An Alienated Signifier (Or: Why Problematizing Porn Matters)

“One can feel obliged to look at photographs that record great cruelties and crimes. One should feel obliged to think about what it means to look at them, about the capacity actually to assimilate what they show.” [Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others]

There are lies we tell ourselves to get through the day.

The lies we tell ourselves to get through our reality, our culture, our families. There are the lies we tell others participating with us in the same deceptive game, the niceties and the “customer service” of everyday life. It’s important for you to understand, readers, that I’ll treat the three as different kinds of lies in this post. They serve different goals, dealt and executed in different manners. And I’ll discuss a specific case on which the second and third kind of lies turn into the first kind, in the process of consumption of filmed mainstream porn.*

Despite effort from moral agents and groups, religious to state authorities to feminists, I hardly have seen op-eds or writing that discussed the global-cultural process of filmed mainstream porn consumption and how it affects our everyday ethics in arenas other than human sexuality, gender and body image. I’m interested in ethics, human relations, glocalities, and the different sets and kinds of diversions, lies and power. And I’m interested in a very specific kind of lies: the lies we tell ourselves to get through the day and that affect other people and make them lie to themselves in return.**

Now, I better clarify something before we’ll continue. When I write “lies”, I don’t mean the simple “I didn’t do it and I have no idea what you’re talking about” kind of lies. I’m talking about a deception that runs so deep that it works on several levels. I’m talking about setting yourself goals, knowingly ignoring the fact that you keep missing them and keep on as if you’re achieving them, while dragging others to support that lie – and, as a grand finale, making them lie to themselves on levels you would never require from yourself in order to support that alienation. And I’m talking about a kind of alienation that makes a culture ticks. I think that the very zenith of this alienation lies in mainstream porn, and I do wonder why we’re so keen to suspend the truth from ourselves while consuming it. Feminists, forgive me, but I think it goes beyond “because we can humiliate and take pleasure in exploiting “the other””.

Ce n’est pas un simulacra

In a fantastic post by Itamar Sha’altiel (Hebrew), he writes that

“the fuck is the basic plot unit of porn. That’s why it is so easy to be drawn mathematically… Unless you’re watching male gay porn, a man/man is an unthinkable combination, which is why men can meet with one another without accelerating into intercourse, as long as there isn’t a woman between them. If the movie is built as a human sequence of combinations, then its units of plot, the fucks in themselves, are built as a sequence of combination of organs…

It’s a scale. Some combinations are just “more porn”, “more hardcore” than others… The order of the combination of organs can also affect the genre… The grammar of organs determines the essence of the fuck, while the combination of people determines the potential of possible combination of organs… However, the possibilities are endless.”

I claim that there’s something that’s fundamentally disturbing  and inhumane in the way porn is being categorized and consumed. We’ve built spectacular theaters to support fantasies for masturbation, and we use them in a very specific and narrow manner; We’ve clinically sorted the different acts of fucking, separated and packed them with tags for easy use (as Itamar beautifully captured, “people are watching porn and the only thing they have to say about it is whether it’s “anal” or “oral””).

And that is where, I think, the deception begins. Mainstream porn, especially on the internet, could have been the main arena to explore human sexuality. Possibilities are endless. Instead, it became to be the main arena for consuming alienation, inflicting it upon others, and in return, get that very alienation of the human body and human sexuality in the aesthetics of our everyday media consumption. Beauty is alienation, Truth is exposure that will end in cash. Neither is interchangeable as humane, but I think they became an equant that can’t be (dis)missed.

In a post on deconstructed tropes and voodoo sharks***, Shahar Even-Dar Mandel writes [Hebrew, and my translation is more my own interpretation than an accurate translation]

“Exposure for exposure’s sake is worthless. It hasn’t always been like this, I guess. In the past the existence of exposure [a trope] was enough for a catharsis. But it has been a while since, and a lot of young people got their catharsis this way once or twice, and then they got used to it.  Because exposure for exposure’s sake is too easy, we all know it, we all know the tropes that are around us, and the trope becomes a deconstructed trope that results in a voodoo shark.”

Così fan tutte

It’s not a feminist manifest. If it was, pointing at the suffering of some in the porn industry would do. It’s a visio-alienated one. We adopted a veil of connection and affection that in turn, becomes an alienation, and into a second and degrading nature. I just don’t believe that critical approach to porn consumption begins and ends with feminism. I think it’s about something bigger than that. I think it says a lot about people, our aspirations, fantasies, the stories we tell ourselves, and what we’d do to get to our so-called goals.

So I don’t want to talk about the individual prices of porn and rape culture, or that 99.8% of us are consuming this version or another of porn. I want to talk about what happens to ourselves and what we’re telling ourselves when we watch filmed mainstream porn, consume it, or thinking it’s not a big deal that we’re consuming it. You see, I think it is a big deal. I think it’s a prime example to a process and to a culture that makes us indifferent not just to the suffering of others, but to ourselves. Entire culture, entire industry is filled with every possibility of interaction between different bodyparts. And what it does, de facto, is to narrow down these possibilities into a known and familiar script, with fake orgasms and fake scripts, in which humans are the sum of the combination of their organs and the way on which they’re arranged, and nothing more than that. Just check the tag cloud in your favorite porn site.

And if it had only ended there. It narrows down exposure/truth of all sorts of kinds into almost nothingness. When not careful enough, one may believe this message, demand more alienation and exposure (mostly in this social networked world) from himself and others. That’s the thrill and the snowball of it in a nutshell; the deconstructed trope that turned into a voodoo shark.

Itamar finished his post with a spot-on observation: that the tags and the “basic thematical schemes” that porn can be summed to are the ones we’re living with, “and it’s OK. We don’t want to have an illumination right now. Only to masturbate”.

As I wrote in the beginning of this post, there are lies we tell ourselves to get through the day. With the embracing of porn as legitimate aspect of modern life and consumer culture, I’m starting to think about the point (or the process) in which certain lies stop being lies, and take the form a life, a culture of their own that affects everyone, including those who aren’t a direct part of it. With globalization and glocalization, I’m not sure that we can say we’re detached from and therefore can be indifferent from others’ values, actions or norms anymore, mostly when “the others” are ourselves, at home, Googling pictures of minors in their panties.

I also wrote before that it’s not a feminist manifest. It’s a humanist one. There are many things I find fascinating in porn consumption and culture. All I know and learned about human culture tells me that there’s much depth to the way porn is constructed, consumed and understood. That the industry, the way it’s being run and its mere existence are far from being obvious. The trope might be exposed, and so is our use of it, to a point on which the constructed trope in itself constructs our cultural voodoo sharks of porn, and of humanity.

(But for now, we just want to masturbate.)

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*For some reason, my approach to consumption of porn leans heavily on Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. Bear in mind I’m discussing filmed mainstream porn here. I’m aware of the existence of less toxic and even positive forms of porn.

**In simpler words, my B.A. is in sociology, anthropology and history. I spent three years examining that process in different societies and eras, and enjoyed every minute of it.

***For the record, he writes on a “naked trope” and “trope’s nakedness” and the difference between them. I searched for a while for an accurate translation, but that’s the best I could find.


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