Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Disadvantage Pornography

Presumably, the title of Jonathan Raban's piece about the photographs of Dorothea Lange for the New York Review was entitled "American Pastoral" because, as his point of departure, he invokes William Empson's Some Versions of the Pastoral. As Raban put it, Empson's book "casts a hard modern light on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poems about shepherds and shepherdesses." Under that hard light this was a genre "in which highly educated and well-heeled poets from the city idealized the lives of the poorest people in the land" (Raban's words). Raban's article reviews two books about Lange and her images of poverty, particularly during the Great Depression; and his own hard light does not try to hide the extent to which photographs now declared to be "iconic" were actually artifacts of scrupulously applied techniques that often distorted the "reality" of the original image. Thus the images we now celebrate were actually products of, to put it bluntly, the most manipulative form of propaganda; and, while that propaganda may have been serving the noble causes of the Farm Security Administration, it is still a precursor of that consciousness industry that now manipulates the judgments of public opinion as skillfully as Lange manipulated her negatives.

This led me to wonder whether or not the concept of pornography needs to be broadened beyond its usual sexual connotations. This is far from an original idea. In Plato's "Republic" we are treated to the spectacle of the ordinary man walking through a field where a bloody battle has just been concluded, struggling over the temptation to look at the corpses. The implication is that such voyeurism is vile but that it is hard for our all-too-human nature to resist succumbing to it. These days television has made this particular form of voyeurism socially acceptable in the name of crime investigation programs that dwell on "scientific" approaches to the analysis of evidence from a crime scene. My guess is that Plato would have recoiled from not only the imagery but also the self-serving justification of revealing those images for their "scientific" nature.

As Henry Miller once observed in an essay concerned with the distinction between obscenity and pornography, the obscene may offend; but the pornographic titillates. He saw himself as a writer of obscenity but denied that it was ever his intention to titillate his reader. This reader was certainly never titillated by his texts, certainly not in the visceral way in which I responded to the texts of The Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin. On the other hand I have come to appreciate the titillating affect that other subject matter can have, whether on myself or on others. Thus, those with a constitution for reading the Marquis de Sade are more likely to be aroused by his rich palette of assaults on the body, rather than just the sexual elements. Ultimately, the theme that links Sade back to those corpses in "Republic" is one of violation, whether it involves leaving a body to the ravaging of nature or invoking a human agent to do the ravaging. Whether the reader is aroused by identifying with the violator or the violated is left as an exercise for the student. I have not pursued this question in any great depth, but I would guess that both options are possible.

In this broader context, then, should we smash the iconic status that society has accorded to Lange and view her work, instead, as a new genre of pornography? Poverty clearly ravages the body (not to mention the spirit). It is all very well and good to make a spectacle of poverty to provoke a public reaction that will rise to the aid of its victims; but what about that sector of the public that, for one reason or another, just gets off on the spectacle? Long before cable television required us to use three digits to select a channel, I remember seeing a play set in the future about parents who become concerned when their children spend all of their time in front of the television watching "The Hungry Children Channel." The implication was that this was entertainment that had displaced cartoons about mice beating up cats. The corollary of that implication is the proposition that the disadvantage of (many?) others had become the "new" source of entertainment, if not the sort of titillation we associate with pornography. In many ways The Hungry Children Channel served as a reductio ad absurdum of the Farm Security Administration in terms of both their goals and the methods applied to achieve those goals.

Today, however, it is not just hungry children. It is entire families that still have not been able to rebuild their lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It is the entire population of the Maldives, whose very land will be under water in their lifetimes if we do not act on the climate crisis with more determination. It is the current generation's version of Lange's own subject matter, out of work and displaced from foreclosed homes with absolutely nothing productive to do and nowhere to go to seek change. The family depicted in that play can now draw upon the whole world for the entertainment it gets through its television set. If one simply indulges in the images without trying to do anything about them, is that not pornographic?

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