JOURNAL ARTICLE: ‘The Banal and the Evident: Pornography, Technology and the Market’

The Banal and the Evident

Pornography, Technology and the Market

TINA KINSELLA

 

 Introduction

 As Walter Benjamin predicted in his seminal modernist essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the exponential technological advances we have experienced since the turn of the 20th century have had cultural and social ramifications of significant import.[1] Contemporary theorists widely acknowledge that western society – under the governance of an advanced capitalist market ethic – has been irreversibly shaped and influenced by advances in technology and this has resulted in explosive growth in the global marketplace. Nowadays we inhabit a vertiginous, media-driven world in which multitudinous communicative visual stimuli are available to the masses on a gargantuan scale. The ubiquity of the internet has revolutionised our lives and the proliferation of digital image, DVD and satellite TV channels has made an unquantifiable material impact on our phenomenological, sensory and lived experiences. Within the pornographic sphere, the modes of production, the diversity of produced images, the availability of these images, and the means by which they are disseminated have been profoundly influenced by the rapid changes apprehended in every stratum of visual media.[2]

In recent years pornography has become a critical discursive topic. The debate is diverse and complex. Even feminist discourses form infinitely subtle and graded dialogic lines than span the spectrum between the libertarian pro-porn and radical anti-porn divide. The theoretical questions that arise from the pornography debate (concerning issues such as obscenity, freedom of choice, human rights, censorship) share a large degree of commonality with generic discourses concerned with the potentially totalising effect of mass culture in the wider sphere. The pornography debate, therefore, can be viewed as a microscopic lens through which to intersect with the macroscopic debate.

In this paper I will primarily employ the work of the postmodern theorist, Jean Baudrillard, as a vehicle by which to advance contemporary debates on pornography. By placing his work in conversation with the texts of other writers, I will attempt to extend this debate into a broader political, social and cultural context than in which it is usually addressed; one which situates the pornography industry within the potentially totalising effect that other industrialised technologies and markets have on the consumer.

The Active Producer and the Passive Consumer

Any attempt to define the terminology of the words ‘pornography’ or ‘pornographic’ proves to be highly problematic. Many definitions rely on delineating pornographic material as that which causes offence, being obscene or exploitative specifically within a sexual context. The entry in the Oxford Reference Dictionary illustrates this approach:

The explicit representation of sexual activity[3] visually or descriptively to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings; pictures or literature containing this[4]

In this definition, not only is pornography defined within a sexual context but, in addition, a link is identified between the consumption of pornographic material by the consumer and the arousal produced in the consumer. In 1981 the radical feminist, Andrea Dworkin, published a highly influential book entitled Pornography: Men Possessing Women, in which she explained pornography in a different manner:

[Pornography] derived from the ancient Greek porne and graphos, means ‘writing about whores’. Porne means ‘whore’, specifically and exclusively the lowest class of whore, which in ancient Greece was the brothel slut available to all male citizens. The porne was the cheapest (in the literal sense), least regarded, least protected of all women, including slaves. She was simply and clearly and absolutely, a sexual slave[5]

Although Dworkin’s definition is primarily etymological, she also posits a link between production and consumption in the pornographic sphere. The porne, a sexual slave, was available to all and cheap to buy; she was a ‘low-end’ consumer product. By highlighting the imbalance of power between the porne and the client, Dworkin situates the productive/consummative relationship as one which is deeply compromised by the politics of power; suggesting that an unequal power dynamic is evidenced by the activity of the market (for porneia) and the passivity of the product (the porne herself). Moving the pornography debate into the contemporary sphere, Dworkin proceeds to argue that the technology employed by modern pornographic industries not only supports this uneven power dynamic but creates it:

The technology (of pornography) by its very nature encourages more and more passive acquiescence to the graphic depictions. Passivity makes the already credulous consumer more credulous. He comes to the pornography a believer: he goes away a missionary. The technology itself legitimises the uses of women conveyed by it[6]

In Dworkin’s account, the sexual activity depicted in pornography elicits an obverse passivity in the consumer who, when confronted with these graphic depictions, begins to accept and believe in their legitimacy. Not only is the agency of those employed within the pornographic sphere compromised, so is the agency of the consumer. The unequal power dynamic detailed by Dworkin is not simply sexual, it is social, cultural and, in all instances, political; delineating the pornographic industry as an arena in which power politics are played out. By defining pornographic material in this manner, Dworkin highlights the totalising and disempowering effect of industry en masse, of which the pornography industry is just one part. In her schema it is the effects of production which render the consumer helpless, ineffective and powerless, a receptacle onto which the forces of the market are successfully projected.

She bolsters her argument by making two epistemological claims; attesting to the power of industrialised technology in the pornographic arena she suggests that: (i) not only does the pornographic sphere evidence a conflation between medium and message (i.e. that the medium is the message) but that (ii) the medium legitimates the message. This conflation is the supreme coup d’état of productive industries – the medium that they produce actually legitimises the uses that they identify for it. Therefore, according to Dworkin, the ‘consumer’ suffers from an epistemological delusion – within the pornographic sphere the consumer believes that the ‘male’ fantasy enacted through the technical medium of pornography represents the actuality of female sexual desire. Simultaneously, the technological medium ingested by the consumer convinces that consumer of the veracity of the ingested message:

The technology itself demands the creation of more and more porneia[7] to meet the market opened up by the technology. Real women are tied up, stretched, hanged, fucked, gang-banged, whipped, beaten and begging for more[8]

Evidentially, the pornographic industry operates in the same way, and has the same effect, as any other industry within the marketplace. Therefore, Dworkin’s argument actually offers an insightful critique of global capitalism: a market, once created, mutates like a virus and expands towards its own eternal preservation. The needs the market services are not the primal or primary needs of the consumer; they are needs created by the market to sustain itself and engendered in the consumer to ensure the markets survival.

Positioning the pornographic industry within this framework provides a nexal resonance with the political theories of Jean Baudrillard who wrote extensively on industrialised consumption and production. According to Baudrillard, the demands/needs of the market rely on the production of surplus products. Human ‘needs’ are not directives from the consumer but are dictated to the consumer from above; that is from higher up the supply chain. Therefore, the fulfilment of ‘needs’ is embedded in unequal power relations, and is both ideologically and politically compromised. Baudrillard defines needs thus:

A function (induced in the individual) by the internal logic of the system: more precisely not as a consummative force liberated by the affluent society, but as a productive force[9] required by the functioning of the system […] there are only needs because the system needs them[10]

Baudrillard and Dworkin agree that the market is avaricious; servicing itself, its own needs, rather than the ‘needs’ of others and both claim that the pornographic industry is entirely disconnected from what it claims to be about: sex. According to Dworkin, pornography has nothing to do with sex, ‘writing about sex’, ‘depictions of the erotic’, ‘nude bodies’ or any other such ‘euphemisms’, it is concerned with the systematic and visceral degradation of women.[11] In this way the pornographic industry operates as any other industry: the cosmetics industry, the sports industry, the fashion industry, the car industry. In reality, the function of these industries is not to concern themselves with our age lines, our body mass index, what colour we are wearing this season or the safety of our car. Industries function to protect their own wealth, status, privilege and power; they are simply and absolutely motivated by profit.

As is apparent, Baudrillard’s arguments have much in common with Dworkin’s position. He claims that the pornographic industry, and any industry, is powered by its own needs and desires; that the needs and desires evidenced in the consumer are only ‘simulations’ of desire and bear no relation to anything ‘real’:

Desire is sustained only by want. When desire is entirely on the side of demand, when it is operationalised without restrictions, it loses its imaginary and, therefore, its reality; it appears everywhere, but in a generalised simulation. It is the ghost of desire that haunts the defunct reality of sex[12]

‘The only phantasm at work in porno’ is ‘not the phantasm of sex’ but ‘that of the real and its disappearance into something other than the real’.[13] Desire has morphed into another dimension, the ‘hyperreal’ as sex and desire are sublimated to the dictates of production and production places an imperative demand on the consumer to consume.[14] For Baudrillard, desire has been divorced from the imaginary of the individual (person) and handcuffed to the productive imperative of the collective (market) and, therefore, individual agency is jeopardised. In short, Baudrillard argues that technology has a totalising effect on individuality as it leaves no room for the imaginary, for reciprocity or for agency; industry annihilates the world of symbolic inference then systematically re-invents it to service its own ends. The pornographic scene is ‘totally oppressive’ as it gives you ‘a little too much’ and in so doing, ‘everything is taken away from you’:

It [pornography] is a vision which immobilises seduction by sheer visibility. It ‘gives you more’. This is already true of colour in film or television: the colour, the sharp resolution, the sex in high fidelity […] it gives you so much that you have nothing more to add[15]

Thus, for Baudrillard, the traffic of industrialised technology is one-way. Formed by the force of a productive trajectory, the endgame of the pornographic industry is pre-emptive and pre-determined and the effects of this technology are anti-liberatory. Pornography promises you the freedom to explore your desires, to express your sexual liberation but it fails to fulfil on this promise. Instead it serves up generic, pre-packaged, simulated ‘fantasies’ masquerading as ‘realities’.

Baudrillard suggests that the consumption of pornography is essentially a passive exercise and this passivity, this lack of participation on behalf of the inert observer, has obscene implications. I will return to this argument when I discuss his views on ‘war porn’ but for now it is important to note that this passivity (which is inherent in all that is pornographic and in all that is mass produced) allows consumers to enjoy a distortion in their perceived realities as the market re-constructs, re-markets and re-packages ‘realities’ for the consumer. Pornography is contextualised within a scene that is not ‘real’ but one in which the spectator futilely searches for something ‘real’; one in which ‘sex is graphically “rendered” by it, [porno] but it is a rendering of something which has been concealed’ as ‘porno is the artificial synthesis of sex, it is the festival of sex, not the feast’:[16]

The voyeurism of porno is not sexual voyeurism, but a voyeurism of representation and its loss, an intoxication (vertige) with the loss of the scene and the irruption of the obscene[17]

Thus, for Baudrillard porno is industrialised production. It offers a representation of reality – ‘hyperreality’ – and according to Baudrillard hyperreality is at third remove from ‘reality’, as it is a representation of a representation of the real. It is a perceived reality reflecting back on itself: ‘Porno adds a dimension to sex – it makes it more real than the real’.[18] Indeed, according to Baudrillard, pornography is a travesty of sex because sex is nowhere in it and it is an exalted simulation as it is unable to represent the real.

Capital and Fetish: Sex and the Baudrillardan Body

In a further exposition of industrialised ‘hyperreality’, Baudrillard claims that the body has ceased to be a biological fact and has mutated to the status of cultural artefact:

In a capitalist society, the general status of private property applies also to the body, to the way we operate socially with it and the mental representation we have of it[19]

According to Baudrillard, the global market perceives the body as both ‘capital and fetish’.[20] People invest in their bodies as they would invest in any other consumer product, as the body is situated as a mode, a means and a receptacle of ‘capital’. The body is also a ‘fetish’; it is not repressed by the capitalist system, but glorified by it. In fact, in modern consumer society, the body is perceived as the ultimate commodity, the most desirable of status symbols. Such is the position of eminence given to the body that we are encouraged to literally sculpt our bodies to fit the requirements of the capitalist system. Baudrillard calls this ‘managed narcissism’ as capitalism demands that consumers assume the needs of the market as their own. He is specific about the abstruse ramifications that this managed narcissism has for the consumer directive in general and for the female body in particular:[21]

 This narcissistic reinvestment, orchestrated as a mystique of liberation and accomplishment, is in fact always simultaneously an investment of an efficient, competitive, economic type. The body “reappropriated” in this way is reappropriated first to meet ‘capitalist’ objectives: in other words, where it is invested, it is invested in order to produce a yield. The body is not reappropriated for the autonomous ends of the subject[22]

Therefore, for Baudrillard, the market opposes individual freedom and agency and a spirit of moral terrorism lies over the body. Consumers are in cohorts with both the code and its dictates and the body-object is the ‘most precious exchange material’.[23] To succeed within the code involves surrendering, ecstatically to its totalitarian demands. Within the capitalist code it is our duty to perform to and serve the dictates of the market. Thus the consumer acquiesces to market imperatives and performs the daily devotions of exercise, dieting, eating nutritiously, on the so called ‘liberated’ body. But the body is not free. It has already been subsumed within the coded capitalist world of ‘hyppereality’. Whereas in the past the sexual body was subversive, a challenge and threat to authority, now it is a commodity subsumed and consumed within the code of the ‘hyperreal’ and the newly deconstructed body is now part of the capitalist process of ‘profit generation’. But the consumer’s acquiescence with the capitalist code has dangerous consequences for the so-called ‘liberated’ body. For Baudrillard, the best that the modern body can represent is a hyperreal ‘coded sexual signification’, it is not sexual in and of itself. Modern sexuality fails to represent ‘intimacy and sensuality’ and thus, Baudrillard claims that nowadays nothing is ‘less certain than sex, behind the liberation of its discourse’: [24]

When all desire is channelled into the demand for enjoyment, when it becomes limitlessly operational, it is without reality because without imaginary – it is everywhere, but everywhere a simulation. It is the spectre of desire that haunts the defunct reality of sex. Sex is everywhere, except in sexuality[25]

The body is a sign and sex a simulation. When (the simulation of) sex is on demand, then the ‘sign’ of sex is a hyperreal imperative. Then, there is no room for seduction and, according to Baudrillard, seduction is necessary for reciprocity and agency. Implicit in the concept of seduction is freedom and choice. As seduction connects with the world of the imaginary, if seduction is absent then the imaginary is lost.

Essentially, Baudrillard’s question is: how can an individual be seduced into what is certain? If an event is sure to take place, if there is no tension, no expectancy then there is no possibility for disappointment. When sex is accorded the status of absolute ubiquity, when it is profligate in the promiscuity of its inescapable presence, then there is no seduction. If there is no seduction then there is no challenge and the reciprocity of social processes is lost. For Baudrillard, the effect of global capitalism is that exchange value, symbolic reciprocity, is absent. As both the pornographic industry and the body are merely components of a global industrialised economy, then the pornographic scene and even the scene of sex itself, is commodified, totalised and dead 

The Image and The Word

As, for Baudrillard, pornography is deeply compromised by both technology and industry, an arena of evidentialiality, certainty and imminence, then the consumer of pornography is both passive and disempowered. The pornographic industry, and the products it produces, assume a fascist status. The spectator-consumer, is the voyeur of the simulation of sex, trying to possess the spectacle without participating in the real. If Baudrillard is correct and pornography fails to represent the ‘real’, then what does it represent?

In one of her meditations on photography, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag places photography within a consummative/productive framework that allows for an extension to the schematisation of pornography. She wrote ‘photographs objectify’, ‘they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed’.[26] Discussing the prurient interest aroused in the viewer when disseminating certain images, she cites Georges Battaile who kept a photograph on his desk of a Chinese who was being slowly killed by ‘the death of a hundred cuts’:

He [Bataille] admitted to looking at the photograph everyday. ‘This photograph had a decisive role in my life. I have never stopped being obsessed by the image of pain, at the same time ecstatic and intolerable[27]

Interestingly, Bataille refers to the photograph as an ‘image of pain’, not real pain but a sign of pain. The photograph – a product, an image, a sign – has efficiently removed the pain of a dying man out of the world of the real and into a safely objectified world. Modern visual culture abounds with graphic and gratuitous images of horror, depravity and ‘man’s cruelty to man’  but without a corresponding human response, without moral outrage. Has humanity been so entirely cretinised by technology and the advance of mass media that we are impervious to the sufferings of fellow human beings?

It is impossible to glance through any newspaper, no matter what the day […] without finding on every line the most frightful traces of human perversity […] war crimes, thefts, lecheries […] and it is with this loathsome appetizer that civilized daily man washes down his morning repast [28]

Charles Baudelaire made this comment in a journal entry in the 1860s. What would he make of the modern world? As I have shown, Baudrillard claimed that in the modern global market, the power, or ‘seduction’, of the image is lost. The image no longer holds any potency. Sontag’s story about Bataille and the Chinese prisoner is evidence to this claim. Fascinating and yet safe, Bataille’s ‘image of pain’ was contained, framed and delineated, allowing him to objectify horror, not to experience it.

Testifying to the power of technology, Sontag wrote:

… since On Photography many critics have suggested that the excruciation of war – thanks to television – has devolved into nightly banality. Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react. Compassion, stretched to its limits, is going numb [29]

Increasingly the individual is immured against the barrage of obscenities depicted on television, in newspapers and on the internet. Bored customers queing in the bank to pay the electricity bill are entertained by Sky News who hail every event as a cataclysm: ‘Breaking News’. Page Three girls display their breasts over the cornflakes whilst the children talk about the latest Wii game. With the rise in mass communication, humankind’s shock threshold is being eroded. Benjamin’s ‘aura’, is lost, the authentic has gone walkabout and what was once perceived as horrific, as unrepresentable, now provides background noise – Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ has come to pass. On pornographic writing, George Steiner wrote:

When everything can be said with a shout, less and less can be said in a low voice (Footnote: 305)  […] The new pornographers subvert this last, vital privacy, they do our imaginings for us. They take away the words of the night and shout them over the roof-tops, making them hollow. The images of our lovemaking, the stammerings we resort to in intimacy, come pre-packaged[30]

Steiner’s comments on the written word connect with Baudrillard’s and Sontag’s comments on the image. The three theorists suggest that in proliferation, exposition, determined and systematic evidentiality – in these modalities of production – something of the imaginary, of seduction, of symbolic representation is lost. Evidentiality has martyred the latent power of mystique and of symbolic inference. That which is inarticulate should not  forcibly articulated. Steiner writes:

Sexual relations are, or should be, one of the citadels of privacy, the nightplace where we must be allowed to father the splintered, harried elements of our consciousness to some kind of inviolate order and repose. It is in sexual experience that a human being alone, and two human beings in that attempt at total communication which is also communion, can discover the unique bent of their identity[31]

and in so doing he raises another important point: if we cannot seek solace and sustenance in our intimate, private, imaginary worlds then where do we go for refuge? Steiner’s criticism of pornography is not one of moral censorship; it is a plaintiff critique of loss, a complaint issued against the totalalitarian and systematic obliteration of individuality which is evidenced in the capitalist marketplace. In accord with Baudrillard, Steiner is critiquing the overexposure of the pornographic scene. Pornography encourages onanism. Individuals experience a loss of participation in the real world as they render themselves incapable of building their own repertoire, their own database, of erotic images. In this schema the consumer of pornography is like the child who believes that bread only comes in the ‘white and sliced’ variety because that is the only bread that the child has ever eaten.

A Polyphony on Pornography

Let me now expand further on the meaning of words such as ‘pornography’ and ‘pornographic’ and return to Baudrillard. He extends the schema of the pornographic, from that which is merely ‘sexually’ banal to all that is totalising. For him, the world in which we live is conceived as one which is dominated by the ‘obscenity of the visible, of the all too visible, of the more-visible-than-the-visible’. In our modern world obscenity is evidenced when ‘all secrets, spaces and scenes [are] abolished in a single dimension of information’, when all interiority, all immanence, is made extrovert through our obsession with transparency.[32] For tragically, with revelation, with ‘fascination and ecstasy’, ‘passion disappears’.[33] In other words, something in our strident glorification of display is robbing us of our inherent facility for challenge and seduction. Baudrillard stretches our understanding of the pornographic a little further in War Porn when talking about September 11th:

 The worst is that it all becomes a parody of violence, a parody of the war itself, pornography becoming the ultimate form of the abjection of war which is unable to be simply war, to be simply about killing, and instead turns itself into a grotesque infantile reality-show, in a desperate simulacrum of power[34]

It seems apparent, that according to Baudrillard, the pornographic is that which fails to witness real violence. The pornographic parodies violence and in so doing is complicity and implicitly violent itself. In a meditation on the photographs that came out of Abu Ghraib, Baudrillard calls ‘The Spectator’ to account, ‘the true scandal is no longer in the torture, it is in the treachery of those who knew and said nothing’[35] as, according to Baudrillard, ‘violence inflicted on others is after all only an expression of the violence inflicted on oneself’.[36] The image no longer even holds the fascination that Bataille previously attested to. Images, so entirely ubiquitous within visual culture, have lost their power to shock. In At the Same Time: Regarding the Torture of Others Susan Sontag also wrote about the photographs produced by the soldiers in Abu Ghraib:

The pictures taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, however, reflect a shift in the use made of pictures – less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated[37]

Evident to Sontag, is the confluence between the staged photographs of prisoners taken by the American officers and the standard images of sexual humiliation that form the bulk of the repertoire within the pornographic industry. She writes:

And you wonder how much of the sexual tortures inflicted on the inmates of Abu Ghraib was inspired by the vast repertory of pornographic imagery available on the internet – and to which ordinary people, by sending out webcasts of themselves, try to emulate[38]

And adds:

Ours is a society in which secrets of private life that, formerly, you would have given nearly anything to conceal, you now clamour to be invited on to a  television show to reveal[39]

For her and for Baudrillard there is no doubt that the images of the abject prisoners of Abu Ghraib are pornographic in content but this pornography is newly defined. ‘What’, asks Baudrillard, ‘is the secret one wants to extort from them [the prisoners]?’ concluding that it is their lack of fear that fascinates the viewer. In various texts, Baudrillard has claimed that the Western capitalist concentration on production is in fact a manifestation of our fear of death. As these prisoners had no fear of death they represent a threat to the capitalist paradigm. As such, they had to be punished for their lack of fear and this meant subjecting them to the harshest lens of ‘radical shamelessness, the dishonour of nudity’:

[in] the tearing of any veil […] it is always the same problem of transparency: to tear off the veil of women or abuse men to make them appear more naked[40]

According to Baudrillard, naked, unveiled but fearless, the prisoners in these images manage to resist our cultural capitalist imperatives. Capitalism is banking on the induction of fear in the consumer. If Baudrillard is correct, then how are these images connected with our investigation into the scene of sexual pornography? I have illustrated that both Baudrillard and Sontag (and previously Dworkin) make a link between pornography, production and consumption and I have shown that, for Baudrillard, surplus production is necessary to sustain the capitalist market. Therefore, it is pertinent to ask: is the imperative to consume powered by societal fears? Is the success of the porn industry determined by the certainty of production, at all costs? I have already established that, according to Baudrillard, seduction is absent from the pornographic scene. He wrote that ‘porno’ does not succeed in deepening the drive’, it is ‘simpy an orgy of realism and an orgy of production’.[41]  Forced production is the opposite to seduction.  Seduction requires risk, the possibility and fear of failure. This fear haunts and enlivens the scene of seduction.

In a further exposition of the marketplace, Baudrillard claims that capitalist societies are founded on the precept of  ‘premature ejaculation’. To view his position from another angle, one might say that the engine of Western capitalist society is powered by the assurance of a forced, yet certain, ejaculation. A society based on the production of a forced surplus will never fail in its ambition to supply the marketplace. In the pornographic arena, this forced, yet certain, ejaculation is the end game; it is the evidence of the success of the scene. The ejaculation is ‘the product’ and this ‘product’ is in plentiful supply. For Baudrillard, the drive for production replaces the sexual drive in the pornographic sphere and any human drive in any productive sphere. The consumer of pornography is assured of succesfully viewing the ‘product’ (the forced ejaculation). But if there is no seduction towards production, then what is the point of participation as the product will be produced anyway? What is the consumer being aroused to: an increasing degree of reassurance? indifference? a pervading anaesthetisation?

When, in the 1980s,  Andrea Dworkin wrote Pornography, she claimed that the pornographic industry in America was worth more than the film and record industries combined. This is a startling revelation. That was then and this is now. In the ‘post everything’ zero years, we are not yet post-internet. As Sontag has suggested, the advent of internet porn has led to a huge increase in the consumption and dissemination of images and the ‘erotic life is, for more and more people, that which can be captured in digital photographs and on video’.[42]. The proliferation of ‘home porn’ movies is unprecedented and with the advent of the webcast, anyone can have as many Warholian fifteen minutes of fame as they want. As if evidence were needed, this is proof positive of the powerful imperative of production and of its metamorphic ability to mutate  and create new markets. Production manifests the immanence of desire and in so doing, the immanence of desire is lost, ‘everything [is] rendered in the light of the sign’  and the veil of seduction is removed.[43] If anything imagined can be realised what is left for the imagination to dwell on? If all private and intimate fantasies can be viewed in technicolour, close-up and hi-definition on a cinema screen, what is left for the imagination to be enthralled or seduced by?

In Stereo-Porno Baudrillard claims that porno, in its ‘forced cultivation of signs’, is a ‘baroque enterprise of oversignification’:

The very obscenity inflames and consumes its object. It [the image] is seen too close-up, you see what you have never seen before – your sex, you have never seen it function so close up, and indeed, happily for you, not at all. It is all too real, too close up to be real. And this is what is fascinating – the excess of reality, the hyperreality of the whole thing[44]

According to Baudrillard ‘obscenity disappears with sexual liberation’, and the new obscenity is a ‘sex neutralised by tolerance’. Lost in the abundance of ‘microscopic detail’, of apparency, of evidentiality, the pornographic scene has lost the ‘charm of disquieting strangeness’.[45] Our relentless pursuit of ‘truth’ has removed us further from it. In our enslavement to the apparent we have lost the measure of ‘the play of appearances’ in which truth might exist.[46] No longer seduced into arousal, desire becomes null and void. Baudrillard, schematises pornography as an onanistic sedative to our libido: intravenous inertia, infinite ennui.

His suggests that there something entirely fascist about the proliferation of those pre-recorded, pre-limited, pre-defined and re-gurgitated sexual images portrayed in the pornographic scene. George Steiner wrote:

It is no mere accident (as Orwell knew) that the standardisation of sexual life either through controlled licence or compelled puritanism, should accompany totalitarian politics[47]

‘Difference’ has disappeared and sexual experience is homogenised into a santised and simplified version of what real sex might be like. In the proliferation of the high-definition image, the inescapability of the close-up, isn’t access to ‘reality’ censored and negotiated for us?

Indeed, isn’t this the is biggest postmodern irony of all? pornography censors itself. The new pornography is of the Barbie meets Ken variety. It is likely that the porn Barbie has probably had her vagina surgically ‘realigned’ before we get to see it in close-up, her anal sphincter bleached between interview and job offer and she will probably be sent off for an enema before the anal sex scene.

The reality is that high-definition has reneged on its promise of ‘visibility’. In the so-called sexual engagement of the pornographic scene we get a sanitised version of sex. No one gets ‘down and dirty’ anymore. Its all so nice, clean and strangely polite. There is no visceral, just celluloid visual. It is so unlike ‘real’ sex. There is no mess to clean up, no bed to make, no sheets to clean, no bodies to wash – perhaps just a few damp tissues to dispose of.

In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin wrote that ‘the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of Authenticity’.[48] The mechanical reproduction of sex removes the primacy of the sexual act and the ‘aura’ is lost and the ‘most intimate processes of our life become the virtual feeding ground of the media’.[49] The loss of private space and the resultant loss of our privacies has meant that all is ‘transparence and immediate visibility’:

It is not only the sexual that becomes obscene in pornography; today there is a whole pornography of information and communication, that is to say, of circuits and networks, a pornography of all their functions in their readability, their fluidity, their availability, their regulation, in their forced signification, in their performativity, in their branching, in their polyvalence, in their free expression[50]

Baudrillard claimed that ‘we have lost the secret’.[51] This is the obscenity evidenced in the pornographic world: nothing remains secret, everything is exposed, blown up in a supreme saturnalia of revelation (reveal-ation). The camera lens suspends ‘privacy’ on its own suicidal petard. Absolute banality is reified and institutionalised in the repetitive, reductionist and censored porn image. Indeed, doesn’t the rictus of the pornographic ‘orgasm’ absolutely define the mechanical?

Conclusion

It will be apparent that in an attempt to offer a critique of pornography through the lens of Baudrillard’s writings, I have meandered a little between what a definition of pornography might be. Various loose formulations of a theory have been posited yet nothing decided on.  Does the pornographic lie in the material being viewed or in the spectatorship of the viewer? Does pornography involve violence of some kind, on some level, even if that violence is only against ourselves?  Is pornography the absence or presence of obscenity? Is it entirely contextual? Or is pornography actually dead, killed by its own inevitable banality? I have chosen to take a fairly circuitous perambulation around the subject in an attempt to expand upon current debates. Perhaps it is not in any way important to attempt a definitive explanation of the pornographic. Certainly, one could conclude that the pornographic sphere evidences a complicity with the hegemonic rationale of mass-market globalisation. The pornographic, whether it is seemingly sexual, violent or inhumane, offers refuge, a safe harbour from which the rapacity of productive industry can be launched.

Baudrillard makes an invaluable contribution to a schematisation of pornography. He asks us to deconstruct our constructions around the word ‘pornography’ and in so doing we stave banal and impassive observance; we can conceptualise the word and its usage anew. Indeed, perhaps the only true and definitive explanation of pornography is one that conceptualises pornography as a state of mind; the point at which the thoughts of the individual have been so entirely colonised by the capitalist market-led agenda, that one ceases to ask questions? If the world ‘pornography’ has any meaning, it may be that ultimately it means an inability to deconstruct received notions and hegemonic paradigms, an inability to ‘think outside of the box’. Baudrillard gives us hope and asks us to question, question, question … After all, isn’t that our only hope of survival against the totalising imperative of the  capitalist code?


[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Illuminations (London: Pimlico Press, 1999).

[2] These issues are keenly debated within the disciplines of sociology, cultural studies, art history, critical theory and visual culture.

[3] My italics.

[4] The Oxford Reference Dictionary, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[5] Andrea Dworkin, “Pornography”, in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (Oxford: Oxford Reader, Oxford University Press 1997), 325.

[6] Ibid, 327.

[7] Ibid, 325.

[8] Ibid, 326.

[9] Original italics.

[10] I have italicised the final line. See Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (New York, Telos Press, 1981), 82-3.

[11] Actually, a main tenet in Dworkin’s attack on pornography centres on the fact that these women are real and are really being abused. She points out that pornography is not an enactment of these acts but is recording the fact that these acts are happening in real life. This is a complicated point, too detailed to elucidate upon here. For now I wish to make the point that her view is that the message received by the consumer of pornography is that all women like and want to be treated in the manner in which pornographic imagery depicts them. That the male consumer fails to recognise that what is being depicted is a male fantasy not a female reality.

[12] Jean Baudrillard, Seduction (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), 5.

[13] Jean Baudrillard, “The Ecliptic of Sex”, in Revenge of the Crystal: Selected Writings (New York: Semiotext(e), 1997), 146.

[14] Ibid, 146.

[15] Ibid, 147.

[16] Ibid, 147.

[17] Ibid, 146.

[18] Ibid, 146.

[19] Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (London: Sage Publications 1998), 129.

[20] Ibid, 129. Original emphasis.

[21] Ibid, 131. Original emphasis.

[22] Ibid, 131.

[23] Ibid, 135.

[24] Ibid, 133.

[25] Jean Baudrillard, “The Ecliptic of Sex”, in Revenge of the Crystal: Selected Writings (New York: Semiotext(e), 1997), 129.

[26] Ibid, 72.

[27] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (London : Penguin 2003), 86.

[28] Ibid, 96.

[29] Ibid, 96.

[30] George Steiner, A Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 313.

[31] Ibid, 313.

[32] Ibid, 151.

[33] Ibid, 152.

[34] Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art (New York: Semiotext(e) 2005), 206.

[35] Ibid, 208.

[36] Ibid, 206.

[37] Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others”, in At the Same Time (London: Hamish Hamilton 2007), 132.

[38] Ibid, 134.

[39] Ibid, 137.

[40] Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art (New York: Semiotext(e) 2005), 209.

[41] Jean Baudrillard, “The Ecliptic of Sex”, in Revenge of the Crystal: Selected Writings (New York: Semiotext(e), 1997), 149.

[42] Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others”, in At the Same Time (London: Hamish Hamilton 2007), 133.

[43] Ibid, 149.

[44] Ibid, 146.

[45] Jean Baudrillard, “The Ecliptic of Sex”, in Revenge of the Crystal: Selected Writings (New York: Semiotext(e), 1997), 147.

[46] Ibid, 148.

[47] George Steiner, A Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 313.

[48] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction”, in Illuminations (London: Pimlico 1970),  216.

[49] Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication (New York: MIT Press1988), 150-1.

[50] Ibid, 150-1.

[51] Ibid,  148.

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