The blogosphere has been bouncing reaction pieces to Emily Witt’s What Do You Desire? back and forth for the last couple of days. The original story is very graphic, so I don’t recommend reading it if you don’t want to read a firsthand account of what happens on the set of a bondage porn video. Briefly summarized, the author had an STD scare, met a bunch of utopian Silicon Valley types who think it’s good to have an orgasm during yoga, went to a porn shoot in San Francisco, and felt really empty and hollow about it.
Here’s the rough chronological breakdown of the reactions:
What all of this reminded me of was a post in a blog I read called Back of the Cereal Box. The author, Drew, is (as far as I know) a gay man living in Los Angeles who likes to blog about videogames and pop culture trivia. A few months ago he visited the same porn company’s headquarters in San Francisco to take a tour. Here’s his report:
This is where I introduce a pair of characters who accompanied us on the tour. One if a full-figured lass who looked like Ann from Arrested Development if she gained 150 pounds and bobbed her hair. She seemed young, and though I realize she was older, her every mannerism suggested someone who was still a girl — giggly, bouncy, petite in her manner, shyly enthusiastic in the way I think 50s housewives were. She raised her hand when the tour guide asked if anyone wanted to try out the head hole, and soon she had crawled beneath the sex table and pushed her head through, her face showing how thoroughly, unapologetically stoked she was to be a table head. That’s when the guy she was with stepped forward and took a picture of her. The guy, to the guide: “She’s my wife. Can I hit her?” I at first thought I had misheard. The two thoughts seemed logically disconnected. The guide, without giving it a second thought: “Sure!” And that’s when he walked up to his wife’s head, looking weirdly disembodied as it appeared on a plane of polished wood, and open-hand slapped her twice before winding up and cracking her across the face with a totally-not-kidding backhand. Based on her reaction, she really enjoyed it.
And that’s where the tour ended for me, and we immediately went for drinks in hopes of washing the experience out of our brains. Of course, here I am writing about it, so clearly that plan didn’t work, because drunk can’t beat awkward.
So here’s my dilemma: I was really not okay with seeing that Ann from Arrested Development get hit by her husband, even though she was more than okay with it. My reaction was a mix of shock and revulsion at seeing a woman — or, really, anybody — get abused at all, much less in such a public, theatrical fashion. I know that some people express love and sexuality with that degree of physicality, but I find it extremely difficult to witness it. That said, I realize it’s a telltale sign of homophobia and other bigotry to say something like “I don’t care what they do in their bedroom; I just don’t want to see it.” But that is essentially my take on seeing Ann get slapped. As a liberal, open-minded person who would hesitate to say “No, the way you’re loving is wrong,” how do I reconcile this?
No but really — because I’ve been rolling this one around in my head since this happened, and I can’t come up with an answer.
I don’t think I have a lot to add to that description, but it does encourage me to think that the pendulum eventually has to hit its max and start swinging the other way. Instead I want to look at a separate issue raised by Noah Millman. In Conforming To An Idea, he writes:
What’s our stake? The mere existence of these objects for consumption forces
us to react – to affirm or oppose, accept or deny, look towards or look away.
Of course, that’s the nature of community, and human beings are social animals
– we don’t really exist, as humans, outside of a community. So it’s hard to
object simply on the grounds that we don’t want to have to deal with what we
don’t want to have to deal with. But we do not exist in communion with people
we watch. There’s a one-way mirror in between us and them.
This is true of any mediated experience. When it aspires to art, mediated work
takes us into its world. We don’t consume it; it consumes us, and after the
fact we can reflect on an experience we’ve had, in a kind of fantasy. That’s
what losing it at the movies is all about. Pornography goes the other
direction, away from art. It is designed to move us to action – not to
invite us into an experience, but to cause us to do. That’s why I talk about
jihadi websites as being essentially pornographic – their purpose is to
incite violence, just as the purpose of pornography is to incite sexual
This is similar to my dissertation. (What’s the point of having a blog if you can’t cite yourself?) Here’s what I wrote:
An example that clearly illustrates the phenomenon of psychic distance as the backbone of disinterested enjoyment is the nude. For a heterosexual male, a beautiful nude woman is an object of lust. In pornography, such objects are offered to the viewer in order to inflame sexual desire. Such images have a very clear in-order-to structure. The ecstasy provoked by such pictures leaves no sense of distance between the viewer and the viewed, hence it has no “as-if” structure. It is seen “as” aspectivally and not “as-if” aesthetically. However, an artistic nude has no such obvious in-order-to structure. We see the value of the nude from the perspective of the picture without forgetting its valuelessness for the satisfaction of the desires in our ordinary lives. If we wish to assign a practical interest to the nude, we must do so at something of a remove from the phenomenological experience of the object itself by talking about, for example, the cultural capital that accumulates from appearing sophisticated by appreciating the “high” arts. Such explanations of the purpose of art objects can be valuable and will be pursued in greater depth in chapter five, but for now, let us focus on the experience of seeing the nude rather than the phenomena that cause us to see the nude. In a short essay called “On Nude Pictures,”† Watsuji writes,
A living human body as it is is not beautiful in the same sense as a work of art. There is a difficult to cross boundary in the space between an actual physical body that can be the object of sexual desire and a work of art that reveals the beauty of life purely. If one should however have a heart that can retain its moral interest before a nude body, it is possible to discover a beauty that is eternally fresh and mysterious. (WTZ 17:375)
What Watsuji is claiming is that it is only when we can take delight in the nude body as a body rather than as a potential object of conquest that we can begin to experience its aesthetic depths. In my formulation, we must first be aware of the nude as something separate from us, then give ourselves over to its purposes, rather than invest it with our own interests. Only then can we maintain the distance that gives the work an “as-if” structure while still dissolving into the work in intoxication.
† “On Nude Pictures” is Rataiga ni Tsuite 裸体画について (WTZ 17:374–6). It was first published around 1919, then included in the essay collection Mask and Person (Men to Perusona 面とペルソナ, 1937).
Tying things around a bit to the usual themes of this blog, there has been a movement to get away from the post-Kantian “disinterested” view of art. Art can be involved and active in society! There’s some truth to that, but if it’s active directly, then it’s just propaganda or pornography, not art. Art has instrumental value, to be sure, but the instrumental value of art has to be secondary to its value-in-itself if we really want to call it art. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not videogames are or can be art, but I think there needs to be more attention paid to question of whether games are instruments of pleasure (like pornography) or instruments of their own internal value (like art). To my way of thinking about it, one way to tell is this: do you smile or grimace when Mario dies? If you grimace, you’re acting instrumentally. You have a goal, and you only care about Mario insofar as he helps you achieve it. If you smile, then you love Mario as Mario, in life and (many, many) deaths. You have an aesthetic distance from Mario that lets you both lose yourself and retain a sense of the self you lost.