Gary Day

March 4, 2005

Like it or not, we are all porn performers, just instruments forced to do it on demand and denied any pleasure or passion

If you are easily offended, please don't read on. I'm going to talk about porn. Yes, I know, but it's only sex for goodness' sake. We all do it. Or used to.

I grant that there is a difference between what you get up to at home (or, if you are more adventurous, the changing rooms at Debenhams) and what you can view on the web. Or perhaps not.

The rise of the video-cam has blurred the distinction between actors and spectators. We flash our souls on Trisha and our flesh on the web. And the things we do. Honestly. There's one where... well, I'm sure you get the picture. In fact, you can't really avoid it.

Even in universities you're not safe. I've been accosted by a colleague on the stairs asking if I wanted to read some dirty poetry. Academics promoting the stuff? I suppose that confers a certain respectability on it.

Yes, porn has come in from the cold. Hotels offer it on pay-per-view. It even has a certain chic. Heavens, the industry has its own Oscars.

But what does the proliferation of porn actually tell us about the nature of modern society? That we're tolerant? That we're corrupt? Or that we have finally come to terms with the idea that it's not just foreigners who have sexual organs?

Ahem. Yes, well, indeed, quite.

Moving swiftly on, what about the claim that as our political freedoms diminish, our freedom to view all kinds of sexual imagery increases? Possibly. But porn is more than just a distraction; it's the very principle of a contemporary culture whose first commandment is "Thou shalt be seen".

Hence Big Brother . Hence Jordan and Peter Laid Bare .

There is one CCTV camera to every 14 people in Britain. Our lives are spent watching and being watched.

And what we like to see are programmes such as The Weakest Link , where a dominatrix ritually humiliates contestants. And this on BBC Two. The highbrow channel.

As for elections, well, I just don't know what to make of all those politicians screaming into the camera: "Come on, baby, give me that vote!"

Porn is simply the most graphic expression of the abuse and degradation that lies at the heart of capitalism. Both deal in fantasies - of sex and consumption - that stimulate desires they can never satisfy. Most of all, porn is a business. It exploits humans by stripping them of their identity and turning them into instruments. Who they are doesn't matter, only that they're up to the job. Performance is all. So to speak.

The idea that you should care about what you do is a liability. Only the other day I heard of a local education authority literacy consultant who was "concerned" that a trainee English teacher was "passionate" about literature. His mentor was told to pass on the message that books were not important. She should be teaching extracts, not whole works.

This isn't something that just happens in schools; it is also going on in universities. "Do we have to read all of The Imperfect Enjoyment? " There speaks one raised in a culture of "your hundred best film moments".

Porn, too, prefers the part to the whole. The camera focuses not on the person but on his or her, er, well, you know. If you're still unconvinced about the pervasiveness of porn, then think of the audit. Isn't there something crude about the commitment to transparency? The demand that every aspect of a department be laid bare for inspection is tainted with the same mechanical view of human beings as, oh, I don't know, The Porn Identity . The review process is fundamentally no different from porn because it insists on making everything visible and, by so doing, distorts and devalues it. Openness is all.

But as literary scholar Roger Shattuck has persuasively argued in Forbidden Knowledge , our humanity is partly defined by what we don't know. We live in "a fog of uncertainty".

Here is the main reason why we need the humanities. They acknowledge the ignorance, inconsistencies and sheer messiness of our makeup. Or at least they used to. Now they've lost their way. They have ethics committees and have adopted a scientific model of research. But it's the idea of desire that may have undermined them from within.

The prominence of this term in literary and critical discourse bears at least some of the blame for assertions such as "the Marquis de Sade is a great writer and moral thinker".

Proust said that "nothing is more limited than pleasure and vice". Of course, that was a good few years ago. He probably wouldn't use the term "vice" today because no one knows what it means. For which relief, much thanks.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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