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The Vernacular of Pornography Part I: The Metaphysics of Porn

The Vernacular of Pornography Part I: The Metaphysics of Porn

Pornography is everywhere. By this, I do not simply mean that we are awash with images of sexualisation of men, women, and now even children, although there is ample evidence of this too. By this I mean that, even when such images are not pressing up against our retinas, we still find ourselves steeped in the logic of pornography, moving in what the Germans call the “lifeworld” that fuels the consumption of pornography. Simon Smith, in a September 2017 article, spoke with David Simon, the director of the acclaimed crime television show The Wire and now director of The Deuce, a period drama covering the rise of the porn industry in 1970s New York. A keen observer of cultural practices, Simon spoke about a “vernacular of pornography” that has filled the social and cultural gaps not taken up by the explicit acts of consuming porn. Smith’s article is interesting in looking at one specific case study in which pre-existing attitudes concerning race, gender relations and capitalism come to converge in the emergence of an industry intensifying and sexualising those attitudes and desires in film format.

What Smith’s article brings out is that there is more to porn than sex. There are cultural undercurrents and ways of thinking and living that pre-exist the film shoot which become crystallised and dramatised in the film shoot itself. The article also puts in an uncomfortable position those who took pride in the virtue of abstaining from the explicit act of consuming pornography or any sexualised image, yet was happy enough to continue milling around the cultural lifeworld that spawned the industry as we know it. In particular, while many might not behold the virtualised images of sex on Pornhub or HBO, they might still be quite content in living in the world of 24-hour news, social media, smartphones and massive online role playing games, all while under the tutelage of leaders of whom our knowledge is filtered by media-generated profiles. In these and other ways, we live in a virtual world in which beholding simulations of real life, images of actual things, are the norm rather than the exception.

It is to this process of simulation that I wish to focus this article’s attention. The reason for this is that simulation is not a technological issue, even if the technologies we have at our disposal give us a visceral experience of simulation. As John Milbank has highlighted in his book Beyond Secular Order, simulation is not the product of a 20th century science lab, but of the cells of 13th century friar metaphysicians. Now, one might not be expecting medieval Franciscans to be contemplating metaphysics whilst donning virtual-reality goggles. Nevertheless, the current of metaphysics that would later develop into what we would call nominalism – the idea that universals are just empty labels we create to make sense of particular objects – set the stage for the development of the idea of the “priority of the not” over what is actually there. In other words, according to Milbank, in order to grapple with reality, it is more important to pay attention to what is not there than what is there. The upshot of these seemingly cryptic metaphysical puzzles is that emphasising what something “is not” is only a conceptual hop, skip and jump away from emphasising what something “may be”. Nominalism, in other words, gives rise to a culture of “possibilism”, where what is possible is seen to be more real, more relevant for our lives and thus more imperative to pursue, than what is actually right in front of us (this is the priority of the “what is” favoured by the Scholastics up to and including Thomas Aquinas). Put into more Thomistic terms, what we see with the rise of nominalism and possibilism is the reversal of a metaphysics, from one that favours actuality as the ground for reality over potentiality, to one where the potential is prioritised over the actual. What might be is thus more real than what is.

If this still sounds rather abstract, think of the act of shopping today. While we would like to think of shopping as the strategic act of thinking of what we want and subsequently getting it, the cult of the possible over the actual makes shopping into something rather different, particularly in a shopping context with endless varieties of the same product – be they shoes, cheeses or even toilet paper. What makes shopping thrilling is not so much the actual choice to acquire a thing, but indulging in the possibility of choosing something other than the choice we actually make. Our consumer culture is one where the thrill is not so much in the thing being bought, but the possibility that might be bought. And it is life in general, not just life in the shopping mall, that is similarly affected by this cult of possibility. Life is now synonymous with possibility. In a culture of infinite possibility, the realisation of possibilities is tantamount to death.

“The Vernacular of Pornography Part II: Our Pornographic Lives,” will be published Dec. 10, 2017.

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.
(1) Comments
  1. Isn’t it a tad bit irresponsible to rely on Milbank’s interpretation of medieval Franciscan thought without mentioning that it has been heavily criticized by scholars of said thought? No Franciscan names were mentioned in the article above, but Milbank in the book linked to attacks (blessed) John Duns Scotus in particular for “possibilism.” Isn’t it odd that a blessed of the church would be responsible for pornography? For criticism of Milbank, see Dan Horan’s book:
    http://fortresspress.com/product/postmodernity-and-univocity-critical-account-radical-orthodoxy-and-john-duns-scotus

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