Thursday, September 30, 2004

David B. Hart on Pornography

Jeff Hodges of Korea University informed me of this article, "The Pornography Culture," by David B. Hart. An excerpt follows.

The damage that pornography can do—to minds or cultures—is not by any means negligible. Especially in our modern age of passive entertainment, saturated as we are by an unending storm of noises and images and barren prattle, portrayals of violence or of sexual degradation possess a remarkable power to permeate, shape, and deprave the imagination; and the imagination is, after all, the wellspring of desire, of personality, of character. Anyone who would claim that constant or even regular exposure to pornography does not affect a person at the profoundest level of consciousness is either singularly stupid or singularly degenerate. Nor has the availability and profusion of pornography in modern Western culture any historical precedent. And the Internet has provided a means of distribution whose potentials we have scarcely begun to grasp. It is a medium of communication at once transnational and private, worldwide and discreet, universal and immediate. It is, as nothing else before it, the technology of what Gianni Vattimo calls the “transparent society,” the technology of global instantaneity, which allows images to be acquired in a moment from almost anywhere, conversations of extraordinary intimacy to be conducted with faceless strangers across continents, relations to be forged and compacts struck in almost total secrecy, silently, in a virtual realm into which no one—certainly no parent—can intrude. I doubt that even the most technologically avant-garde among us can quite conceive how rapidly and how insidiously such a medium can alter the culture around us.

We are already, as it happens, a casually and chronically pornographic society. We dress young girls in clothes so scant and meretricious that honest harlots are all but bereft of any distinctive method for catching a lonely man’s eye. The popular songs and musical spectacles we allow our children to listen to and watch have transformed many of the classic divertissements of the bordello—sexualized gamines, frolicsome tribades, erotic spanking, Oedipal fantasy, very bad “exotic” dance—into the staples of light entertainment. The spectrum of wit explored by television comedy runs largely between the pre- and the post-coital. In short, a great deal of the diabolistic mystique that once clung to pornography—say, in the days when even Aubrey Beardsley’s scarcely adolescent nudes still suggested to most persons a somewhat diseased sensibility—has now been more or less dispelled. But the Internet offers something more disturbing yet: an “interactive” medium for pornography, a parallel world at once fluid and labyrinthine, where the most extreme forms of depravity can be cheaply produced and then propagated on a global scale, where consumers (of almost any age) can be cultivated and groomed, and where a restless mind sheltered by an idle body can explore whole empires of vice in untroubled quiet for hours on end. Even if filtering software were as effective as it is supposed to be (and, as yet, it is not), the spiritually corrosive nature of the very worst pornography is such that—one would think—any additional legal or financial burden placed upon the backs of pornographers would be welcome.

I am obviously being willfully naïve. I know perfectly well that, as a culture, we value our “liberties” above almost every other good; indeed, it is questionable at times whether we have the capacity to recognize any rival good at all. The price of these liberties, however, is occasionally worth considering. I may be revealing just how quaintly reactionary I am in admitting that nothing about our pornographic society bothers me more than the degraded and barbarized vision of the female body and soul it has so successfully promoted, and in admitting also (perhaps more damningly) that I pine rather pathetically for the days of a somewhat more chivalrous image of women. One of the high achievements of Western civilization, after all, was in finding so many ways to celebrate, elevate, and admire the feminine; while remaining hierarchical and protective in its understanding of women, of course, Christendom also cultivated—as ­perhaps no other civilization ever has—a solicitude for and a deference towards women born out of a genuine reverence for their natural and supernatural dignity. It may seem absurd even to speak of such things at present, after a century of Western culture’s sedulous effort to drain the masculine and the feminine of anything like cosmic or spiritual mystery, and now that vulgarity and aggressiveness are the common property of both sexes and often provide the chief milieu for their interactions. But it is sobering to reflect how far a culture of sexual “frankness” has gone in reducing men and women alike to a level of habitual brutishness that would appall us beyond rescue were we not, as a people, so blessedly protected by our own bad taste. The brief flourishing of the 1970s ideal of masculinity—the epicene ectomorph, sensitive, nurturing, flaccid—soon spawned a renaissance among the young of the contrary ideal of conscienceless and predatory virility. And, as imaginations continue to be shaped by our pornographic society, what sorts of husbands or fathers are being bred? And how will women continue to conform themselves—as surely they must—to our cultural expectations of them? To judge from popular entertainment, our favored images of women fall into two complementary, if rather antithetical, classes: on the one hand, sullen, coarse, quasi-masculine belligerence, on the other, pliant and wanton availability to the most primordial of male appetites—in short, viragoes or odalisks. I am fairly sure that, if I had a daughter, I should want her society to provide her with a sentimental education of richer possibilities than that.