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Archive for January 2014

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…

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January 6, 2014 at 1:30 pm

the default mode: sociality, distraction, and concentration

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From Julian Baggini’s essay / review on “sociality” in today’s Financial Times. Here, in particular, he’s discussing Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

Lieberman’s task is in some ways the most straightforward. His aim in Social is to impress upon us just how much we have learnt in recent years about the wiring of our brains. Social thinking is so fundamental that it fills our consciousness whenever we switch off from any pressing task. This “default mode network” activity “precedes any conscious interest in the social world”, having been detected in babies as young as two days.

Most neuroscientists believe we have a dedicated system for social reasoning, quite different to the one that is used for non-social thinking. What’s more, when one system is on, the other turns off. Lieberman explains how the social system fulfils three core tasks. First, it must make connections with others, which involves feeling social pains and pleasures, such as those of rejection or belonging. Second, it must develop mind-reading skills, in order to know what others are thinking, so as to predict their behaviour and act appropriately. Finally, it must use these abilities to harmonise with others, so as to thrive safely in the social world.

This notion –  that we have two parallel systems, one for the non-social thinking involved in dealing with “pressing tasks” and another “default mode” that inherently angled towards the social – is an interesting one. And it’s one that seems intuitively true, given how incredibly easy it is to slip from concentrated hard work to checking in on what one’s friends (real and “only electronic”) are saying on social media networks and the like. Of course, it doesn’t even take an online connection to feel the gravitational pull of the social (or even that particularly intense form of the social known as the “sexual”) when we are hard at work on something that requires fixed attention. (See, for instance, Inigo Thomas’s recent LRB piece on the British Library pick up scene – he’s basically written down what everyone chatters about when on the topic of the BL). 

But what I’m wondering about here is not so much the default social mode (which I’m convinced exists) but the other mode, the mode of that runs when completing the “pressing task” – the mental state that we are in when we successfully refuse ourselves yet another check of our email accounts or twitter scrolls. I’m working from a review here, so Lieberman might have it completely differently in his book, but isn’t there also a complex “sociality” to the ostensibly non-social forms of concentrated attention?

In my own work, for instance, which consists mainly of writing, preparing to teach, and marking students’ work, there’s always a implicit, virtual conversation going on as I compose or correct with the readers or audiences that I am planning or at least hoping to communicate with. Of course, the forms of work that require my concentration may be more social that what others have to accomplish – an accountant or an engineer isn’t necessarily expecting to deliver the fruits of her spreadsheet calculations or CAD diagrams to a lecture hall full of people. But even then – and even when I have to devote myself to the calculation of student marks or the tedious estimation of MA admissions returns – isn’t there a deeper, more cryptic sociality involved in the completion of these seemingly inherently solitary tasks. After all, without a sense of the students who are awaiting the marks, my boss who expects me to get the numbers right and on time, the university superstructure that expects students to graduate with full transcripts and seminar rooms next year that are full of students, would I ever even begin to get these (often excruciatingly boring) things done?

Freud coined a term for the deepest, darkest, and most hardwired of the secret interlocutors that converse  (if “converse” is the word, rather than “cajole”, “chastise,” etc) with us as we complete our daily tasks – or engage in any aspect of our quotidian behaviour. He called it the “superego,” that aspect of our psychologies which takes the shape of an internalized, virtual version of authority figures – first parents, later other figures like teachers or religious leaders – and with whom we negotiate constantly. As he has it in The Ego and the Id:

The super-ego retains the character of the father, while the more powerful the Oedipus complex was and the more rapidly it succumbed to repression (under the influence of authority, religious teaching, schooling and reading), the stricter will be the domination of the super-ego over the ego later on—in the form of conscience or perhaps of an unconscious sense of guilt.

In other words, I agree with Lieberman’s thesis about the inherent sociability of human thought and work. But – again conceding that I haven’t read his actual book, only the review – I wonder whether the “default mode” isn’t even more default than he’s making it there. I wonder, in short, if  it isn’t when when we’re most alone, when we’re as concentrated and “unplugged” as we can be, that the voice of the other – even if it comes from nowhere but within our own minds – shouts at us the loudest.

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January 4, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Posted in distraction, sociality