Monday, 21 May 2012

Alain de Botton's guide to porn

The writer and philosopher Alain de Botton has spoken of his desire to create a new form of pornography, one "fit for thoughtful, good human beings" and that could be "harnessed to what is noblest in us." Here, writing exclusively for Heresy Corner, he outlines his vision and offers some more reflections on the modern porn industry.

The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any pornographic film is whether or not it turns me on. To save time, and at the risk of losing readers painfully early on, let me bluntly state that, of course, no pornography turns me on in the visceral, blood-pumping, testosterone-surging, genital-engorging sense familiar to many, if not most, regular consumers of the genre. That is, needless to say, a symptom of the intellectual and aesthetic deficiency of most contemporary erotica, its increasing irrelevance. It must also be the root cause of the crisis in confidence among many of its traditional consumers, a crisis exhibited most clearly in an increasing unwillingness to pay.

There are those whose response to the alienating, ennui-inducing nature of today's pervasive internet smut is to reject it entirely, to see in its garish, unimaginative images and its hackneyed and implausible scenarios proof of porn's inherent exploitativeness or degeneracy. Or, at best, as demonstrating Schopenhauer's observation that, for most people, sexuality is a "source of brief pleasure and protracted suffering." This would be a mistake. By far the wiser course would be to harness the undoubted power of the erotic so as to turn people on to philosophy and art, to provoke deep and noble feelings. Instead of being an aid to masturbation, it could become an aid to cogitation, a genuine art form in which the viewer might emerge from watching an intense thirty-minute session of group sex with a new (and hopefully lifelong) appreciation of Proust.

To this end, I have compiled a short (and sadly not exhaustive) guide for the pornographically perplexed:


Of all variations of sexual practice, the anal must be the most inherently futile, at least in its heterosexual manifestation. Quite apart from being, both in practice and in contemplation, somewhat uncomfortable, it is also a case of, quite literally, missing the point. To take a wrong turning, to proceed willfully up a blind alley, to mistake one's destination when it is, or ought to be, in plain view: these are the most obvious analogues of anal intercourse. How then can one explain its prevalence in contemporary porn? It is, I feel, a sure indication of modern man's fear of commitment, either to people or to causes, a preference for the gesture over the inner reality, a refusal to face facts. Anal sex is denial sex. It is sex in which the flesh might be willing but the spirit, ultimately, is weak. Transcending the anal will provide the key to a revived and truly philosophical pornography.


As Friedrich Nietzsche so wisely observed: "Thou goest to woman? Do not forget thy whip."


For Descartes, it was sufficient to think in order to be confident of one's own existence. The human being was self-determined. He or she had no need of external validation. Modern culture inverts this insight: I am seen, therefore I am. The sexual act, precisely because of its imagined intimacy, is especially vulnerable to this externalisation of perspective. Just as one cannot truly exist except in the minds of others, so to be a sexual being is to be, in some sense, an exhibitionist. Hence the paradox of celebrity. The singer or actor (male but most especially female) is available to the world (in most cases) in all senses except the sexual -- and thus not truly available at all. He or she remains a figure of remote fantasy. A celebrity without a publicly released sex-tape is thus only half-formed and so, for all his or her ubiquity, not quite real. Understood this way, the sex-tape is less a violation than a validation. It represents the visible consummation of the marriage between celebrity and public on which the modern system of fame ultimately depends. Coeo ergo sum.

FEMINISM, Pornography and

Sex might be "chiefly an affair of the man" (Schopenhauer again) but porn tends to be mainly about women. Feminists see in this evidence of misogyny and oppression. Yet outside of the porn industry, the only place one is likely to see such a prioritisation of the female experience over the male is at a feminist conference or in the women's pages of the Guardian.


It is impossible to watch, still less to perform, the act of fisting (or impugnation, as it is of course more properly called) without contemplating the many metaphorical meanings of the fist. It was, from the first, a symbol of power. In ancient Mesopotamia, the clenched fist of the goddess Ishtar proclaimed her divine omnipotence; and already by classical Greek times boxers had discovered that, wrapped in leather, a fist made a potent weapon. More recently, a raised fist evokes feelings of solidarity, of the struggle against oppression. The fist is the instrument of liberation: it breaks through the barriers of the past. This is why the depiction of fisting has always proved especially troubling to censors.

The fist, furthermore, is about achieving the impossible. Thus in porn fisting represents the trampling of boundaries, transcending the limits which nature seems to set upon us. It is not that it is worth doing for its own sake; rather, it teaches us a valuable lesson in perseverance. One finger at a time. No pain, no gain. But it can also hold out false hope. Like the so-called American dream, it promises to everyone an earthly paradise as a reward of effort and virtue. But as Seneca was well aware, even the successful insertion of a whole fist cannot guarantee an orgasm.


Group sex is the ultimate reflection of the shallowness of the consumer society, in which people are defined not by their inner uniqueness but by their outward interchangeability. In a gangbang, the ostensible goal of variety is paradoxically undermined by the repetitiveness of the action and the clone-like appearance of the participants. One may fuck one person in a hundred different ways, it seems, but one may fuck a hundred people in only one way -- or, at most, two or three.


As is well known, "gonzo" porn takes its name from Duke Federico di Gonzaga, 16th century prince of Milan and patron of Pietro Aretino. Aretino's "Postures", the name commonly given to a sequence of erotic poems with accompanying, highly graphic, illustrations, was banned by the Catholic Church for many centuries and remains to this day a key source of inspiration for pornographers. The term "gonzo" is thus a reminder of the noble artistic tradition of which modern porn partakes and to which today's producers too rarely seek to aspire.


Whenever I watch a porn actress performing a blow-job, I am forcefully reminded of the West's problematic relationship with food. The prevalent method of "deep-throating", in which the man's penis is fully inserted into the woman's mouth, is a visual metaphor for excessive consumption, the more so given pornography's preference for outsized male genitalia. It cannot be a coincidence that the popularity of deep-throating should exist in parallel with an obesity crisis. Yet the act itself is plainly bulimic, a fact demonstrated not just by the excessive skinniness of many of the female performers but also, more significantly, because oral intercourse is often the immediate prelude to ejaculation.


Perhaps the most honest form of pornography. Hardcore porn promises what it can't ultimately deliver. Softcore promises nothing, and thus cannot leave the viewer disappointed.


The Webcam offers the most exciting, yet most tragically underutilised, vehicle for porn I know. Nothing offers more completely the prospect of real communication, a genuine (if technologically mediated) connection between producer and consumer. Yet what do we find? Bored girls going through a circumscribed repertoire of repetitive acts. Equally bored customers whose deepest, most secret fantasies turn out to be no different from anyone else's. And at the end, a sense of frustration, of utter futility. How much more fulfilling it could be if, instead of merely touching herself intimately, the webcam girl took time to open her customer's mind to the glories of French literature! Just think of the satisfaction of knowing that, at such a remote distance, one could bring another human being, not just to orgasm but to a deeper knowledge of Kant! That surely would be a pornography in which eroticism would support, rather than undermine, our higher values. A pornography which even the greatest of philosophers would not be ashamed to download.
Read the rest of this article