Wednesday, January 10, 2018

And Some Back And Forth On The Meaning Of Porn


I'd written a few comments ago some tentative thoughts on what porn is.

A friend of mine wrote me back this in an email, after I sent what I'd written to a few, three, people.


.....I think that the concept of porn is a Wittgensteinian 'family resemblance' concept. 

Family resemblance works like this: line up, say, 10 members of a family in a row on the basis of shared resemblances. The first two members have a striking resemblance in one or more respects. The second member will have a resemblance to the third who resembles the second, but the first, not so much, etc etc. When you reach the 10th he or she will hardly have any relevant resemblance to the first. Yet they are all linked as members of the family. 

A long time ago I wrote an article in the rambling course of which I tried to distinguish  porn from erotic art in part by saying that erotic art, but not porn, has valuable aesthetic qualities, that positive aesthetic qualities are not found in porn, because the producers of porn strive to avoid any qualities that will arrest and fix the attention (as positive aesthetic qualities do) in order to keep the porn consumer focused entirely on sex. 

I now think that was wrong. 

At the time I was unfamiliar with Balthus' painting 'The Guitar Lesson' (look it up on the internet), a painting with considerable aesthetic/artistic qualities by one of the finest painters of the 20th century, but clearly also porn. 

Many of his other paintings I would classify as soft porn, sexy little girls fully clothed and not engaged in any sexual conduct, but very highly suggestive of sexuality. 

'The Guitar Lesson' is clearly a work of fine art and pornographic, so my distinction was  just wrong. 

So where does that leave us re defining porn? 

I admit that I'm not as widely acquainted with all, or even most, categories or types of porn. Nevertheless I have seen enough to lead me to think that porn is such that it would be futile to seek one or a few properties or qualities that all porn shares so that a successful and airtight definition of necessary-and-sufficient conditions can be had. 

Take all the categories of porn you wish and scrutinize them as carefully as you can, and you are just not going to be able extract or finesse an adequate definition distinguishing porn from all other imagery having to deal with sex, nudity etc. 

It is a family resemblance concept. 

Porn is a very problematic thing, and the difficulties in dealing with it intellectually have in recent years given rise to a number of 'Porn Studies' programs in a number of American universities (Berkeley and Duke come to mind) and at least one British university the name of which I do not recall, and at least two academic journals dealing with this vexing subject.


Don's Balthus example may help.  His "pornish" works look like porn, as Don's description suggests.  

However, I bet few people use them to masturbate; they make one feel sheepish about being aroused by young girls, even as one wants to keep looking, thus making one aware of both the desire and the resistance to it.  

That is very tough to do, but not unique to Balthus..  Stanley Fish argues in a fine book, Surprised by Sin, that Milton tempts us to mentally sin in various ways, the main one being to admire Satan, and then makes us recoil and recognize both our vulnerability to evil and our resistance, thus doing justice to our conflicted natures.  Not easy to do in a painting.  

I went with a non-art appreciating friend to a museum where we looked at a Balthus in which one peers up a girl's dress between her thighs but not all the way.  He called me quite a while later and said the painting kept coming back into his mind.  As well it should.


I'll just say that for myself I've never found "hard core porn" arousing but  have found soft core porn erotic. Soft core porn is something I hadn't considered when I wrote down my few thoughts.

Though a question in my mind is whether soft core porn is porn, whether what makes it “soft” has some aesthetic qualities that lift it out of that category given a certain understanding of porn. 

On Don's original notion of porn, before recanting, the presence of an aesthetic dimension, and we could say literary for fiction, lifts the work out of porn. So I wonder whether in this painter's work, I've heard his name but am unfamiliar with him, the mixture of what's seemingly pornographic with what's artistic is an example of the presence of a sexually arousing dimension that gets assimilated to something greater than itself in the work and therefore doesn't count as pornographic. 

What does it even mean to say there's a pornographic element to a work. Is pornographic merely standing in for sexual? Does the presence of young girls as sexually alluring comprise the pornographic in Balthus’s art?

If the subject matter is taboo, sexualizing young children say, then does that of itself make the work porn? 

I wouldn't have thought so. 

If the depiction is erotic, created with brilliant or less than brilliant aesthetic quality, even has a subtle theme, along the line you suggest, or just some or one of these, then I wouldn't have thought of the work as pornography or even as having a pornographic element, though a sexual one sure.


.... Tentatively, I'd say "pornographic" is standing in for "sexual". Or maybe "merely sexual". There would then be gradations of the pornographic, and various forms of it, not all of which would be seen as pornographic by all people, or not to the same degree. It may or may not be taboo, and so it may or may not be something we feel we need or ought to resist. And we may resist not because it's taboo but simply because it can be a bad habit. So extending the word to other contexts (violence porn, poignancy porn, romance porn, food porn, etc.) is always metaphorical, used to indicate a fixated form of desire....


...What was wrong with Don's (Wittgenstein's) family resemblance argument?  It seems a classic case to me, and attempts to define precisely are doomed...


.... I didn't say there was anything wrong with it, unless it's taken to mean that there's nothing that distinguishes pornography from, say, trees (which also display family resemblance). "Family resemblance" doesn't mean we can't find words for the resemblance. 

Things do indeed resemble each other in many ways -- this doesn't mean we can't find words for those ways. E.g., how is checkers more like chess than baseball? Or why, for example, does Don say that a Balthus painting is pornographic? Or why do you say Balthus' work "look like porn"? What, exactly, is the resemblance, and what isn't? Don't say simply it's a "family" resemblance -- what makes you say it's this family and not that, pornography and not trees? Of course you can always shrug and say you don't know, you just feel it's this and not that, but that's just a way of putting an end to thought altogether. Invoking W. isn't going to help you with that....


....I think, again and also tentatively, when “porn” stands in for sexual, it’s not porn as such but is a word used to label aversion to sex. That’s what “stands in” means for me.

And the view I’ve staked out has it that strictly speaking—maybe too strictly, I can see that, but I’ll go with it, tentatively—there aren’t gradations of porn. It’s either porn or it’s not. The reasoning for this is: if it’s soft porn or something like it, then it has qualities that mitigate the singular criterion of intending merely to arouse; with that the aim to arouse sexually is part of something larger than itself, that there is virtue in artistic qualities transcending the intent solely to arouse; and porn is by (my) definition comprised only by that singular aim. This is how I read Don’s recanted analysis, which I think jibes with what I tried to say going in.

I don’t think that taboo subject matter has any necessary thing to do with porn. Porn comes into it only by how that subject matter is deployed. Though arguably there is a “meta taboo” involved here, which is unadorned sexual arousal. 

I tend to think that porn can be extended to some other contexts other than metaphorically and violence might be an example. And maybe, the thought just now strike me, that a unifying denominator for the contexts porn as such applies to is that very meta taboo say for example violence, whereas in “poignancy porn” the word porn is metaphoric. 

I’d welcome being shown up short on any of this. 

My biggest problem might be that my notion of porn is too rigid and confined....

1 comment:

  1. Deconstructing porn? Oh, cum'on! Porn is just text or imagery meant to arouse sexually. The key word is "meant" (which is how some laws get around Miller, by calling it "pandering"). Porn isn't erotic because, by definition, erotic implies the sexual, while porn expresses it. Case closed, move on.