Part 2 of a consideration of John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness (1994), and other things via it. The ideas in this essay were partly developed in conversation with George Daniel Lea and Elliot Chapman. It also features a little self-plagiarism.
There’s a documentary, originally aired on British television in 1999, called Pornography: A Secret History of Civilisation. After a couple of quite decent episodes, the series starts considering the then-present and the then-future. It’s stuffed with comment from ‘cultural critics’ and ‘social theorists’, who generalise about what ‘we’ are becoming – with ‘we’ supposedly standing for all humanity while actually implicitly referring to the middle classes in the developed world in the era of pre-general crisis neoliberalism. A little surprisingly even in 1999, the oppression of women, the objectification of female bodies, patriarchy, sexism, etc., are issues barely touched upon. (I am resolutely Sex Work positive, but there are ways of talking about the exploitative capitalist and patriarchal power relationships instantiated in the pornography business without stigmatising sex workers.) Alongside the theorists, there are words from entrepreneurs or capitalists, and yet the word or topic ‘capitalism’ is barely properly mentioned. It is silently present as the ‘civilisation’ of the title. Despite the profound thinkerizing about porn’s supposed journey into ‘the mainstream’ there is precious little time left for wondering who sets the agenda of the mainstream. Media ownership is not a topic, except for the times when a handful of porntrepreneurs (presented as pioneers and farseeing cultural trendsetters) get to spout their self-seeking spin. In the midst of much pontificating about the meaning of things from the perspective of the business owner or the consumer, there is hardly any attention paid to the perspective of the worker, of the (if you’ll pardon me) working stiffs getting screwed. Porn is, apparently, an industry with consumers but no producers. To the extent that producers do appear, the emphasis is on the employers rather than the employees. When sex workers appear, the emphasis is firmly on self-employment, on the sex worker as a petty bourgeois individualist. You might argue that this turned out to be prescient, what with the rise of OnlyFans and the sexual gig-economy. And yes, the series manages to notice that the internet will change things. (There is nothing about the inequalities of internet access, or access to media more generally, in any of the discussion of porn consumption and ‘cybersex’.) But the series has an entirely mistaken idea of the context in which such changes will play out. Its idea of the future is an artefact of its own moment. That by itself is okay. Every idea of the future is an artefact of its own moment. The interesting thing about ideas of the future is precisely what they tell us about our own moment.
All the hallmarks of the late-90s intellectual milieu are to be found in this text. 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 elitist torpor and overdosed irony. …