Saturday, April 7, 2007
concerning pornography: a meditation on flannery o'connor
Sharon Sprung, "Folding Chairs" (2006)
Flannery O'Connor identifies two sins of art: sentimentalism and pornography. Pornography has several characteristics, but the one that draws the most attention from her is the breakdown of the public/private split. But perhaps one should reformulate this in a couple of ways; pornography can invoke at least two distinct strategies. First, it can proceed covertly, allowing the consumer (and porn is packaged for consumption; it lives on hunger and its own ability to depersonalize the product so it can be devoured) to indulge the desire which has been defined as illicit, while allowing the conscience to comfort itself by ultimately reaffirming the taboo that is the basis for the desire, and punishing the illicit behavior. A vast majority of crime drama functions precisely in this way – enticing the consumer through access, often, to sexual fantasies, especially of violence against women (e.g., the Nicholas Cage film "8mm" to a vast majority of the episodes of 'Law and Order: SVU'). This violence/sexuality at once titillates and entertains (all the hallmarks of classic porn), but always with the expectation, and ultimately fulfillment of, the criminal's punishment: the law of masochism! In this way the consumer is allowed to explore what is a very real desire (there would not be an audience if in fact no one was entertained), given a peak into a sexual world that is not "normal", is "taboo", but reassured that they are better off without the reality (and to be clear, this is not limited to sexual entertainment – e.g., "Terminator 2" founders helplessly in this tension). In this way it offers the virtual as an escape, secretly constituting the Real as flat and empty, and thereby deflecting desire.
But more explicitly, and traditionally, pornography is the use of the Real itself for entertainment. In this way, once again, the Real is emptied of depth and made into a commodity. Yet, this is, precisely, the very basis of the capitalist understanding of labor: the belief that human actions can be disconnected from the real life of a person, abstracted and consumed. And so the extension of pornography into the work place (e.g., reality t.v.) and other areas of life is unavoidable. Capitalism is pornography – the packaging of life for sale on the basis of the old theatrical/liberal/transcendental lie that we are not what we do: the disection of life into easily digestible, disconnected and meaningless moments.
What disgusts about the pornographic – or perhaps better to say, stigmatizes those associated with it – marginalizing or re-pulsing them to a state of social exile – is that they confront, unabashedly, the founding truth of the social-economic organization of this historical moment and present it naked and undeniable; there is nothing so intimate that it cannot be sold, nothing so interior to who we are that it cannot be commodified, marketed and consumed. The pornographers (or whatever one wishes to call them), the prostitutes: these are to contemporary society what the hangman was to a previous era: the stark image of the violence on which the society secretly thrives.
Let the one without sin throw the first stone.