The porn supply

[15 February 2007]

By Rob Horning

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen wonders why it’s profitable to sell new porn when there’s such a huge amount already in circulation. ” I don’t understand why buyers demand such a regular flow of material.  Why don’t they just buy a single dense disc of images and keep themselves, um…busy…for many years?” He suggests that it might be “that buying the material yields more pleasure than ‘using’ it.” I had a similar thought in this essay, where I argue that pornography makes sex more like shopping and thus aligns the pleasures it gives closer to those we are acclimated to by consumer society, namely convenience and ownership as ends rather than means. Consumer society seems to encourage us to collect experiences rather than simply experience them; continually collecting porn rather than having sex or even masturbating seems symptomatic of this. The moment of pleasure is moved from the point of experience to the point of purchase; the pleasure is change from a sensual one to a conceptual one based on convenience and security (a stockpile of potential experiences in your porn heap defends you from the fear of exhausting desire.)

At the Economist’s blog, Megan McArdle (presumably) suspects the answer to Cowen’s porn paradox “must be some evolutionary imperative towards novelty,” and asks, “Why do listeners demand such a steady flow of new music, almost all of it inferior to, say, Beethoven’s 9th?” What’s interesting is the implicit connection between music and porn: both are digital-media products widely and controversially distributed on the Internet. Both track, in their way, trends in fashion. Both tend to be male preoccupations—especially in terms of building collections. Is recorded music analgous to the commodified desire of pornography—is recorded music to performance what looking at porn is to sex? Could the impulse to continue to acquire both stem from the same impulse, the same wish to pin down and master the excitement (in the specific sensuality and in the zeitgeist changes they record) each are able to arouse, control it and domesticate it by turning it from an experience into a possession in a ritual that must be continually reenacted? It may be that we enjoy this ritual (albeit in a kind of defensive, self-protective way) almost as much as we’d enjoy direct experience of music or sexual desire. Yes, porn makes available for direct consumption and enjoyment all sorts of patriarchial prerogatives, but I want to put that analysis on hold for a moment to make a different point about the impulse to collect. As the experience of accumulating music and porn becomes easier (as it becomes, in more and more cases, free), the moment of reassurance and mastery seems to come not at the moment of purchase but the moment of classification, when that digital file is given its appropriate place, is understood and processed and stored in some theoretically and permanently accessible way. Digital reproduction and distribution are making classification more important than ownership—tagging is all-important, very Web 2.0. We master an unlimited supply by asserting control over it, capturing it, with the unique taxonomies we generate. Novelty becomes an opportunity for taxonomy.

I think this explains the vast amount of music on my years-old iPod that I’ve never listened to once. In some significant way, the moment I drop a song on the playlist has supplanted the moment of listening to it—at that moment I am able to experience the satisfaction of the song without having to spend all that time actually listening to it. I manipulate it in a more direct and convenient way that provides me a feeling of mastery, which is what I may be looking for rather than sensual experience. The same thing seems to lurk behind porn blogs, where people curate their porn collections for public view. Something about the impulse to organize one’s fetishes has itself become fetishized. And fetishes, in general, are about containing anxiety rather than permitting open experience.

The fear that beauty (in music, in another body) inspires is that it will be lost to us; it summons an intolerable awareness of its own loss. Our culture (and not, I would argue evolution—the need for novelty seems contigent on what society can promise and provide) prompts us to defend ourselves against this anxiety by acculmulating more and more of the stuff, and we think with technology we can realize the dream of perpetual availability. (This plays into the interpretation of porn as primarily being a fantasy of perpetual female availability, i.e. of women’s objecthood, of her significance being regarded as received rather than self-generated.)

Published at: