The plotlessness of porn

Porn is plotless. I don’t just mean it happens to have no plot (which may or may not be true) but that plot is something is inessential and even repugnant to it. I remember seeing an ad in the sports page like “any three hours of Adult video for twenty bucks!” This conjures up the image of a vendor measuring out yards of film like fabric or rope and then chopping it off at some requested length. Where one starts or finishes is of no value, nor does it matter how many different reels he bundles together. Obviously, you couldn’t sell other sorts of movies by making random cuts in the narrative.

Two conclusions:

-Etymologically, obscene means “off stage”. It’s not that the acts of themselves are dirty or bad or good for adults to watch but not children, but that they are incompatible with things that happen on stage – stories, development of characters, etc. There are disputes at the margins here that I don’t want to get into (what about Nabakov?!!?) but obscene can still count as a literary and aesthetic critique. It makes for bad literature because it is incompatible with the essential structure of literature. The obscene is outside of the structure and alien to it – think of the cliche of the teenage boy flipping to “the page” in Tropic of Cancer. And yes I know that they do the same thing in the Inferno to read Dante say “shit” or in The Iliad to read about heads falling to the ground with the teeth still chattering. But there is still plenty of ways to see the obscene as anti-art, especially as anti-literature.

-Much of sexual morality only makes sense when we see sexual acts in the larger context of life. If life simply stopped after sexual activity, the way it can in a video edit, then we might form a far different judgment about it than we do. Adultery in porn might happen in some disconnected fantasy world that can be neatly cut off with edits from ones actual life, but adultery in actual life is an immeasurably messier and nastier business. The idea of no sex except between a man and woman married for life might make no sense at all when considered abstractly or according to a few anecdotes or movie-characterizations, but it makes a good deal more sense in the actual concrete web of human relations in which we find ourselves.

One downside of this is that traditional sexual morality is, in fact, more difficult to defend than one might hope. The traditional morality does not make sense when taken as a mere application of a priori rules, nor does it make much sense when sexual activity is considered in abstraction from human life.  Its strongest case is in the concrete experiences of thousands of different contingent consequences, but this makes both universal rules and anecdotes hard to argue from. Any one adulterer might ruin his life, but the way in which it got ruined was in large part contingent, and anyone who hears his story might imagine that he could avoid the same consequences. Any one guy might have sex outside of marriage and think things work out fine, it is only from larger experience that we might see he is the exception to the rule or that he only thinks it all worked out because he has no idea what he is missing. Again, another problem is that so much that is wrong with the acts is interior: the sense of divided loyalty, of betrayal, of not wanting persons but merely satisfactions, etc. I’m not arguing here – my whole point is that an abstract argument is of limited value. But I would claim (to end on the original point) that the abstraction of sex from life that one finds in porn, i.e. its essential plotlessness or anti-plot character, trains us to see sex outside of life. We see it in a way it cannot exist, and so it cannot clearly manifest itself as good or evil.

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8 Comments

  1. thenyssan said,

    September 23, 2012 at 10:43 am

    Nice.

    As someone who teaches sexual ethics to 16-17 yr-olds every spring, I find it interesting that you are essentially describing the way adolescents see life itself. The isolation or chop-the-film angle is their whole life-view. There’s a developmental obstacle there…making Aristotle sound even more correct about teaching ethics to the young.

    Before you can teach them anything about sexual ethics, you have to make them care about living.

    • September 27, 2012 at 1:40 am

      thenyssan writes : “Before you can teach them anything about sexual ethics, you have to make them care about living.”

      I grew up in a fully secular culture with secular sexual ethics to match, and virtually everyone I knew cared very much about living.

      And it was not that life was seen as chopped up so to speak, but that sex was culturally part of life.

      Later, when I converted in college, I could look back before I converted and see the natural law at work because even though it was cultural, I always felt the tug that something was not as it should be.

      I can understand the concept of caring about life as part of the predisposition to the natural law, but from experience, that is far from the problem that needs to be overcome when the error is cultural.

      • thenyssan said,

        September 27, 2012 at 7:33 am

        I’m usually overly-mindful of long combox posts, since I’m no blogger and people are not around to hear me ramble. Usually that means I don’t express myself very clearly.

        When I speak of living in that comment I don’t mean a natural law “preserve my life” or “life is worth living.” I mean seeing that ethics just is how you do your life; a unity of action and identity; that good actions are growth into happiness; that what one does now just IS that growth into or away from happiness.

        I would never call into question your own experience or your observations of your friends. But I do have the privilege of not just observing but also guiding a not-inconsiderable number of adolescents through the stages of coming to terms with what life is. Obviously anything I say about a group like that is a generalization, but I’m sticking to my first claim: 11-18 yr-olds, in varying degrees, do not have a unified view, or even a unified grasp, on life. They simply do not see a connection between the way they act, the way they live, goodness, and happiness. That “living” in my first comment is “LIVING” in a James Earl Jones resonant meaning conveyer–good, right, happy, heaven-bound, Platonic-Form “living.” That’s what they have to care about, and they don’t because they can’t see it.

        Part of what is pernicious about porn is that it comes from and perpetuates this fractured life of adolescence. By living and learning, adolescents will develop exactly this unity each in his own time and so become adults. But the sexualized culture to which you refer reaches down all the way to the beginnings of that development, even earlier in many ways, and perverts it. Porn isn’t abstractly anti-life because it happens to fall under the Church-endorsed umbrella of sexual ethics. It’s positively, aggressively life-subverting because it destroys the unity that man needs in order to be man and to be happy.

  2. Elliot said,

    September 26, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    I wonder if you’d be willing to offer an assessment of this post:

    http://paraphasic.blogspot.com/2012/09/patching-up-bad-argument-for-natural-law.html

    • September 26, 2012 at 9:05 pm

      This is a very promising argument. If sexual ethics has to be the focus of ethics and the primary proving ground for natural law theories, then we have to do more to tie sexuality to happiness. A natural law theory that becomes unmoored from eudaimonism is unintelligible at best and certainly unattractive, and since the goal of moral theory is action we can’t dismiss considerations of attractive power.

      I see two elements in your approach: you’re carving out a role for self-mastery (what St. Thomas calls being Lord of ones actions ST. I-II q.1 a.1) and applying this self-mastery to the passions. This got me thinking of what the next step should be: and I was intrigued by the idea of re-reading the treatise on the passions, principally of the concupiscible appetite (ST I-II q. 22- 34) I was first attracted to the peculiar argument that concupiscence is infinite this seemed like a promising avenue of interpretation. But the key idea in any Thomist Eudaimonism would have to be pleasure. The distinctions to draw in pleasures are exceedingly subtle, but they are not small.

      But in general, I’m not very good at moral philosophy, and so am probably no the best Thomist to ask about this.

    • thenyssan said,

      September 27, 2012 at 7:45 am

      @Elliot

      I don’t think you should dismiss the natural ends bit too quickly, not the least since St. Thomas seems to think it works ok. I think you probably know this, since you employ the same kind of thinking in your later paragraphs supporting your own view, but there’s no real difficulty in saying that natural things can be ordained to multiple ends–either multiple disparate ends or to an ordained series of ends.

      Likewise, I think you should find a new way to express the “certainty about the purpose of sex” part. My certainty that the/a/primary purpose of sex is procreation comes from biology. Ask a biologist why we have sexual organs. Instead I think you want to talk meaningfully about how sex is more than just for reproduction. You’ll be in good company if you do, since the Catholic tradition does the same.

      I think to ground your final paragraphs–to give any content at all to the “rational mean of sex”–you have to answer “What is man and what is he for.” And I don’t think you can escape discussing man’s bodiliness to answer that.

      Aside from that, I vaguely agree with James. Keep working on this–I think it’s got some legs.

  3. mattd4488 said,

    September 27, 2012 at 8:59 am

    This is an interesting way of viewing the problem that I hadn’t considered before. However, I did once see a graphic on a website that conveyed a similar message. The title of the graphic was, “You Know It’s True.” The graphic itself was a pie chart. 98% of the pie chart was filled in red with the caption “amount of time you spend looking for your favorite porn scene”. The remaining 2% of the pie chart was filled in blue and said, “amount of time you spend actually masturbating”.

    So then, not only does porn as a whole not have a narrative, but people don’t even look for one. (That is, of course, of this graphic has any bearing on reality, which it seems to) Sex with a real partner not only takes places within a romantic narrative (and, you know, real life), but it is also with another person. With another person, you have to pay attention to the needs and desires of another. You can’t simply fast forward to your “favorite scene” and get it over with. Real sex, as opposed to the fantasies of porn-watching, demands virtue, especially patience, in order to carry out.

  4. September 27, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    thenyssan writes : “I mean seeing that ethics just is how you do your life; a unity of action and identity; that good actions are growth into happiness; that what one does now just IS that growth into or away from happiness.”

    Fair enough, I did take it in a more literal sense.

    As for the connection of actions with consequences, while men do my nature act for the perceived good, what that good is perceived to be is typically either due to age, i.e. maturity, or due to culture.

    And since you are not going to change the maturity of your students, what you are doing is attempting to do is to inculcate them, or move them from living in the present.

    In my field of architecture, living in the present is problem faced by city planners because the inner city poor are not only forced by circumstance to live in the present, but when given the opportunity to look toward long term goods, they remain present minded to their own detriment. What those city planner are up against is a cultural difference between what they want to achieve, versus what the inner city poor want to achieve.

    Or as Aesop tells it, some people are grasshoppers and some people are ants, and when the difference is common to a group the cause is typically cultural.


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