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. Who knows? Admittedly, they interview her later, but she talks about what she does, not why she has to do it.
The oppression of women, the objectification of female bodies, patriarchy, sexism… these do not pop up. (This is actually a tad surprising… though feminist theory at that time was often comfortable forgetting about such things too.) Despite a female voiceover, and some interviews with quirky 70s porn actresses, this series is resolutely and unselfconsciously focused on the male experience of enjoying his sexual dominance. Rape culture is hardly a glint in the script writer’s eye.
This kind of comatose, complacent apoliticism is rampant throughout the series. There is nothing about the inequalities of internet access (or access to media more generally) in any of the discussion of porn consumption, videocameras and cybersex. In the midst of all the profound thinkerizing about porn’s 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 gibber their self-seeking spin.
Far from being a ‘secret history of civilisation’, this is a celebration of an open secret… couched in the fashionable idiocies of vulgarised late-90s po-mo posturing. It’s telling that several of the ‘social critics’ in the series make predictions about what will have come to pass 10 to 15 years in the future (i.e. now) all of which are resolutely wrong. Porn isn’t as mainstream as microwaves (it is still cordoned off by very, very old power structures), nor is it democratized by public ‘gonzo’ participation (it’s still a massive corporate business, intensely undemocratic and still based on mass exploitation), nor is it the pervasive preserve of an entire planet-ful of lonely, isolated, selfish, hedonistic individuals who live in the ruins of a social polity decimated by new media, finding ultimate nirvana in disconnected masturbation (this is still but a fragment of a truth, restricted to a narrow band of the relatively privileged). Still, it’s not surprising that they guessed wrong, given that their guesses about the future were just extrapolations of what they thought was going on in 1999, most of which was based on the rhetorical exaggeration of half-truths.
This is a rant, not an attempt to provide an alternative analysis… I know for a fact that I’m not needed (or qualified) to provide one of those. I will just say this: you can’t understand the commodification of fetish without understanding the fetishizing of commodities. Indeed, if there was ever a ‘proof’ (whatever that might mean in the social sciences) of the theory of commodity fetishism, it’s the porn business. Not that you’d know that from watching Channel 4’s best attempts at analysis.
As we all know, history didn’t end in the 90s. Despite the lingering ‘mainstream’ idea (who sets these agendas? …be nice to know, wouldn’t it?) that There Is No Alternative, capitalism triumphant was nevertheless undermined by its own blowback (9/11, the environment, the crash, etc). It’s telling that, though wrong, Fukuyama looks insightful compared to the throngs who followed in what they took to be a cultural variant of the same ‘sense of an ending’. The idea that history, culture, society etc were all grinding to a halting death/mutation in the chilly-yet-glorious dawn of ‘postmodern’ hyper-techno-consumerism was the bugbear/fantasy of a layer of intellectuals who read too much Baudrillard and were given too many opportunities to pontificate on TV.
Is it any better now? Well, I’ve not been around academia for a good long while now (I do not miss it) but I’m guessing that much of the same balls is still being talked, albeit in a less confidently millenarian manner. But that’s got to be some improvement, hasn’t it?
I liked being 23. Otherwise, I really don’t miss 1999.