Why Porn Now?

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.

11 Responses to “Why Porn Now?”

  1. James says:

    Pornography is traded as a commodity within the category of affect, like the trade in resentment and sentimentality. But it is its use value as opposed to exchange value that attracts suspicion and interest. This is where it is exceptional and where it is amenable to Lacanian analysis. It is useful as an aid to masturbation and sexual activity generally, but only at a second remove. In the first instance it directly produces the Imaginary. In practice, resentment and sentimentality embody relationships of social solidarity, but sexual imagining as Lacan reminds us is completely unsupportive of relationships and therefore stands outside the Marxian concept of productivity. Use value may be irrelevant to a discussion of the social logic of pornography, but I think this is where it acquires its cache.

  2. Sean says:

    Kool Keith’s album Sex Style might be a heterosexual equivalent of Delany’s efforts in The Mad Man and Phallos.

    Delany goes beyond the limits of pornography (doesn’t he call these works “anti-pornography”?) in the “art of living” sense mentioned above and through the complementary support of any sort of healthy desire (e.g. Marr’s defense of Stephen Dobolowski’s sexuality, a very moving support of a friend).

    I’m interested in Delany’s use of the nightmarish beast in both The Mad Man and Phallos.

  3. wedge says:

    An interesting failed experiment is Alan Moore’s ‘Lost Girls’. This highly disappointing book attempted to make pornography ‘beautiful’ and ‘artistically important'; but instead falls back onto pastiche of Victorian erotica. Even it’s most ‘shocking’ passages fall dead as porn. Nice artwork by Melinda gebbie, though.

    It is a similar problem to that of Delaney. The adventures of the character’s bodies seem to have no ‘impact’ on their physical being (I disagree that sexuality is ‘all in our heads’). Celebrating total sexual freedom comes accross as a kind of denial of even the most rudimentary social relations. Perhaps we are so used to the most figuratively visceral images to create the
    desired ‘effect’.

  4. Sean says:

    Interesting points by wedge, but I think wedge’s criticisms should be considered alongside Delany’s epilogue to The Mad Man, which I think situates the novel’s body politics (though I’m not sure I’ve come to terms with how it does just that).

  5. So does that mean I need to finish reading ‘Tours of the Black Clock’?

  6. BHARATH MURTHY says:

    i was just about to mention Alan Moore’s Lost Girls when i noticed that Wedge has already done that– i’ll add that perhaps it might be better to distinguish between photographic/motion picture porn which has an ‘indexical’ relation to reality and the drawn or written porn, wich is what Alan Moore and Samuel Delany are doing. its somethnig else when two people fucking are being shot with a video camera.

  7. paul moor says:

    how about porn as a model for artmaking–a kind of return to the amaterurish, the idiosyncratic, to desire, the body, little perverse drives, etc? i m thinking of home-made porn (rather than high-gloss mags and movies) and pitting it against the spectacular filmic installations and “architecturalized” sculpture that museums and biennials seem to favor these days…porn, after all, is an important influence in the homoerotically-charged, homespun sculptures and paintings of folks like richard hawkins and elliot hundley, in the films of william jones, etc..it’s not sexuality pushed to the point of extremity and exhaustion but reeled back in to a personal, weird, even domestic and mundane place that balks at the demands of current discourse…something like the perverse double of a joseph cornell aesthetic…

  8. Yusef says:

    “It [Porn today] 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.”

    “Delany presents “extreme” sex as a form of civility and community, an adornment of life, a necessary part of the art of living well.”

    I don’t understand why Delany’s presentation of “extreme” sex as a form of civility and community, (etc.), doesn’t embody a logic of indifferent equivalence… I don’t understand why you offer Delany’s presentation as an alternative to that logic.

    I appreciate that Delany’s presentations do not tie sexual allure and excitement to a sense of transgression understood as transgression against rules,laws, parental expectations, the order of the workaday world, (etc.) … That something is wrong if sexual drive is hinged to these.

    But I think that in order to qualify as a logic of difference- nonequivalence of social relations, Delany needs to develop or retain some sense in which sexuality and having sex IS different and nonequivalent to, say, playing tennis or eating a burrito.

    It’s not that great an accomplishment to normalize sexuality or any other human activity which so far in western history has fallen outside the domain of what’s been called proper social activity; what’s hard is to do that without molarizing that activity. ( Incorporating the activity by subtracting what is different about it.)

  9. rupert says:

    I find this point interesting “ethics/aesthetics of the body and its pleasures, freed from the dreary dialectics of sexuality and transgression” because it seems to me a remark referencing the lost left-overs of the 18th century as Dr Bloch describes as “the systematizing of sexual love”, drawing up through aesthetic theory a “codex of machlosophy”. Somehow pornography is the residue of this systematization, the by-product of desire because as a media of some kind it has rekindled itself as genre and form, rather than a process of concept and ideas that may be presented as a media.

    rups

  10. Jason Hesiak says:

    Steve,

    I’ve been following your blog lately, and find it fascinating. I’m a Christian. I suspect you are not, but of course I could be wrong. Just so you know where I’m at. Anyway, I have thoughts on this post, which no one has yet mentioned in your comments, I don’t think…

    When I read the following: “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.”

    …and (keeping in mind that I read your post on Delany, and have been in conversation with ktismatics (John Doyle, you’ve probably conversed with him) on David Lynch and Inland Empire and such things…regarding the difference between a structured unconscious and the consious as the formation of what stands beneath it) my first thought was, “Doesn’t marriage do the same thing, in terms of ‘freed from the dreary dialectics of sexuality and transgression'”? My thought here was based on something a good married friend of mine said recently…that, after marriage, sexual activity “wasn’t the same.” It didn’t provide the same “rush” that had previously come with its feeling “wrong.”

    Thanks, man. Your blog is cool.

    Jason

  11. [...] l’observait déjà en 2006 Steven Shaviro dans un billet de son blog : « Dans des romans comme The Mad Man et Phallos, Delany imagine une sexualité [...]

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