Click here to read “The Vernacular of Pornography Part I: The Metaphysics of Porn”
This attitude of preferring the simulation of potentiality over the tactile heft of actuality has seeped into the world of things, and also the world of persons, where bodies are now caught up in the process of the abstracting power of the possible. In The Coming of the Body, the French essayist and consultant Herve Juvin spoke of the production of the endless variety of options that the human body can become as a result of the proliferation of medical technologies from cosmetics to accessories to surgical procedures. Magazines, meanwhile, showcase myriad things that bodies may become, through the bodies of the rich and famous, or more accurately, airbrushed versions of them. With the production of new products and procedures come new lines of possibility – possible choices, possible products, possible lifestyles – a kind of postmodern immortality worked onto the body. While we may like to think that this kind of immortality is a celebration of the body, it really is a celebration of the infinitely malleable body, where actual bodies are turned into the abstract potentialities, generated by minds that are in turn fed by computer generated images.
Actual bodies themselves, meanwhile, dripping with flaws and limitations, are no longer the font of life, but a negation of the abundance of the possible. What Juvin also noted, however, is that as human flesh is made to assume such infinite possibilites, the facticity of the body itself becomes a horrible thing to behold. In the process, actual flesh becomes not a living but a deadening of possibility, thereby making virtual bodies preferable to actual flesh. To use Juvin’s words, we are now living in a culture gripped by a “horror of the flesh”. In such a milieu, is it any wonder we are seeing a rise in instances of young people with body-image issues?
The same logic of “embodied possibility” could be applied to the world of human relations, where the preservation of the potential of relationship is prized above the complexities that come with an actual relationship with the person. We see this in the “check box” approach to relationships that we see in the world of internet dating. Our conception of being able to relate to a person is now beholden to the list of boxes that potential mate must cross off, so much so that, often, the experience of the person him- or herself, whether in dates or in longer-term relationships like marriage, becomes a letdown, even in circumstances where they do match the list.
Once the metaphysics of possibilism and its cultural outflows, even the most innocent ones, make sense, then and only then does the toxicity and addictive quality of pornography make sense. This preference for a virtual body over actual bodies becomes particularly apparent in the world of pornography. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that, as providers of pornography become more prevalent and more competitive for the consumer dollar, what becomes touted is not so much sex. Rather, the commodity being sold is the infinite arrays of possible sexual activity, with every combination of race, age, theme and position – even impossible ones – now just a simple click away.
In the process, actual sex becomes trumped by the possibilities made available by pornography. The evidence of this can be found in testimonies where actual sex and actual bodies are superceded by possibilities made available on screen, and actual sex is made to die the death that so many other actualities would suffer under the lordship of infinite potency. One testimony involved a woman who could only satisfy her sexual partner only when she was filmed having sex with him. Her partner would then find the film of that encounter more sexually stimulating than the encounter itself.
Pornography’s toxicity, then, does not make sense outside the toxicity that is already at work in the cult of possibility. The power of virtuality to override the actual makes sense when one apprehends that it has already been at work, long and hard, in the seemingly more tactile areas of our social, economic, political and cultural lives. Given the entrenchment of the pornography’s logic in so many institutions and practices, it is going to take more than just mere abstention from pornography to combat its influence. Indeed, abstention alone will be insufficient in the face of the promises of abundance being peddled in our malls and on our phones.
If the heart of the vernacular of pornography is the empty show of abundance borne from prioritising the potential over the actual, the heart of combating its logic is the dissemination of practices that celebrate a real abundance, one that comes with the restoration of the actual. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas argued in his Summa, that the fecundity of the possible can only be meaningfully celebrated when one does the hard work of celebrating the limits of actual, celebrating the borders of reality rather than making a project of transgressing them. The poet Madeleine L’Engle captures this tensile imperative in her To a Long Loved Love, where lovers uncover love, not through the potentiality of simulation and fantasy, but in years of labouring within the borders marked by “the touch of flesh and the shape of bones”.
In the context of the Church, we see this celebration of the fecundity of the actual in the Rite of Matrimony, where vows are exchanged between spouses to celebrate the fact that they are limiting their sexual personhood to just one person “to the exclusion of all others”. While the possibility of other sexual partners is real, the Sacrament reminds us that the abundance that comes from the celebration of one’s sexuality, and the infinitude that it opens up, only comes when it is laid before one actual spouse. The Sacrament enjoins a commitment to do the hard work of celebrating the limits of that spouse’s body, so that the abundance that reaches beyond those limits might be realised. “What passion the knowledge of tried flesh still yields”, L’Engle rhetorically asked in her poem. This choice in Matrimony is just one instance in which we are schooled to see first see an actual choice as the beginning of life rather than the end of it, and then see that real life begins in the choice of loving one God, Jesus Christ.
Matthew Tan PhD is the private secretary to Bishop Tony Randazzo in the Archdiocese of Sydney, and an adjunct Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He has published widely in both theological and political science scholarly journals and his writings have appeared in “The Distributist Review”, “Solidarity Hall” and “The Other Journal”. He is the author of “Redeeming Flesh: The Way of the Cross with Zombie Jesus” and blogs at The Divine Wedgie on the Patheos Catholic blog channel.