Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0
J.A.A. Purves

Pornography & Culture

15 posts in this topic

(Past A&F threads on Normalizing Pornography, Hostel, Another Sex in Movies Thread, Fifty Shades of GreyGoodbye Lenin and, perhaps most relevant, How do we determine if what we're seeing is "lurid"?)

There is a ton of analytical stuff online about this subject now, but since it is a moral issue that I may need to address in writing or teaching in the not-to-distant future, and since it is always an issue that is often unfortunately not distinguished from the arts, I think it would be worth devoting an A&F thread to it.

Most recently there has actually been quite an interesting cultural conversation on the effects of pornography since Time Magazine's April 2016 cover story "Porn and the Threat to Virility."  Since that article refused to ask some particularly relevant moral questions, it was responded to in more conservative circles by National ReviewFirst Things, Southern Baptists, The American Conservative, The Gospel Coalition, etc.  Another result of this conversation is when some lawmakers decide to try and do something about it again, Utah being the most recent example (where some legislators are actually modeling their proposed legislation off of some new laws in England).

I don't buy the connections that are often argued in order to try to prove that pornography causes criminality, but I can also admit that we have a serious cultural problem when it is possible for sexual assault to become more important as a spectacle to watch than as anything else.  Meanwhile, the mounting scientific evidence that watching pornography changes the neurological wiring of one's brain also seems fairly solid.

Most recently, I’ve read the following memorable pieces on the subject.  I think they are worth thinking about.  I don’t necessarily agree with all of them.

Alexander Rhodes, “The conversation we’re not having about porn”, The Washington Post, May 26, 2016:
“... The negative effects of over-consuming Internet pornography is a well-documented phenomenon. Combine this with porn’s wild popularity and you have a recipe for a genuine public health concern. Individuals with porn problems are members of relationships, families, workplaces and communities, so individual porn problems trickle up to become societal problems. After all, we treat drugs, alcohol and gambling as serious issues not because everyone who partakes in them has an addiction but because the problematic few have a deleterious effect on our communities as a whole.

In recent years, discussions on pornography’s effects have been popping up throughout the Internet. The frequency of these conversations has escalated as the first generation of people raised on Internet porn is reaching adulthood and beginning to experience the detrimental effects of going through puberty using porn.

Thousands of individuals, often young and male, are reporting that using porn multiple times per day trained their brains to associate their sexualities with pixels on their computer screens, rather than sexual activity with human beings. They are reporting that they have a decreased interest in seeking out human partners, and if they do so, they often cannot achieve sexual arousal during partnered sex, have a decreased sensitivity to pleasure or cannot experience an orgasm without porn or porn fantasy. Interestingly enough, when these people remove one variable from their lives — using porn — most of the time their symptoms are reduced or reversed.

Their discussions have finally drawn the interest of researchers, clinicians and journalists. In reaction to their complaints, some good research is underway on the effects of porn addiction, such as the 2014 University of Cambridge study that used brain imaging to show that the porn-addicted brain reacts to porn cues the same way the drug-addicted brain reacts to drug cues. Yet some critics say there’s not enough evidence to support the idea that porn addiction is a public health problem, or even a real disorder. While there is already plenty of research available that confirms the existence of porn addiction, further research will require funding, ethics committee approval and willing test subjects.

These things require public interest, which requires open discussion about the subject — discussion that has been previously restricted to online forums and confidential sessions between clinicians and porn-addicted clients. If ‘Internet gaming disorder’ is documented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, why not ‘Internet pornography addiction’? ...”

Mary Eberstadt, “Is Pornography the New Tobacco?”, The Hoover Institution, April 1, 2009:
“... Today’s prevailing social consensus about pornography is practically identical to the social consensus about tobacco in 1963: i.e., it is characterized by widespread tolerance, tinged with resignation about the notion that things could ever be otherwise. After all, many people reason, pornography’s not going to go away any time soon. Serious people, including experts, either endorse its use or deny its harms or both. Also, it is widely seen as cool, especially among younger people, and this coveted social status further reduces the already low incentive for making a public issue of it. In addition, many people also say that consumers have a “right” to pornography — possibly even a constitutional right. No wonder so many are laissez-faire about this substance. Given the social and political circumstances arrayed in its favor, what would be the point of objecting?

Such is the apparent consensus of the times, and apart from a minority of opponents it appears very nearly bulletproof — every bit as bulletproof, in fact, as the prevailing laissez-faire public view of smoking did in 1963. In fact, just substitute the word “smoking” for that of “pornography” in the paragraph above, and the result works just as well.

And that is exactly the point of our opening thought experiment. Many people today share the notion that today’s unprecedented levels of pornography consumption are somehow fixed, immutable, a natural expression of (largely but not entirely male) human nature. Even people who deplore pornography seem resigned to its exponentially expanded presence in the culture. This is one genie, most people agree, that is out of the bottle for good.

But this widely held belief, while understandable, overlooks a critical and perhaps potent fact. The example of tobacco shows that one can indeed take a substance to which many people are powerfully drawn and sharply reduce its consumption via a successful revival of social stigma. What might this transformation imply for today’s unprecedented rates of pornography consumption? Perhaps a great deal. For in one realm after another — as a habit, as an industry, as a battleground for competing ideas of the public good — internet pornography today resembles nothing so much as tobacco circa a half-century ago. Let us begin to count the ways ...”

Jason Byassee, “Not Your Father’s Pornography”, First Things, January 2008:
“Back in college, before he was a successful lawyer and practicing Catholic, a friend of mine was at his fraternity house one night, partying with his friends while they waited for a stripper to arrive. And arrive she did, beginning her performance only to catch my friend’s eye. She froze. So did he. They had been in high school together. She gathered up her things and fled.

There’s something almost quaint about this story. It could have taken place in the 1990s or the 1890s. It involved a live sex performance with real flesh-and-blood human beings. And when their gazes met, she and he suddenly knew the same thing: This was a woman with parents, and siblings, and maybe children, and certainly friends, and a history, which presumably once included dreams that had gone horribly wrong. She even had enough shame—more shame than he did, at the time—that she would not dance for someone who knew her real name.

Something different, I think, lives in our more recent Internet-based pornography. Apologists for pornography say it has always been with us. There is, for them, a direct descent from Roman graffiti to Renaissance literature to live webcams.

Maybe. But these always involved a community of some sort: You had to sit in the theater for the stag show or XXX movie; you had to show your face to the clerk or older peer and ask for the magazine; you had to go to the frat house that night. But not now. The providers of pornography have so mastered the art of marketing their wares according to the three A ‘s—accessibility, affordability, and anonymity—that no one ever has to know. The Internet is an essentially gnostic, disembodied medium: You can dispense ideas through it, but not sacraments, community- embodiment.

We are so awash in pornography these days that most of us don’t recognize it anymore. Of Internet users in the United States, 40 percent visit porn sites at least once a month. The number rises to more than 70 percent when the audience is men aged eighteen to -thirty-four. The Internet has long been a driving force for the porn industry, pushing the bounds of access speed, streaming downloads, and file sharing. Now the cell-phone industry hopes porn will do for it what it’s done for the Web—make it very, very rich. The pornography industry brings in between $10 billion and $20 billion in the United States alone, and around $60 billion worldwide. (Hard numbers are hard to find, since cable giants and hotels chains are loathe to publicize their take from the skin industry.) That’s more than all professional sports. It’s three times more than Google, Yahoo, and MSN make in a year, combined.

But if you don’t go for numbers, try this experiment: Unplug. Don’t look at the Internet, television, or even print ads for a few days. As soon as you plug back in, you will see it again: skin everywhere. Porn is now mainstream ...”

More of my own thoughts on this to come.  It's time I was able to clearly explain why I object pornographic content in some films while, at the same time, being able to clearly distinguish my position from the more simplistic nudity-equals-pornography position that I've heard so many other conservative Christians take up.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'll get to looking over some of those links in a bit, but some initial thoughts:

1] Pornography is notoriously hard to define. That has to be acknowledged up-front. I've said elsewhere around here (probably in one of the threads linked above) that I think we have in general--particularly in Christianity--an impoverished vocabulary for dealing with the erotic as an effect in art, and I maintain that (actually, we have in the West a general critical tendency to discount all somatic effects of art). The porn-erotic spectrum exists, but it's a spectrum, so that unless you're dealing with extreme examples it's always going to be a very muddy issue. (And one century's pornography is another century's art; see below). There simply won't be a tidy definition that will allow one to say universally "this art contains pornography and therefore it is to be rejected." Example: Lust, Caution. Now, one might argue that the sex scenes there serve another purpose, that they're not presented in such-and-such a way, that they're actually quite skeevy--but a. we have to establish first that showing sex for its own sake is wrong (a dubious proposition, though one that people accept due to the distrust of somatic effects mentioned above); and, b. people respond erotically to different stimuli, so that what some people find erotic other people do not (Game of Thrones is an example; I've had some people tell me that they stopped watching it because they didn't like how they responded to the nudity in that show; I, on the other hand, don't see the nudity as erotic at all).

2] Pornography is not a recent innovation that's suddenly ubiquitous because of the Internet. It's always been around and it's always been ubiquitous. It's probable that as soon as the first cave-man learned to drag a charcoal stick across a wall, he was making smutty pictures. Pornography has been documented in Ancient Rome [Wikipedia link, NSFW images but I'm linking for the text] and Ancient China [Danwei link, also NSFW, but very text-heavy]. The Victorians had written pornography that would make your hair curl. This isn't the communal pornography that the FIRST THINGS article talks about--the Chinese produced "pillow books;" the Victorian pornographic novels were meant to be consumed in private as well. [And, moreover, to assert--as the article does--that "skin everywhere" is the same thing as porn being everywhere is simply wrong-headed and expanding whatever definition there might be of pornography out so far that it covers pretty much everything. See my comments about the erotic above]. So trying to cast this as a uniquely contemporary problem is short-sighted, I think. Put another way, pornography and culture are not a binary pair; each depends for its existence upon the other (porn certainly upon culture; and I can imagine arguments that go the other way as well--just as Reynolds demonstrates in Beneath the American Renaissance that the Great Novels of the period depended on trash literature, a similar line could probably--at least, theoretically--be drawn between pornography and culture. And that's not even taking into account that pornography is inextricably part of any culture in which it is found--so, I guess, all cultures with a certain level of sophistication). Relatedly,

3] I'm actually very cautious about moral fervor over peoples' private lives, so I find it hard to be moved by the argument that pornography is one of the defining issues with which we're confronted today (I'm also skeptical of using the addiction model, but I'm no expert on addiction). It sounds too much like crusades against alcohol or card-playing or whatever motivated people around the turn of the 20th C. Which isn't, mind you, a defense of pornography itself--it's just skepticism of the pitch to which the objection gets raised (and re-raised as the voices echo off each other). After reading the WaPo article linked above, I followed a link at the bottom which I think should also be included in the discussion.

Before we get to 2] or 3], though, we have to talk definitions (which, honestly, I'm expecting you've already thought of in your forthcoming comments; I'm just wanting to reinforce the need for them). [EDIT: For that matter, we'll have to establish what "culture" means, since I suspect there are two or three floating around on this board. I tend to think of culture as the sedimented accretions of what people do, which means that pornography and pop, Hefner and Handel, all get to be called "culture"]

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Just as any endeavor that seeks out an audience, there are two human parts, right? The work's maker and the viewer. Both bring intent to the table, through the work. IMHO, to a very efficacious extent, the viewer is most important. In his essay "An Experiment on Criticism", C. S. Lewis writes "To one such spectator Tintoretto’s Three Graces may be merely an assistance in prurient imagination; he has used it as pornography. To another, it may be the starting-point for a meditation on Greek myth which, in its own right, is of value. It might conceivably, in its own different way, lead to something as good as the picture itself."

On the maker's side (I just can't bring myself to call them "creators") pornography is a lot like propaganda, it is already laden with meaning and intent, and that, usually singular. But that intent can be undermined by the participant, although the participant is usually already given to the maker's intent.

Either Egon Schiele or Gustav Klimt (or heck, maybe each) was often referred to as "The Pornographer of Vienna". (I originally heard it as referring to Klimt, but research shows more references to Schiele.)

NBooth: While I usually find little with which to disagree in your comments, I do disagree with your ubiquity assessment. Unless your meaning is the _desire_ for pornographic stimulation is as ubiquitous today than in the past, there is a huge amount of material that is free of charge and more anonymously available than ever before, via the internet, which itself is more ubiquitous in terms of both availability and accessibility. I would take issue if someone tried to justify pornography because of ubiquity.

And while I am in agreement with your position on people's private lives, at what point when something has a societal effect does it become more than private lives?

I don't think pornography itself is quite so difficult to define, or at the very least to understand. I don't think the people who make porn have any doubts or gray areas about what they are making or what the viewer is looking for. What is hard is when to apply the definition societally, as what should communally be considered pornographic. That has been on a spectrum for as long as the cavemen scribbled a penis on the cave walls, I would imagine.

So how is the work to ultimately be judged? By the maker's intent or the viewer's?

I don't have an answer.

Joe

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm still thinking through how to express my further thoughts, including responding to Nathanael and Joe.  In the meantime ...

Carl Trueman, “We’re all sadists now,” First Things, August 13, 2015:
“... In the popular mind, DeSade is associated with the idea of achieving sexual gratification through inflicting pain on another. Yet that notion rests upon a more sophisticated understanding of sex and personhood.  DeSade’s specific sexual predilections assumed the notion of sex simply as one more consumer commodity in the marketplace and upon the idea of other people as merely instrumental to the achievement of personal sexual pleasure. DeSade turned the sexual relationship into an economic relationship of exchange aimed at the satisfaction of the individual consumer.  He was truly a prophet born out of time and, like all such, doomed to be decried in his own day as a madman.

DeSade's ideal world is that to which we appear to be heading.   Like him, we deny any intrinsic moral significance to sexual activity whatsoever and thus see it as something which is of no more ethical importance than buying a cup of coffee or eating a sandwich. In such a world, the celibate and the monogamous are increasingly counted as freaks, representatives of a defective, repressive cultural vision. Thus, the social pressure to be promiscuous becomes an integral part of the culture and the withholding of consent comes to be increasingly difficult, the act of social schismatics, freaks, and (to use the favored clichés of the day) the inauthentic, those who do not wish to flourish ...

Yet there is another force at play today which seems to be in conflict with the above: The belief that our sexual desires determine who we are at the deepest level.  This is somewhat ironic: The age which denies any real significance to sex also wants to argue that sexual desires are of paramount importance to personal identity and fulfillment.  Squaring that particular circle will no doubt generate a whole textbook full of neuroses in the coming years.

This age thus embodies a twofold sadism. It is sadistic because it turns people into nothing more than objects for the achievement of the sexual desires of others. And it is sadistic because it tells people their sexual desires are of the utmost importance to who they are while simultaneously denying that these desires point to anything of any real intrinsic importance whatsoever. That is cruelty of a peculiarly pernicious and nihilistic kind. Freud and Nietzsche may have played their part in making today’s world. But the success of Tinder indicates that the victor’s laurels should probably go to DeSade.”

In other words, if it is true that sex is simply one more consumer commodity in the free market ... and if we deny any intrinsic moral significance to sexual activity itself, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with pornography.  What's interesting is that there seems to be an increasing opportunity to articulate why DeSade was wrong, and to articulate it based upon a moral sense that goes far deeper than John Stuart Mill's morality of "consent" and "do no harm."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
6 hours ago, jfutral said:

NBooth: While I usually find little with which to disagree in your comments, I do disagree with your ubiquity assessment. Unless your meaning is the _desire_ for pornographic stimulation is as ubiquitous today than in the past, there is a huge amount of material that is free of charge and more anonymously available than ever before, via the internet, which itself is more ubiquitous in terms of both availability and accessibility. I would take issue if someone tried to justify pornography because of ubiquity.

You're right. Actually, I was talking to a friend of mine about this topic just today and he brought up the internet. So let me refine my comment along the lines you suggest: pornography may be more accessible today, but it's not a uniquely contemporary state of affairs. The type and the mode of delivery are, however, different--which leads to questions outside the existence of pornography itself.

6 hours ago, jfutral said:

And while I am in agreement with your position on people's private lives, at what point when something has a societal effect does it become more than private lives?

That's the question, isn't it. But, again, I point to the moral hysteria over gaming or demon rum or dancing or whatever. All of those crusades were also predicated on societal effects. Some of the moral fervor over pornography (not in this thread) feels an awful lot like a kind of Mrs. Grundyism that I (whatever my personal opinions on the form) would prefer to avoid.

6 hours ago, jfutral said:

I don't think pornography itself is quite so difficult to define, or at the very least to understand. I don't think the people who make porn have any doubts or gray areas about what they are making or what the viewer is looking for. What is hard is when to apply the definition societally, as what should communally be considered pornographic. That has been on a spectrum for as long as the cavemen scribbled a penis on the cave walls, I would imagine.

Yes, which is why I said that it's clear on the extremes. I have very little doubt that a website with the word "porn" in the name knows what it's peddling (though I've heard stories of porn producers trying to go all-out ART, and from what I hear it didn't end so well). The historical examples I linked to above are pretty unambiguously pornography. The issue of mushy definitions comes up when you want to talk about objecting to "pornography in my art" while also allowing film-makers room to make movies about whatever they want to make movies about. That's why I'm pushing for a precise definition, because the stuff in these linked articles runs all the way from graphic sex-acts to women in bikinis on advertising.

The Trueman article above isn't even about pornography; it's a riff on a hyperventaling Dreher piece about Tinder; its connection to this thread seems to be theoretical: that sex has become a market commodity and therefore porn. Which doesn't follow, since (as I established above) the pornographic we have always had with us (besides which, they don't call prostitution the world's oldest profession for nothing; there have been sex workers for longer than there have been capitalists. Nothing's become a commodity) [Trueman also gets in a nasty swipe at LGBTQ persons without having to say gay, so I don't count his analysis as worth much anyway; it's Mrs. Grudyism in its purest form].

So the impression I get is that "pornography" here actually means "objectifying people" [?] That's the only version that makes sense to me given this diversity of linked articles--so the Carol Marcus cheesecake in Star Trek Into Darkness is pornography, and so are all the shots of Megan Fox in the Transformers movies, and so is every single shot of Hemsworth in Thor.... Ant which point, two things have happened: first, the word pornography has lost all meaning and should be jettisoned, and second, the question devolves entirely upon the viewer, unless we're going to argue that sexy people should never be shot in sexy ways, which is (I think) a bit too prescriptive. 

And, not to keep going back to this point, but what is the place of the erotic in all this? Are we only to allow the erotic--which is, I think, properly understood as being closely aligned to the pornographic in both its motives and its effects--if it serves, mechanistically, some sort of purpose outside of itself ("No, it's sexy but it tells you about the characters too"). Is there room in this discussion for an idea of erotica for its own sake? 

As far as intent goes, I agree that it's a messy proposition; it's the fundamental hermeneutical problem regarding all texts, and I doubt we could ever come to an easy answer on that one except for "both."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
4 minutes ago, NBooth said:

The Trueman article above isn't even about pornography

Yeah, I was trying to figure out how it fits into the discussion of pornography as well. Is all sex then pornography? The whole "social pressure" charge actually raises more questions than it answers. And I am hardly a student on DeSade, but from what little I know those are fairly reductionist representations of DeSade's ideas. I could be wrong, but I don't think so.

Joe

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On June 14, 2016 at 0:23 PM, J.A.A. Purves said:

We are so awash in pornography these days that most of us don’t recognize it anymore. Of Internet users in the United States, 40 percent visit porn sites at least once a month.

Does the author actually think most or even some fraction of those people weren't really looking for pornographic media? Doesn't that mean people actually do recognize pornography? Or were they just reading the articles?

Joe

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Not strictly on topic, but if you compare these articles at FIRST THINGS to Marcuse's ONE DIMENSIONAL MAN, the similarities are striking. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 6/23/2016 at 5:32 PM, NBooth said:

Not strictly on topic, but if you compare these articles at FIRST THINGS to Marcuse's ONE DIMENSIONAL MAN, the similarities are striking. 

Ok, more on that somewhat gnomic comment: I mean that when Marcuse talks about desublimation leading to the de-eroticization of the world of experience, he's talking about precisely what Byassee is talking about with all this "porn is everywhere and we don't see it" stuff. Marcuse:

The range of socially permissible and desirable satisfaction is greatly enlarged [in technological society], but through this satisfaction, the Pleasure Principle is reduced--deprived of the claims which are irreconcilable with the established society. Pleasure, thus adjusted, generates submission.

(One Dimensional Man 75)

Now, for Marcuse this de-sublimation is a disaster because it removes the erotic drive for revolution, but the worries about sex-as-product and sex-as-eros are exactly the same.

This is an irony I've noticed before: the more anti-modernity the commentators at First Things become, the more they sound like Frankfurt School Marxists--Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and so on. And, by extension, the more they sound like Nietzsche (whose Apollo-versus-Dionysus framework in The Birth of Tragedy is the, mostly unacknowledged from what I can tell, basis of Marcuse's split between abstract Reason and dialectical reason). I find this converging-of-opposites to be very tasty on multiple levels.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

On another note, two of the most compelling pieces that I’ve read about pornography are:
(1) “The Illusion of Love” by Chris Hedges (beginning on page 60 of the googledocument)
(2) “Big Red Son” by David Foster Wallace

Both Wallace and Hedges, by the way, discuss how pornography has been progressively moving towards the more physically, verbally and emotionally abusive, the more violent and the more insulting towards women.  The objectification and demeaning of persons - of the treating them as objects, as trash, as not human beings - has been growing more literal and more explicit within the pornography industry - and it IS now an industry.

NBooth wrote:
“1] Pornography is notoriously hard to define. That has to be acknowledged up-front ... There simply won't be a tidy definition that will allow one to say universally ‘this art contains pornography and therefore it is to be rejected.’”

I’m willing to admit the difficulty of reaching a simple definition.  In fact, no matter how simple a definition of pornography may be constructed, it would still grow more complex by application to widely different circumstances.  Of course, difficulty of definition is not grounds for avoiding the subject matter.  Indeed, I’d say we’re under compulsion to properly define and distinguish here as a matter of moral obligation.

Meanwhile, I have begun to wonder if I haven’t approached this question from the wrong angle in the past.  I used to first get caught up in how to distinguish art from pornography.  But such distinctions can be debated without hope of resolution if some other more preliminary questions are not answered first.  Why is pornography, in and of itself, wrong?  Why is, for that matter, prostitution wrong?  If we’re getting into too many difficulties here, then why is child pornography or child prostitution wrong?

I believe these questions have to be answered first and they have to be answered clearly.  And I no longer buy the “consenting adults” justification.  Sure, violation of another’s consent is usually wrong, but that doesn’t get to the heart of this issue, nor does Mill’s modernist “do no harm” principle adequately explain morality here.

Tentatively, I am beginning to work my way into arguing that pornography is wrong, because it is transgressive of the value of human life.  It is the objectification and commodification of persons.  For that matter, it is wrong for the same reasons that slavery is wrong.  A human being ought not to own another human being as property.  Ergo, a human being ought not to sell a human being as property.  And a prostitute and a pornographic actress are, in the best of scenarios, both selling themselves - or, in the worse of scenarios, being sold by someone else - in a very real sense as object, in other words as property.

Even taking this line of thinking one step further, it is not the commercial act of selling, in and of itself (abhorrent as that is), that is what makes it wrong.  Technically, if some slaves were given away free, the slavery itself would still be wrong.  So how can this principle apply to pornography?  Well, theoretically, porn actresses who are not paid would still become persons who were being used as objects/as property, not being treated with the value and dignity merited as persons or as embodied souls.

jfutral wrote:
“IMHO, to a very efficacious extent, the viewer is most important. In his essay ‘An Experiment on Criticism’, C. S. Lewis writes ‘To one such spectator Tintoretto’s Three Graces may be merely an assistance in prurient imagination; he has used it as pornography. To another, it may be the starting-point for a meditation on Greek myth which, in its own right, is of value. It might conceivably, in its own different way, lead to something as good as the picture itself.’”

On the maker's side (I just can't bring myself to call them ‘creators’) pornography is a lot like propaganda, it is already laden with meaning and intent, and that, usually singular. But that intent can be undermined by the participant, although the participant is usually already given to the maker's intent.”

There’s no way we can use Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism to define pornography as something that is merely in the eyes of the beholder.  If you actually read An Experiment in Criticism, that is NOT the point Lewis was making at all, even about literature or painting.  It is almost the opposite of his point.  Near the quote that you cite, Lewis wrote:

“We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles.  We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations.  We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus, or Cimabue’s Crucifixion, by emptying out our own.  After the negative effort, the positive.  We must use our eyes.  We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there.  We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it.  The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender.  Look.  Listen.  Receive.  Get yourself out of the way.  (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” (pgs. 18-19)

Lewis is, of course, discussing art.  He is bringing up to subject to make a contrast because he is assuming that art can be distinguished from pornography, and this is one of the reasons why.  There is a difference between treating something as something to be “used,” and treating it respectfully without self-interested or utilitarian calculus.  Lewis further explains: “The distinction can hardly be better expressed than by saying that many use art and the few receive it.  The many behave in this like a man who talks when he should listen or gives when he should take.” (pg. 19.) And then, Lewis further explains:

“From the example of the man who uses Tintoretto as pornography it is apparent that a good work of art may be used in the wrong way.  But it will seldom yield to this treatment so easily as a bad one.  Such a man will gladly turn from Tintoretto to Kirchner or photographs if no moral or cultural hypocrisy prevents him.  They contain fewer irrelevancies; more ham and less frill.  But the reverse is, I believe, impossible.  A bad picture cannot be enjoyed with that full and disciplined ‘reception’ which the few give to a good one. (pg. 20, emphasis added.)

In other words, works of art may be “used” as pornography by a perverse man, but pornography cannot be “received” as real art by anyone.  That is not, very obviously, what it is made for.  The makers of pornography know all along that they were not making art.  If you read the above essays by Wallace and Hedges, they are not discussing the production of works of art.  There are not even any pretensions about this.  The pornographic industry does not even need to try.

Nbooth wrote: “The Trueman article above isn’t even about pornography ...” jfutral wrote: “Yeah, I was trying to figure out how it fits into the discussion of pornography as well. Is all sex then pornography?”

On the contrary, Trueman’s argument fits into pornography because pornography is one of the best examples of “the notion of sex as one more consumer commodity in the marketplace and upon the idea of other people as merely instrumental to the achievement of personal sexual pleasure.”  Pornography as an industry is pure and free economic exchange, voracious enough even to consume persons as objects of such economic exchange.

A pornographic actress is not being treated or viewed as an actress in a regular film.  She is exposing herself to humiliation, to being used and consumed.  However, if sex not involving embodied spiritual persons, but is instead just a economic service that can be performed without moral obligation, then there is going to be no moral argument against pornography.  Pornography cannot be wrong if the philosophy of sex and the philosophy of being that Trueman describes is true.

Moreover, one of the defenses of pornography is the argument that every autonomous individual has the right to consume whatever products they want to consume.  If one has the freedom to determine all one’s sex preferences entirely at personal will or whim, then one ought to have the freedom to conduct any economic transactions to acquire all the pornography, of whatever theme or type of perversion or displayed conduct, that one decides one wants.  Prohibiting even certain kinds of pornography would therefore be a violation of human freedom and personal autonomy.

This philosophic viewpoint that Trueman describes is one major viewpoint that any one of us will be up against if we are interested in making persuasive and successful cultural arguments for why pornography is wrong.  DeSade is simply pure undistilled libertarianism - unfettered support for the free market in its production of every and any product for use and consumption of the autonomous individual consumer.  Pornography as an industry is thus DeSade meets Ayn Rand.

Edited to add: The discussion of whether there are pornographic elements to a regular film or to a genuine work of art is, to my thinking, entirely a side issue.  We cannot even have that side discussion unless we first have clear arguments for why pornography itself is wrong.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks for all that, Jeremy. It pushes in precisely the direction I was hoping to go. Let's take as a tentative definition the proposition that pornography is a performance whose intent is sexual arousal with or without the direct involvement of another person. Though keep in mind my still-unanswered questions about the erotic. Note, too, that this definition excludes simulated pornography such as Chinese pillowbooks and computer-generated cartoons as well as written pornography such as Victorian smut novels and fan fiction. The exclusion is partly arbitrary and partly based on your discussion above. 

So, then, there are two questions that arise: first, what is the moral/ethical status of engaging in such a performance; and, second, what is the moral/ethical status of consuming such a performance? The questions are related, but they are distinct--just as the morality of stealing and that of receiving stolen goods are distinct. As a result, any answer we provide should be--not abstract--but grounded in material-historical context; the moral/ethical status of a pornographic performer (and there are male, female, and intersex performers, so we shouldn't limit our discussion by gender) is going to be different depending on the situation; this is why, while I think you're on the right track in pivoting away from "consent" as determinative, consent shouldn't be discounted. Sex workers often face tremendous difficulties precisely because their material circumstances are discounted in favor of abstract condemnation of the profession, which can lead to STDs and all kinds of abuse going unaddressed. Pornography, because it is regulated, is a slightly different case than prostitution--and that, too, should be considered.

In the interests of keeping these material circumstances in mind, we should enter these pieces into the record:

Inside Miami’s sex industry: Porn stars reveal how the internet is changing their business

Porn Stars Can't Leave the Industry, and Here's Why

Stoya on Ethics, Porn, and Workers' Rights

Stoya makes a particularly vital point in another direction:

 

Quote

If you’re thinking about or discussing ethics in porn please remember that the adult industry isn’t just the girls you see on box covers and the front pages of websites. It also includes the directors, a large amount of people who work as crew on set, and a slew of office workers who handle the post production and sale of product. I know a middle-aged dude who is built like a tank from moving lights and cameras all day might not pull on your heartstrings the way that a pretty young woman does, but he’s the one who struggles to make rent and car payments when month after month of shoots are cancelled last minute. He’s the one being replaced by people who have been conned into working for lower rates or for free because he finally had the audacity to take other work. The people you don’t see in the videos are the ones bearing the initial brunt of this new power imbalance.

 

Regarding consumption, it's probably a good idea to ask under what circumstances the private consumption of pornography (or the consumption of it with a partner) would be considered a moral/ethical lapse. Though I think Trueman is actually pure sex hysteria uncut with any real intellectual content, your more thoughtful development of the article strikes me as arguable, though not unassailable. To this you can add the Marcuse stuff I alluded to earlier; what we have here is a flattening out of sexuality into purely technical processes aligned to a particular end--the orgasm. Its correlative is the de-eroticization, and therefore de-radicalization, of daily life. The sex drive is channeled into commercial demands that can be satisfied by commercial means. 

The obvious question: is this true? And if it is, what is its ethical stance?

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I should probably note that I'm engaging here in part as an intellectual exercise, since the "consent" angle, while flawed, strikes me as good enough to go on; at the end of the day, short of actually harming other people, I still think(at this point in history) the individual is the best judge of their own morality. That's pretty much all we can operate on for now; as Fromm points out in Escape from Freedom, once the toothpaste of individuation/individualism is out of the bottle, it's impossible to put back without tremendous--and counterproductive--psychic stress. The proper approach isn't, then "I'm an individual and that's bad, time to go back" but "I'm an individual and that's troubling, time to move forward. So we might also ask if there's a way to push through and beyond modern individualism and the idea of consent-as-all-determining rather than retreating from it, because that toothpaste ain't going back in the tube. Not replacement but transcendence is called for.

That's all a bit outside, but I think it could inform this particular discussion, or at least help to get my own cards out on the table.

EDIT: Now you've got me thinking, which is never a good thing for post-size, and I think I can tie all of this back to the subject of the thread:

Paul Tillich (himself no sexual saint) observes in The New Being that the Golden Rule, as good as it is, is incomplete precisely because it demands of us to act to others as we would wish--and, as everyone knows, our own self-directed wishes are often counterproductive. The two actual commandments counted as primary for Christians are: 1] love God, and 2] love your neighbor as yourself. They constitute the vertical and the horizontal axes of Christian morality. Now, insofar as the Golden Rule goes, it seems evident to me that it is analogous to the idea of consent--good as far as it goes, but incomplete and in need of transcendence. And it is transcended by love, which Tillich and other, more ancient, philosophers view as the desire for union and, secondarily, the desire that the Other achieve the Good

You can't get rid of radical individualism, but you can transcend it in precisely this way. For if (as I see no reason to doubt) the concept of personal identity/the individual was weaker in pre-Enlightenment times, then correspondingly their understanding of loving oneself was weaker. Or, at least, developed in a different direction. But today, with our greater sense of personal identity and individual sovereignty, the demand of love is correspondingly greater. To love my neighbor as myself is precisely to wish for my neighbor to be actuated in the sphere of personal identity, to wish for them to fully become themself. 

The application to the question of morality in pornography, thus, boils down, not to are we consenting (which, while important, is incomplete) but does this consensual interaction fall under the rubric of truly loving my neighbor? That is, does it wish for the Other to attain the Good? [background question: what is the Good?]. Your own  "using people as objects" formulation (the properly Kantian construction would be "using people as means") would fit in here quite nicely, I suspect. There are, of course, any number of possible answers to this question, but it strikes me as a promising move to make.

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'll start with my conclusion. What NBooth said.

Of course I know what else Lewis said in the essay. I brought it up, not to support a position, but as another voice and perspective on what I think are the questions we choose to face, our choices in framing the discussion, when discussing pornography. Also, I think Lewis undermines his conclusions precisely on his process. He is both right and wrong. You don't have to see pornography when viewing pornography, no matter how difficult the laden intent in the work might make such an examination. Propaganda is not intrinsically bad art by nature of being first and foremost propaganda.

(In a lot of ways the question of pornography gets caught up in much the same inadequate presuppositions as "why is Modern art so bad?" or the "Beauty is in crisis" fear mongers.)

I am not saying the answer is that art or pornography is in the eye of the beholder so much as most answers, whether judicial, academic, or moral are actually based on "the eye of the beholder" when deconstructed, no matter how dressed up in intellectual reasoning. Lewis is proposing the same thing he decries as insufficient. And it is insufficient and incomplete. We keep asking the wrong questions. To me, after years of examining this question (and probably many more years yet to come), is how do we get past "eye of the beholder", either as justification or accusation? Lewis just shows to me greater minds than mine haven't come up with an adequate answer to that question.

I appreciate you looking for the questions we may have missed. I do think about this quite a bit. Mostly because typical discussions seem more about power than sincere examinations about how we can better serve each other. Rather than "how do we control this evil?", the real question, imho, is "how do we love one another?" Isn't love the only real way to extinguish, prevent, or otherwise answer evil? Does pornography love God or my neighbour... or my spouse?

Joe

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

And then there's this:

http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/11/court-says-secretly-filming-nude-young-girls-in-bathroom-isnt-child-porn/

"I know porn when I see it". Well, apparently not always.

[ETA] An actual quote from the article (not my associative quote above) "The court added that the video producer's 'subjective intent or purpose of sexual arousal or gratification' is immaterial."

Joe

Edited by jfutral

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!


Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.


Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0