The pathos of pornography

by Rob Horning

29 November 2005


In an essay on “The Pornographic Imagination” Susan Sontag writes, “Most pornography points to something more general than even sexual damage. I mean the traumatic failure of modern capitalist society to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsessions, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness. The need to transcend ‘the personal’ is no less profound than the need to be a person, an individual. But this society serves that need poorly.” While bizarrely phrased (“perennial human flair”?), this assessment seems to point in an interesting direction. To Sontag, the use of pornography, entering its totalizing universe that’s free from the accepted logic of cause and effect—is a deformed, sexualized version of a spiritual impulse—an impulse to that hyperrationalist capitalist society tries but fails to squelch. Pornography deindividualizes both its users and those whom it depicts, and we take it for granted that this is bad. (It’s “dehumanizing,” which in the context of late capitalism means it doesn’t celebrate the myth of the autonomous individual agent maximizing his or her marginal utility.) But if you accept the critique of capitalism’s hyperindividualism, you can see how an obsession with pornography can seem a misguided attempt to break free from that straitjacket of subjectivity. It demonstrates an eagerness to deindividualize oneself, embrace operative instincts that transcend your individual desire and root you instead in some form of species-desire—not the noblest instinct of the species but a trans-personal one. In a way, porn is a substitute for what meaningful work might supply, if our society provided it for anyone. Rather than losing oneself in some social work—a path that our culture scorns and obfuscates—one loses oneself in smut, a path that yields profits to many and is thus well encouraged with a variety of cultural winks and nudges.

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