, complete with ready-to-download videos. But I find it hard to regard all this as a triumph of anything besides niche marketing. Today, in the era of globalization, electronic media, and post-Fordist flexible accumulation, everything is a commodity. We have reached the point at which even the most impalpable and evanescent, or intimate and private, aspects of our lives — not just physical objects, but services and favors, affects and moods, styles and atmospheres, yearnings and fantasies, experiences and lifestyles — have all been quantified, digitized, and put up for sale. It’s true, of course, that there are many social forces opposed to the proliferation of pornography, and more generally of sexual fantasies and possibilities. In the United States, voters routinely approve anti-homosexual ordinances, and politicians and preachers score points by demanding action to stem the flood of “obscenity.” But really, isn’t this hysterical moralism just the flip side of marketing? The main effect of these crusades is to give pornography, and more generally all forms of nonprocreative sex, the shiny allure of transgression and taboo. And that, in turn, only serves to stimulate the consumer demand for porn-as-commodity, and sex-as-commodity…
In fact, there is nothing more banal than the spectacle of a right-wing politician who turns out to have a passion for teenage boys, or the minister of a fundamentalist megachurch who is discovered to be hiring rent boys on the side. (I cite only the two most recent of the incessant pseudo-scandals that make headlines in the American media). It’s no longer possible to understand these pathetic closet cases in terms of Freudian repression, or the Lacanian Symbolic, or any of the old categories of depth psychology. Rather, their logic is a commodity logic: fetishism in the Marxist sense, instead of the Freudian one. All our affects and passions are perfectly interchangeable, subject to the law of universal equivalence. That is to say, all of them are commodities, detached from the subjective circumstances of their affective production, and offered up for sale in the marketplace. Today our fantasies and desires — indeed, “our bodies, ourselves” — seem to be outside us, apart from us, beyond our power. And this is a very different situation from that of their being repressed, and buried deep within us. Commodities have a magical attraction — we find them irresistable and addictive — because they concretize and embody the “definite social relations” (as Marx puts it) that we cannot discover among ourselves. In the fetishism of commodities, Marx says, these social relations take on “the fantastic form of a relation between things.” The secret sex life of the right-wing politician or preacher is thus a sort of desperate leap, an attempt to seek out those social relations that are only available in the marketplace, only expressible as “revealed preferences” in the endless negotiations of supply and demand. In short, such a secret life is nothing more (or less) than a way of getting relief by going shopping — which is something that we all do. This realization dampens down whatever Schadenfreude such incidents might otherwise afford me.
Therefore, I don’t accept “the thesis of an increasingly pornographic logic of social relations and poltical conditions.” To the contrary: there is nothing exceptional, central, or privileged about pornography and the “pornographic” today. Pornography simply conforms to the same protocols and political conditions, the same commodity logic, as do all other forms of production, circulation, and consumption. Porn today isn’t the least bit different from cars, or mobile phones, or running shoes. It embodies a logic of indifferent equivalence, even as it holds out the thrilling promise of transgression and transcendence — a promise that, of course, it never actually fulfills.
Is it possible to imagine a pornography freed from this logic? Perhaps some recent writings by Samuel R. Delany provide an alternative. In novels like The Mad Man and Phallos, Delany envisions a sexuality pushed to the point of extremity and exhaustion. There are orgies of fucking and sucking, elaborate games of dominance and submission, and episodes of violence and destruction, together with enormous quantities of piss and shit and sweat and cum. Yet there’s no sense of transgression in these texts. Instead, the meticulously naturalistic thick description places these episodes firmly in the realm of the everyday. Delany presents “extreme” sex as a form of civility and community, an adornment of life, a necessary part of the art of living well. Delany’s is the only writing I know that answers Michel Foucault’s call for an ethics/aesthetics of the body and its pleasures, freed from the dreary dialectics of sexuality and transgression. As such, it provides an alternative as well to the relentless commodification that permeates every corner of our postmodern existence.