Thursday, September 4, 2008

Nothing quite like getting people turned on in a graveyard...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Porn on the radio

Had a chat about pornography, boobs on bikes, and god knows what else yesterday, on 95bfm. You can listen to it here:

NSFW (on account of we say offensive things like "erect penis," "cum shot" and "John Banks").

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"It's just boobs!"

Well, pornography has been on the news here in NZ this week, on account of porn entrepreneur Steve Crow's Boobs on Bikes parade, which was watched by around 100,000 people in
Auckland yesterday (and protested by a mixture of conservatives and feminists). Which makes it an appropriate time to consider Pornography with a capital 'P' - i.e. the stuff the commercial porn industry makes, and which dominates most people's idea of what the word means (in the same way Marvel and DC dominate most people's idea of comics).

The last few days, I've been mumbling incoherently about the way art - by which I guess I mean depiction - necessarily involves a process of eroticisation. It's a kind of magic, enchanting whatever it depicts - saturating it with meaning and sensuousness, seducing us, arousing us. Anyone who's fallen in love with a photograph of a place (an Ansel Adams or Craig Potton or Robin Morrison, etc), and then been disappointed by the experience of actually being there, has discovered the difference between the enchanted world we see in art, and reality.

As James Kochalka says in The Horrible Truth About Comics:
Art gives us a way of transforming our messy, contingent, meaningless reality into a place where, as Kochalka puts it, we can "boil in the intensity of our experiences."

So what happens when we make art that's designed to sexually arouse? Well, for one thing, we're taking a process that already has the effect of heightening experiences, and then concentrating it into an "ultra vivid reality." It's like taking coca leaves and turning them into cocaine. Artists have been making pornography for ever, of course, and not only because it sells. It's also because it's like working magic. Artists love it when their work has an effect on people; and with pornography - what an effect! Sexual arousal transforms the whole person, nudging them into that other, more intense, reality. An artist who can turn people on is like a sorcerer or shaman, able to summon the spirit of Eros into our world. Pornography is pagan, Bacchanalian, animist; it breaks down the everyday and invites our demons to rise up and take possession of our bodies and minds.

Which is not, imho, a bad thing. But it's poweful shit, that's for sure.

These days, though, pornography is dominated by the "adult entertainment industry," which is a business first and foremost; "the other Hollywood," as it's sometimes called. Its product is a kind of McPorn: cheap, fake, mass produced to a template, unconcerned with what kind of demons or spirits it's summoning or exciting. In McPorn, sexuality is little more than an array of commercialised products: oral, anal, girl on girl, gang bang, etc etc... One blow job is much like any other, and the actors and actresses too have a sameness to them, thanks to the cosmetic surgery, the fake boobs and spray-on tans, the daytime soap opera haircuts, the super-tight miniskirts and death-defying stilleto heels. There's a bland cheap TV advert aesthetic to these things: a kind of porno chic, which seems pretty pervasive at the moment throughout mainstream pop culture. God knows, it dominates mainstream comics...

The reason I hate most of this stuff isn't because it's pornography; it's because it's McPorn. One Boobs on Bikes "model" interviewed topless on TV3 news last night responded to the controversy by shrugging and laughing: "it's just boobs!" Which, y'know, is quite right. What's the big deal, people? Get over it!

But on another level, her comment unwittingly demonstrated the problem I have with most mainstream pornography. In their view, sex is "just sex" - nothing special. just another product to be manufactured, bought and sold. These films aren't anyone's personal fantasy, obsession, nightmare or dream. They're bland collections of cliche, just going through the motions of sex and ticking the boxes: oral, anal, girl-girl, close-up, money shot, end. Gone is any sense of genuine transgression, of pagan ritual, magic or dreams. Gone is the beauty and awe and horror of Eros, the intensity and transformative power of arousal, passion, desire and lust. McPorn is to sexuality what the Big Mac is to food.

Thank god the internet has led to an explosion of 'alternative, independent porn,' a place where anyone can put their own individual obsessions out there for others to discover, where homemade non-commercial exhibitionism can flourish, and where the porn equivalent of zines and minicomics can grow and find an audience. There are websites dedicated to bellybuttons, groups who are turned on by the smell of cut grass; there's deviantart, old school grindhouse, amateur burlesque, webcams and adult blogs. Of course, the industry is expanding like wildfire too, and jumps on every opportunity to exploit every concievable market niche. No doubt thousands of sex slaves are suffering in front of webcams so some asshole can get rich. And for paedophiles, the web has been a godsend. But when you unleash demons, some of them aren't all that nice...

I don't mean to dismiss the entire commercial mainstream porn industry; obviously, every so often there are moments of real Dionysian power in even the most boring pornography. And I'm sure there are some genuine auteurs working in the industry, just as there are some great talents doing interesting things in superhero comics. And maybe even mainstream porn is about to enter another 'golden age' like the 1970s; certainly the opportunity is there. What is undeniably happening, I think, is a creative convergence of porn with independent film, as seen in movies like Shortbus, 9 Songs, Ken Park, etc...

Next time, I promise I'll try to talk about some of the interesting stuff...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Incoherent ramblings continued...

So, continuing with the line of thought I started here, there's a sense in which all art has a connection to the imaginary 'other world' of mysticism. The reality depicted in stories, films, paintings, photographs etc is not the one in which we actually live. Instead, it's a kind of parallel universe; one in which everything is heightened, intense, super-real.

Why does a photograph of an event often feel so different to the event itself? Maybe in part because within the image, that moment seems saturated with meaning rather than contingency. The banal has been transformed - or transported - into the transcendent, the mystical.

Just as in arousal, the body floods with adrenalin, when transformed into art, the entire world floods with intensity. It's as though we've slipped out of the everyday, the mundane, and into that other reality: the dream world, the spirit realm, the mystical. Perhaps this is what Joyce was on about when he insisted on art as epiphany?

I reckon this is intrinsic to art; all art (maybe to all signification?) - from simple, crass, disposable advertisements to the most ambitious artwork. The act of making an image or a narrative necessarily means depicting a different reality to this one: a reality created by humans, and hence full of human meaning (unlike actual, objective reality, which is completely neutral and meaningless in itself). I guess this is one of the reasons we do it in the first place; because the way we make sense of the world is by constructing simplified models of it - artificial images reality that come with in-built structures of meaning. As if, by sympathetic magic, those manufactured structures of meaning will thereby pass into and take possession of objective reality.

These imaginary worlds we build can seem much richer and more potent than the ordinary one we inhabit, although we try to alleviate this by viewing reality through such imposed fictional narratives as ideology, nationalism, religion, personal growth, or our own biographies, in an attempt to make everyday life feel like a story.

Anyway, where I'm trying (kind of ineptly) to go with this is that all images and art can be seen as pornographic - in the sense that they provoke arousal, seducing us into an intensified eroticised reality.*

*Is this what Baudrillard was on about when he talked about seduction and hyperreality? Guess I'd better go back and read him properly! Quotes like this:
To seduce is to die as reality and reconstitute oneself as illusion. It is to be taken in by one’s own illusion and move in an enchanted world.
and this:
Anatomy is not destiny, nor is politics: seduction is destiny. It is what remains of a magical, fateful world, a risky, vertiginous and predestined world.
(both from Jean Baudrillard, Seduction) sure seem worth pursuing. Better dust off my old copy and give it another go...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tantric Temple Porn

From Khajuraho Temple in India.

NB: Pictures found in various places online.

The Doors of Perception, Heaven and Hell...

From A Brief History of Drugs, by Antonio Escohotado (tr. by Kenneth A. Symington):
... shamanism [is] an institution ... having the objective of administering techniques of ecstasy, where ecstasy is understood to mean a trance that erases the barriers between sleep and wakefulness, sky and the underground, life and death. Taking some drug, or giving it to another, or to the whole tribe, the shaman builds a bridge between the ordinary and the extraordinary, which serves for magical divination as well as religious ceremonies and for therapy.
I've been thinking of the way altered states of consciousness are traditionally seen as opening a gateway to the 'other world' ( i.e. the dream world or the spirit realm, or whatever), which can then be passed through in either direction (that is, the participant can go on a journey in that other realm, or they can be possessed by what comes from it).

The erotic can be seen as an analogy to this, imho: erotic arousal as possession by Eros, and the introduction of sex into a situation as shifting things into another - altered - reality. Arousal is a physical state, but also an altered state of consciousness analogous to that experienced through drugs or other means. It's also parallel to the rush people get from adrenalin, and from crisis. Maybe it's the same thing?

In Chris Hedges' War is a Force that gives us Meaning, he talks about the way war creates a powerful sense of arousal, which isn't that far from sexual arousal. It's no surprise, he argues, that in war, violence is often sexualised and sex is often violent.

Like Hedges, Jonathan Glover (in Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century) also refers to Freud's notion that the human psyche is in a constant struggle between Eros and Thanatos - sex and death. That these two impulses are intertwined is a recurring theme in many religious traditions (very obviously in Hinduism).

While this might not be a very meaningful idea for psychology, it's a fruitful one for thinking about the role of pornography in culture. It helps us see why there are so many religious (or shamanic) rituals involving sexual arousal (farmers masturbating into fields before planting, Tantric cults, etc). And it adds some additional layers to our understanding of the Christian world's queasiness about both sexuality and intoxication (through drugs etc). If both involve an exchange with a pagan realm of spirits or magic (which Christianity tended to see as demonic), then they are extremely dangerous. More generally, the mainstream Christian tradition seems to me to involve a strong aversion to any kind of altered state of consciousness, viewing it as (at least) a loss of one's most important faculties or even (at worst) possesseion by demons. It's an element of paganism that has long been particularly repellent to many Christians - maybe because when Christianity reached Rome, it spread partly as a puritanical reaction against a perceived growing culture of decadence (though ironically, the early persecution of Christians was in part because their rituals were misunderstood as involving sexual immorality).

My suspicion is that this unease at any kind of irrational intoxication (including sexual arousal) has remained very powerful in our culture, and is part of what lies behind the modern Western prohibition of mind-altering drugs and our long history of suppressing pornography and constraining sexual practices. Of course, since the Enlightenment, we've increasingly favoured the Rational over the Irrational, which - while positive in so many ways - has shaped our views on mental health and madness, drugs, religion, sexuality and art. Maybe it's all tangled up together: Enlightenment philosophy, the Christian rejection of pagan mysticism, post-Reformation puritanism, modern morality, the medicalisation of how we see the mind and body, etc...

However, Christianity (just like Judaism and Islam) has always included a powerful mystical tradition that coexists with that more puritan thread. Possession by the Holy Spirit, the trances experienced by many saints and nuns, the miracles and prophecies common in both the Catholic tradition and modern pentecostalist movements: all this is not that far removed from a shaman taking spirit journeys on Ayahuasca in the Amazon, or sending his patients on a healing drug-induced trip. Or, for that matter, Tantric rituals involving sexual arousal.

One key to all this is the word ecstasy, which is used to describe the spiritual experience of the divine (just as Escohotado uses it in the quote at the beginning of this post); a state of overwhelming sexual pleasure; and the illegal drug MDMA.*

So: might it be useful to think of pornography as a kind of pagan ritual? As a summoning of Eros, opening a door to that other realm; as a sacrificial abandonment of the self that opens the gates of Heaven and Hell, unleashing a powerful, elemental, divine spirit...

But beware; as any old Shaman - not to mention Freud - could tell you, elemental spirits are not always benign.

Anyway: at this stage, I'm just throwing ideas around, and gathering material. We'll see where it all takes us...

*In fact, (according to the documentary Ecstasy Rising), MDMA gained its street name from a religious studies student who subsequently helped to promote its use as a recreational drug; he chose the name initially as a reference to spiritual ecstasy.