I’m fascinated by pornography. Not the material itself, (which seems to me to provide absolute proof, if proof were needed, that we are idiosyncratic creatures; I understand you like to look at that, but I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you) but rather the debate and semiotics surrounding the concept.
The notion that an image has the power to corrupt, to irreparably sully the eye and thence the moral capacity, the very soul of the onlooker is embedded in our civilisation. It is enshrined: in our laws; our moral and religious frameworks; our assumptions about the way the world works, to the point that we rarely, if ever, question that idea at its root. We concern ourselves with defining what it is that we consider corrupting, what constitutes the pornographic, without really ever asking ourselves whether this very notion is not, at base, really rather silly, or worse, dangerous.
I have studied the theory and the legislation very closely, in large part because I think the relationship between censorship, pornography and feminism is incontrovertible and illuminating. The language used in the justification of any government act of censorship is identical to the way women are treated in legislative and cultural systems. It speaks of protection, of shielding the weak from an evil that only our patriarchal lawmakers are powerful enough to negotiate and to withstand. At best, it’s patronising in the true sense of the word, and at worst it’s pernicious, insinuating itself between our very selves and the world in which we live.
The idea that pornography –which is, for the most part, concerned with depictions of women — can defile the onlooker is essentially a very weird and scary idea, and we don’t have to extrapolate far to see that the object and its representation are the same in the minds of the lawmakers. A spreadeagled woman in flagrante delicto with a goat (for example) is a corrupting image because the woman herself is corrupting (…at last count, there were no world religions demanding goats be covered in public).
We must simultaneously protect women while being protected from them.
At university I wrote a thesis entitled Pornography: the last bastion of censorship or the last refuge of the self? the incomprehensible nature of which demonstrates either that they give out degrees in exchange for any old nonsense, or that I have become much dumber as time has gone by; perhaps both, but whatever the reality, I think I may have been striving to express just this idea:
Humans are hugely visual creatures; we love things predominantly with our eyes, in a way that is of course mediated by our cultural surroundings. So the reason we love the things we love, and get off on the things we get off on is clearly a reflection of our experience of the world and the society we live in.
Any attempt to intercede between the looker and the looked upon, to regulate or moderate these reactions can only be borne of a fear that the object of desire reveals too much about the weakness of the dominant ideology, is transgressive and holds within itself the seed of freedom.
The incident that renewed my interest in this theme was at a relatively hip Sydney club where I recently saw a burlesque show. I observed the following: a beautiful woman removing her clothes piece by piece in a highly seductive and engaging manner receiving the same puzzled and underwhelmed response as another woman banging nails into her own face. Putting aside any thoughts on the contrived jades of this city (feigning ennui is so terribly try-hard: now do you see why this is an idiotic stance to take?), it seemed to me to represent exactly the problem with pornography, censorship and our relationship with it.
Thanks to conventions of censorship, we know what is deemed pornographic, but thanks in large part to the internet, we’ve seen all that and a bag of chips. We know that our own response to the pornographic can be enormously varied, and so pornography can’t be all that clearly defined. Is it porn if I’m aroused by it, or if you are but I’m not?
There’s a confusing relationship at work. Are tits arousing per se, or does it depend on whether they’re juxtaposed with a goat? If I am into this, is my sexuality itself suspect? And as with so many things, the technocrats want this confusion and fear to remain; we stand transfixed by a magic lantern, a thousand lights flash on and off, blinding us and ensuring our perception remains imperfect.
We’ve seen everything and understood nothing.