In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously noted that pornography is “hard to define, but I know it when I see it.” Therein, Stewart uttered and characterized for the rest of us, in perpetuity, the intuitive and pragmatic nature of perceiving and assessing the amorality and distorted values inherent in extreme and damaging relationships.
On the other hand, the implication of his statement is that authentic relationships represent the antithesis of the abuse that Stewart and what most of the rest of us “know” when we see it.
Today, there is much to see all around us as behaviors, attitudes, actions and inactions share the core of these common characteristics which, when examined in depth and taken together as they function in the larger social system, sure look and feel like pornography.
We understand the typical depictions of pornography as the degradation and humiliation of another, turning them into objects, images that conform to a distorted (even psychopathic) view of reality; the denial of and dissociation from another’s humanity and especially from one’s own entirely natural, creative and erotic impulses.
Pornography is the predatory exploitation of vulnerability, an indifference to suffering and/or deliberate infliction of emotional and physical violence. These are the features of the genre. In the current world, the intensity of the dialectic demanding resolution increases almost daily.
We also recognize that damage to the victim directly reflects the depravity and the denial of the perpetrator’s own humanity. Most important, we commonly understand the objects of all these twisted expressions are women. The female is the one who is almost universally degraded, exploited and turned into an object. She is the one onto whom the pornographer projects his pain, his own humiliation and denial. She is the one who is torn apart, chained, turned into a resource and a receptacle, reduced to a purely functional part. She is silenced. Her identity or nature is not of interest. She is reduced to an actress playing the part of a living person.
It’s commonly noted, whether true or not, that rape is not so much about sex as it is about power. It’s an extreme denial of another’s reality, personal safety, needs and very existence. The pornography industry has always included in its routine product the depiction of domination, humiliation and simulations of rape. In its most extreme forms, these include imprisonment, torture and even murder.
The killing of nature is also a metaphor pervading modern American culture; the killing of the natural world, our intrinsic nature; the transformation of the natural within each of us to conform to cultural imagery establishing the patriarchal authority structure, prescribes thought, behavior, preferences and which proscribes the instinctual, the relational, the authority of our individual and unique lived experience–and the erotic.
The killing of the natural world takes place daily in myriad ways and venues, all of which take their toll on the tender hearted, the naturally vulnerable aspects of our nature. Instead, we are subjected to an onslaught of messaging to hate dependence (poverty, disability) and the interdependence it implies. The deliberate cruelty on exhibit every day during the Trump presidency and particularly now in the midst of the pandemic is a further denial of interdependency and vulnerability.
Look around you. Are we not seeing the spilling of rhetorical abuse upon us every day? Are we not witnessing Trump gaslighting, defending, extolling the aggressive and predatory economy, the turning of public goods into private gain, selectively rewarding his friends with vital resources while exploiting vulnerability for political gain? Are we not seeing a vaudeville review of sadistic amorality, defensive self-orientation and denial of responsibility coming daily from the Pornographer-in-Chief in the White House briefing room?
While the most immediate effects will fall upon unnamed and yet uncounted numbers of deaths as a result of his self-serving view, the most pervasive and destructive form of this violence is to our primary (and primal) love affair with the natural world. In the current case, the reflexively embraced metaphor of war is adopted to reinforce allegiance to an authoritarian ideal by framing our relationship with the virus as a manifestation of the natural world. This is 9/11 redux. This is the extremity of the Anthropocene. No further consideration is required, or even necessary.
The objectification of nature, the ideology of dominance and control, the increasingly coercive practices adopted by those whose routine intent is invasion, colonization, extraction and profit is ultimately dehumanizing to us all. Surely you’ve noticed–or perhaps even experienced–how the Trump mafia is facilitating PPE and medical equipment manufacturers to treat their customers as resources, slipping the ‘market economy’ shiv between our ribs during a state of emergency. This is pure exploitation of vulnerability. No wonder we so often see these acts described as rape. And if someone dies as a result, too bad for them.
The relentless expansion of such exploitive practices with minimal or no regard for the violence that occurs in their wake is of a piece with the pornographic denial of the Other. Neither love, passion nor compassion ever enters into this equation. There is nothing remotely relational, erotic, sacred or even very creative about the single-minded trading of human capital to sustain a lifestyle that systematically murders the goddess of nature within and without. We have been warned many times already. Yet even now, our panic and narrow war-like response to this virus is of a piece with continuing practices now threatening our existence.
The monetization of relationships in a world of constant and highly sophisticated media messaging manipulates, guides and entrains our appetites and emotional responses, interrupting and incrementally substituting for authentic instinctual guidance. We are increasingly remote from the knowledge of our own bodies. Meaning is strip-mined from our lives, divorcing us from the plain and simple meaning lying within the material experience of being alive. It is no wonder that so many see evidence of a pandemic spiritual crisis. The eruption of compassionate humanity we see all around us now serves as a stark contrast to the prevailing condition.
The response to COVID-19 by the pornographic White House is also of a piece with the wishful thinking of certain media propaganda outlets, who for decades now reflexively substitute facsimile for authenticity. That will take its toll. Perhaps this virus will, when it’s finished killing a few (100,000?) of us, also wake us up to the magnitude of our hubris about nature and remind us of our subservience. But even if such a message gains footing in the culture at large, it will be ignored or resisted by the pornographic GOP cult of cruelty and death.
The crisis of authenticity is most evident in the young, who for their entire lives have been subjected to simplistic and demeaning stereotypes about they way things are. Seeking false refuge in the material and the rational, certain of our superiority and goodness, kneeling to the commands of narcissism while denying the shadow parts of our selves, we day by day are losing control over our own lives: these are the dimensions of a dissociative process also capturing the young.
They are maturing into a world that deprives them of security, optimism and spirit. In a world of increasing economic coercion, especially now, the chickens of debt slavery, the transformation of America into a low-wage nation, the unraveling of the health (s)care system, the social safety net, the constant assault on the compact of community, the privatization of the commons are all coming home to roost. The message is all too clear: you are only matter; your being, your spirit does not matter; you are a resource to be exploited like a forest or a petroleum deposit. If you resist, you can be cast aside; there will be someone else to take your place, for less. Only ownership matters. That, and inherited wealth.
The arbiters of this imagery, those who craft and trade in and sculpt it in its various forms and manifestations are white men. The denial of nature, the assault on the feminine, the domination and exploitation of the earth is planned and executed by white men. In doing so, they not only deny their own nature, the risk their own future.
When we contemplate a mass killing (another form of pornography), we are grateful the killer is not us, that we have not been subjected to a seemingly random violent act. The killer was the one disturbed. What could have gone wrong with him, we ask? Even if we have no intent to fully analyze him, the raw facts of the case are often evidence enough that he was caught in a matrix of obsession, denial, hatred, pain and rejection.
The murderer kills a rejecting parent, their own desperation, their own intense pain. They murder impotence, the loss of control they never had. They murder innocence, their own nature, their own lost inner child. They lash out at everything “out there” because they cannot live in a landscape of uncontrollable emotion, dependency and fear. We’ve known for a long time he is a symptom. What of the treatment?
We live every day now with the pornography of extreme wealth, the narcissistic entitlement of the economic elite and their secretive machinations. We live with the pornography of massive tax avoidance combined with the infection of the political process by money, the backlash of patriarchy in the form of ever more aggressive forms of misogyny. And, day by day, as if its various forms are separate from each other, the appetite for (and escape into) online pornography reaches new heights. Surely we know all of this when we see it every day.