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porn and democracy

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From Hannah Dawson’s review (paywalled) of Margret Grebowicz’s Why Internet Porn Matters in the current issue of the TLS

Grebowicz [...] argues that despite its theoretical potential, internet pornography tends to oppress rather than emancipate. The “free speech” that it embodies still belongs in large part to men, objectifying and subjugating other human beings. The many testimonies of self-empowerment from the “victims” of the industry are matched by first-person reports of misogyny, degradation, rape and incarceration. Rather than opening up an egalitarian space for self-construction, the file-sharing, file-ranking chatrooming online realm is creating communities all the more powerfully by normalizing discourses that preclude our saying anything new or real. “Internet pornography”, writes Grebowicz, “emerges as the perfect manifestation of the babbling political body, the speechless mass, in which every subject is interchangeable for every other, exercising its rights and expressing, more and more, telling us what we already know, climaxing, climaxing, always recognizable and predictable.”

The final sentence of the paragraph rings a bit oddly against what precedes it. While “speechless” sounds ominous, the “babbling” of the “political body” sounds like an only slight pejorative rendition of democracy. Interchangeability is ambiguous too, as it is both the result of capitalism’s reduction of us labourers to replaceable parts and, again, a quality of democratic equality. The exercise of rights, in particular the right to expression, too is of course a staple of the democratic diet. But the point of the paragraph seems to be that porn is underwritten by and a source of profitable reenforcement to the powers that be, in particular, men.

So there’s complexity at play here: internet pornography presents an ambiguous vision of freedom that is subtended by a business apparatus that depends upon the very opposite of freedom. In this, it stands (like so many other cultural products, but  more intensely and viscerally) as an uncannily accurate aesthetic mirror – a reflection more than a representation – of the political and economic conditions that obtain today in the world. On the aggregation sites, it seems, everyone has a voice, the cascading streams of thumbnails suggest a world in which all are represented, all represent themselves, and all are of course taking great pleasure in this rhythm of representing and being represented. And the consumer in turn sifts her or his pleasure out of this capacious pot of pleasure-taking and freedom-having. Everyone is equal, ostensibly, in their interchangeability – one’s acts are as free and pleasurable as those of the next. It can start to sound almost utopian, when described this way. But, of course, in the end and as in the world itself, almost all of this performance is stage-managed by those who profit from the exploitation of others. *

Given all this, a few questions to start. First, a quiet aesthetic question posed by internet pornography, perhaps, is what we do with its banality – the fact that it is constantly “telling us what we want to know” – in view that we incessantly come back to taste the banality again. There further is another quiet question, this time politico-aesthetic, about what this banality has to do with the conditions of its production and the means of its distribution.

But beyond these two, there’s an age old matter of ethics – and the ethics of the aesthetic – at play, one that queries the relationship between exploitation and representation, empathy and what we might call “forced performance” which has troubled the better sort of critic and writer since the very beginnings of literature itself, and which manifests itself at certain vividly aporetic moments as history moves forward. (One relatively recent example – Ruskin’s implication that the gothic cathedral is actually more beautiful than the pyramids because of the freedom of the workers who made them. But can that be right? Does free trade coffee actually taste better than that which is more exploitatively sourced?)

How much relieved sexual dissatisfaction is the suffering of a single human being worth? What am I to make of my enjoyment of the fruits of other’s struggles? Does it matter whether I am aware of the mechanics of production of that which I enjoy? How are we to understand the nexus of volition and exploitation, of willed self-exploitation and exploited wilfulness, that underwrites not only pornography but the increasingly illiberal world-space of “liberal capitalism”?

I have a sense that this perpetually recoded algorithm of suffering and enjoyment, repression and representation, is one of the matters that it has always been and still is essentially worthwhile for us to take up. Further, it is a question that has everything to do with the issues at play in the article by J.M. Coetzee that I discuss in this post. But more on that, I promise, soon…. A continuation of this is already in the works…

* Please note that I am – for the sake of starting up a line of thought – side-stepping for the moment several very important issues here. They include the very non-representative nature of porn (obviously not anything like “everyone” is represented there, no matter how many hundreds of thousands of videos exist to be viewed) as well as the extremely complex issues of exploitation and agency in the production of porn. These need to be addressed… but for now, let me just juggle a bit with the terms of the argument and description of the situation as presented in the review I have started from…

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 6, 2014 at 1:30 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I realise that I’m breaking one of my own rules – one of the things that I castigate others for – in this post by ending with what is basically a series of questions and stumps for further writing. Bothers me when people do that, as some of you know. The pseudo-polemical column or essay that rather than ending somewhere, even if it’s a sharply delimited “somewhere,” asks a bunch of questions (probably without answers), bangs the zen gong, and then collects the paycheck.

    My only excuse is that this is a blog and I use it as a working journal, a notebook. (You might have a vague intimation of a New Year’s Resolution at work here, given my prolixity lately…) But I do promise to lead this somewhere, just can’t quite get there yet.

    adswithoutproducts

    January 6, 2014 at 1:47 pm

  2. A very interesting article. I had to read it a second time just to make sure I understood what you were getting at (but I’m a little slow after just waking up) but I like the questions you raised. When you talked about how we “incessantly come back to taste the banality again” it peaked my interest with regards to porn addiction. Incessantly returning to something sounds similar enough to an addiction to me. Porn addiction is not in the DSM, so defining it is difficult. The stats are terrifying, if a bit nebulous.

    That infographic would lead me to believe that even the banal can be dangerous. I can’t say much on the ethical issue you raised, as I’m not a consumer of porn. I’ll leave that point to those who have ground to stand on. Once again, interesting article bud.

    Sam

    January 6, 2014 at 3:02 pm

  3. […] * So there’s complexity at play here: internet pornography presents an ambiguous vision of freedom that is subtended by a business apparatus that depends upon the very opposite of freedom. Porn and democracy. […]

  4. Josh

    January 7, 2014 at 9:37 am


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