I just rewatched a Channel 4 documentary series I originally saw first time round back in 1999. Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation. I remembered it as fascinating, and it certainly was… but not for the reasons I remembered. Watched now, it’s fascinating for its intense and suffocating provincialism. I refer to a provincialism of time and cultural moment. To be cruder: the series reeks of the stale atmopshere of the 90s. I don’t just mean that it’s dated.
After two decent episodes dealing with the Victorian creation of the concept of pornography (i.e. as a closed-off anteroom of culture, only to be studied… and perhaps enjoyed… by responsible, educated males) in the wake of the unearthing of Pompeii, and the revolutionary porn writing of the Enlightenment, the series starts dwelling on 20th century visual forms, from the photograph to the internet.
The last episodes are particularly mired in the stagnant and repellent atmosphere of their era. All the hallmarks of the late-90s intellectual milieu (during which I endured acres of trendy theory at University) are there. The social and political cynicism masquerading as consumerist utopianism. Utopianism itself stripped of all noble and liberationist inflections and fused with a kind of gleeful dystopianism, reflecting the way that the post-Cold War intellectual landscape, with its End of History vibe, saw the future horrors and joys of unfettered capitalism as being equally inevitable… and then celebrated this with a knowingly sick grin of elitest contempt. The countdown to an apocalypse of banality and boredom that was supposedly hiding just around the millenium. The dyspeptic, misanthropic celebration of supposedly new and bleeding edge trends that are (perpetually) said to be just about to change/destroy social life irrevocably. The putative change to a post-industrial economy, the putative unravelling of social life and the rise of the ubiquitous selfish individual (phenomena that, in as much as they were real, were not actually new).
The series is stuffed with comment from entrepreneurs or capitalists (without the word or topic ‘capitalism’ ever being properly mentioned), or from ‘social critics’ who generalise about what ‘we’ are becoming (with ‘we’ implicitly standing for all humanity while actually referring to a tiny sliver of the urban upper middle classes in the developed West). It’s enormously telling that, in the midst of scads and scads of pontificating about the meaning of things from the P.O.V of the producer or the consumer, there is hardly any attention paid to the P.O.V of the worker, of the… if you’ll pardon me… working stiffs getting screwed. Anyone who has read Eric Schlosser’s excellent Reefer Madness will know what this TV series left out. At one point, a theorist is talking about how internet porn (which is solitary, private and interactive) takes the ‘imposition’ out of the equation… even as the camera shows a semi-naked woman gyrating around on a bed, being given orders by paying customers who are watching her on their monitors. Nobody’s ‘imposing’ on her then. I guess she’s economically independent but does that job purely for the lulz. …