Did you see/ do this?

November 23, 2003 at 7:28 pm | In yulelogStories | 10 Comments

It’s Sunday and I haven’t blogged for some days. I started this one on Friday night, when I had lots to do, thinking it would be one of those quickie “Did you see this one?” blogging moments. But it turned into a way-too-complicated topic, Saturday was busy, too, as was the evening, and so was Sunday all freaking day, and now it’s still busy, but I’m going to hit the “submit” button. This is an unfinished blog entry, consider it a bunch of entrails from which you can draw your own conclusions, but by all means read the Martin Amis review I point to first. Anyway, I began the “did you see this?” like this: Two items via Arts and Letters Daily: Did you read Christopher Caldwell’s review of Martin Amis’s new book, Yellow Dog? According to the reviewer here, Amis takes pornography apart by being pornographic himself. And while I’m not sure I want to read Yellow Dog, it’s probably recommended reading for any who think porn is just one more “cool,” “free,” “freaky — loosen up!” consumer item. From the review:

It is Amis’ point that with the digital proliferation (and the widening cultural acceptance) of pornography, sexual equilibrium has become even more elusive. Pornography’s hidden viciousness is that it wreaks its worst damage on those who follow that most noble of precepts: “Know thyself.” (…)
But those who reach this knowledge through porn are less lucky [than one of the main characters who reaches it through the ministrations of his real-life mistress]. The king’s assistant, Brendan “Bugger” Urquhart-Gordon, assumes he’s asexual until he watches a movie in which an actress tricked up to look like the pubescent princess is violated (“Brendan attended to the ordeal of his own arousal. You’d better hope that this doesn’t happen, he thought, when you’re watching the one about the oversexed undertaker, the coprophagic pigfarmer, the ladykilling ladykiller …”). Since much modern porno involves recherch� sex acts and twisted relationships, men (it is always men) who are turned on by it are left with only two self-destructive choices: perversion, if they give in to their desires; self-deception, if they resist them. Porn-enhanced masturbation, as described here, is an actual addiction; for Clint’s sessions, the term “self-abuse” is not metaphorical:

He knew that the distance between himself and the world of women was getting greater. Each night, as he entered the Borgesian metropolis of electronic pornography—with its infinities, its immortalities—Clint was, in a sense, travelling towards women. But he was also travelling away from them.

As readers of Time’s Arrow will remember, Amis is at his most brilliant when exploiting paradoxes like these, those moments when life seems to make as much sense if it’s run backward or turned inside out. As when Karla White says of herself and other X-rated stars: “When we watch porno, we fast-forward through the sex to get to the acting.” Or when the gangster Joseph Andrews describes Britain’s postwar economy: “Things opened up beautifully after the war, with all the austerity.”

Check out the full review, it’s really interesting. A while ago I surfed around a bit on some of the sites (like erosblog) where porn is just another fun thing to indulge. Naomi Wolf was getting skewered (no pun intended) for her argument that (real) women can’t compete against the spectacles set before porn-viewing men. How silly of Naomi, the bloggers said; any man would prefer a real woman, they said. What a bunch of stupid dopes these people are, I thought: they prove that human intelligence can be in very short supply. Amis’s argument is far more complex than the erosbloggers: he has gone the route of “know thyself,” and is willing to show us what an aporia pornography is. And by the way, Wolf is really smart:

By the new millennium, a vagina—which, by the way, used to have a pretty high “exchange value,” as Marxist economists would say—wasn’t enough; it barely registered on the thrill scale. All mainstream porn—and certainly the Internet—made routine use of all available female orifices. [more…]

Georges Bataille, the brilliant marxist theorist obsessed by heterogeneous sex, might agree; his solar anus is a veritable pot of gold in the eros-sphere, while the vagina is but a cheap trick. The other item that really caught my attention this last week: Jean-Paul Sartre is making a comeback. Sartre’s dialectical critiques deserve another look, especially today when we sometimes think we can “fix” something by piling an exacerbation, an excess, an addition on top (“fix” the status of women, say, by exacerbating girliness or “sexiness” or beauty products). For example, let me reach back to the 80s and my own studies of Existentialism. Researching an article on post-World War II French modernism, I came across Sartre’s critique of Surrealism, subsequently published as What is Literature? The essays first appeared in Les Temps Modernes, the Paris magazine started by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in 1945. Here Sartre argues (in 1947) that Surrealism failed really to destroy anything (including bourgeois morality), despite its emphasis on shocking or discombobulating the viewer:

Quite the contrary; by means of the symbolic annulment of the self by sleep and automatic writing, by the symbolic annulment of objects by producing evanescent objectivities, by the symbolic annulment of language by producing aberrant meanings, by the destruction of painting by painting and literature by literature, surrealism pursues this curious enterprise of realising nothingness by too much fullness of being. It is always creating, that is, by adding paintings to already existing paintings and books to already established books, that it destroys.

A year earlier (1946), Simone de Beauvoir published her essay Pour une morale de l’ambiguit� in the same magazine. She analysed the Existentialist paradox that it’s necessary to destroy in order to exist. Using the example of spontaneous street celebrations after the Liberation of Paris from the Nazis in 1944, De Beauvoir noted that people were affirming their existence through (reckless) celebration. At the time, some cautioned against the (irresponsible) joy expressed in these festivals by reminding people of the very real problems facing them. De Beauvoir argued back that in the very sense of choosing to celebrate — regardless of possible negative consequences — there is attached to the confirmation of one’s being (expressed through celebration) a component of destruction in which existence is confirmed. The morality of Being is the morality of saving; there, one hoards in order to attain the immutability of in-itself. The morality of existence, however, implies squandering; one knows that one’s existence is linked to destruction. It sounds a bit like Amis’s dialectical turns, and I can’t help but be pleased by a renaissance of critical theory that possibly shows another way to (#1) dissect pornography the way Sartre dissected Surrealism and (#2) get a different (if troubled) perspective on political violence.


  1. Have you read J.M. Coetzee’s essay on “The Harms of Pornography” in his book “Giving Offense,” in which he also touches [excuse the pun here] on the relationship between advertising and pornography?

    Admittedly, Coetzee’s take might not have the sophistication of Sartre’s analysis, or the light, humorous touch of Martin Amis, but he too points the inversions on which pornography operates … in his case, in the relationship between desire and delivery. Here is a rather lengthy quote:

    “Advertising undertakes no more than to promise, while at some level pornography takes it upon itself to do what no representation can in fact do: to deliver. The advertisement remains wholly within the constitution of the sign: it is something standing for something else; whereas, in offering to be the thing itself, pornography violates its own constitution. Hence its characteristic frenzy and hence perhaps its increasing violence, to be understood as the violence of frustration. In its use of taboo, too, advertising is more canny than pornography. Knowing that it cannot deliver, it points to the taboo: But for that, it says, I could show you what you want; for the present you will have to be satisfied with less, with only a glimpse. Pornography, on the other hand, first violates the taboo and then, for its own survival, has to resurrect it elsewhere.”

    Much like your Karla White quote about how she and her X-rated stars cohorts feel about the “art”: “When we watch porno, we fast-forward through the sex to get to the acting.”

    Comment by maria — November 24, 2003 #

  2. I haven’t read Coetzee, Maria, but it’s really interesting that you should bring him up. I recently came across a review of Elizabeth Costello, his latest novel. It wasn’t this particular one by Judith Shulevitz, but one along similar lines. I mentioned it in a comment to Dave Pollard (at How to Save the World), and the topic (and specifically Coetzee’s book) inspired him to do another big entry on factory farming, which, along with corporate excess, he has critiqued often on his site. So I think it’s exciting that Coetzee should come up as a link between the general anaesthesia we enact in our daily lives in our relations with other sentient beings and related an-aesthetisation experienced via “art”/ artifice /acting (in this case porn). I get the impression that Coetzee feels things and has a bodily-aesthetic sense of them at a level significantly more profound than many of us. At any rate, to think of advertising & porn in relationship, as one between desire & delivery, is really intriguing, and I want to thank you for that reference.

    But speaking of being in the body, with one’s mind sort of intact, my big problem is that I seem to fail at structuring sustained time at anything these days. Partly this is due to having 2 relatively young children (12 & 9), doing school at home, and all the daily grind that comes with that territory — sort of like having a job as an administrator of a flea circus. (That’s what comes of geriatric motherhood….) I read about books, read other people writing about other people, and have way too little time actually to sit down and read the damn books themselves. The other part is simply financial. Our public library system is typically understocked, especially in newer titles, and I unfortunately can’t afford to buy books the way I used to in previous years, in the US. Internet shopping — via Amazon, say — is less easy in Canada, and there’s a 14.5% tax on everything, so you’re just as well to go to Munro’s in town and have them order what you need. But if a book costs $40 in the US, it costs $60+ here, plus the combined 14.5% tax (7% provincial, 7.5% federal). (And dollars is dollars: milk costs nearly $4 for a 4-litre [c. 1 gallon] jug here, and orange juice — tropicana — in the big plastic jug [2.84 litres] is $6.99. Doesn’t matter that it’s Canadian dollars when you’re earning — or not — in that currency….)

    Anyway, the long and the short of it: I do an awful lot of internet reading — it’s free — and less book reading, not least because of cost. I also draw a lot on half-remembered bits and pieces, mining my personal archive from the 80s and into the 90s. There were things I read then which blew my mind — I was (am?) the kind of person who would read Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel for fun, ditto for Hegel’s Aesthetik. Benjamin’s Passagenwerk? I had a copy as soon as Suhrkamp published it. Read Pier Paolo Pasolini for relaxation… Manfredo Tafuri? Highly interesting! Irigaray, Kristeva, inspiring!… Reception theory, yup. Russian structuralists? Great fun! Jameson? Oh yes. And always lots of Adorno, plus Horkheimer. And Marx. Rosa Luxemburg’s humanity set an example. Naturally I have forgotten much of what I read, no surprise; I suppose I could reread. But instead I read about people and ideas. It makes me quite ill sometimes, because I know it’s Halbbildung and indicates how stupid I am, but I guess it’s the phase I’m in right now. One day maybe I can return to my desk, and not be constantly interrupted. Hey-ho.

    Well, the library did send me an email to say that The Wind Up Bird Chronicles is finally in. Put a hold on that eons ago, but there were about 8 or 10 people in line before me. Can’t put a hold on the Coetzee book you mention, though: they don’t have it. And Elizabeth Costello? They have 7 copies, and 24 holds on it already…. I finally despaired of getting Carol Shields’s Unless from the library (she lived up the street and around the corner, was local and very popular), and bought the book. Should have done it before she died, though, really should have. If I had, I would have marched up there and knocked on her door to tell her she’s one hell of a writer. Shields claimed that there is always time enough for everything.

    Comment by Yule Heibel — November 24, 2003 #

  3. This is just another example of how difficult it can be to find women theorists online (try finding any of the work of Elisabeth Lenk, one of Adorno’s most brilliant students: practically zero; but Habermas? tons.), but I wanted to find a link to Susan Buck-Morrs, who sat in back of my comments re. anaesthetics. See this link, one of the few I could find. Here’s a quote from this page, referring to Buck-Morrs’s 1992 essay, “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered”: Buck-Morrs is reluctant to accept that Benjamin saw the response to the crisis of politicised art as making culture the vehicle for Communist propaganda. Rather Buck-Morrs’ interpretation is that Benjamin is demanding that art ‘undo the alienation of the corporeal sensorium, to restore the instinctual power of the human bodily senses for the sake of humanity’s self-preservation, and to do this, not by avoiding the new technologies but by passing through them.’ Am not sure that I want to read the whole page; it’s interesting, but familiar-sounding. As I said, however, it was one of the only online sources referring to Buck-Morrs. I googled “Susan Buck-Morrs” and got …18 results. Makes me want to scream.

    Comment by Yule Heibel — November 24, 2003 #

  4. Symptomatic of losing my marbles, I realised I had spelled Buck-Morss’s name wrong (as has the person on the site above, in last comment), which is why google only had 18 returns. (But neither did google ask me back, “did you mean Susan Buck-Morss?” ) Anyway, google search returns over 2,300 items for the correct spelling, which still is a bit underwhelming, though. Her most recent (?) book comes up, Dreamworld and Catastrophe, reviewed here at http://www.reconstruction. Again, pardon my sin of simply pointing to a review vs getting the book itself. I think I have to check out buying a library card at U. of Victoria, before my last shred of intellectual integrity goes utterly awol. 😉

    Comment by Yule Heibel — November 24, 2003 #

  5. Yule, thanks for the great links … tempting morsels back to the old days of my sojourn at Simon Fraser University, and the heyday of the Communications Studies Department, that first outpost of interdisciplinary studies in which Lacan could coexist, Franz Fanon and the volumes of papers from various Canadian regulatory agencies…. Of course, back then, as my friends from the Philosophy Department put it, “interdisciplinary” means no discipline, but these were the people for whom the gates of philosophy were there to keep out anything that didn’t meet the plain sense of logical positivism….

    Administrator of a flea circus, eh? I am familiar with the taxing issues of geriatric motherhood … had my two sons what was then an unfashionably advanced age, and though I haven’t schooled them at home, I spent a lot of time “schooling” them at home in media literacy and “field work” in the suburbs…. And no, I a not using fancy terms for talking about letting them watch TV. On the contrary, the poor things, had to sit with me and listen to me deconstruct Disney movies …. to this day, neither one of them had expressed any desire to go to Disney world, and my younger one had developed a very eclectic taste in movies….

    It seems to me, form the little experience I had, that once the kids turn fourteen and over and loose their ability to speak (it’s that sullenness that comes with the territory), you are likely to get plenty of “quiet” time to catch up on reading.

    I have some time now …. but my involvement with blog writing and blog hopping has left me with some version of ADD, so that I am unable to perform such feats as reading books like Broch’s “The Death of Virgil” (with its multi-page sentences) which I could still accomplish only a few years ago…. ( some reviews here

    And don’t you just hate it how Google gets all uppity when it corrects your typing in your search for authors, as I just misspelled Broch’s name?

    Comment by maria — November 25, 2003 #

  6. Simon Fraser is a great university! (The brutalist architecture alone is worth a campus visit!) You’re really lucky to have studied there; I consider myself lucky to have gone to UBC — the other slightly bigger gorilla on the Vancouver scene…;-) Once, while researching a seminar paper on Beat artist Wallace Berman, I used the Michael McClure archives at Simon Fraser. They have fantastic holdings from that period, and it’s a way-cool university.

    Can I just add that I learned more at UBC than I did at Harvard? That I owe to UBC whatever shred of intellectual discipline and integrity I have? That at Harvard I learned more about social politics (who’s who, what’s what etc.), but nothing very much of substance, while at UBC it was nitty-gritty of the significant kind all the way? That every seminar paper I wrote at UBC topped whatever seminar papers I wrote at Harvard, excepting perhaps the cubism paper on Picasso & Carl Einstein?
    Canadian universities are great, eh, and we don’t have grade inflation either! [end of rant]

    I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect your children to deconstruct Disney films. Isn’t that what they were made for? 😉 (We recently watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and yelled about the differences between sexism and paternalism afterwards, and to which degree the one or the other applied here…)

    As for kids turning some kind of corner at about age 14: I’ve heard that from other people, too. Without holding my breath, I’m open to any possibilities…

    And yes, blogging has led to a new kind of ADD on my part, too. So much to read, so much to read!

    Comment by Yule Heibel — November 26, 2003 #

  7. PS: Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil sounds fascinating — thanks for the link! It didn’t open from the comment, so I’ll paste it here again, see if works:

    Comment by Yule Heibel — November 26, 2003 #

  8. Sorry about that link not going anywhere … it’s taking almost as long as reading one of Broch’s sentences. When I copied the shortcut into a new browser window, it worked… It doesn’t seem to be launching from the comments link, though … odd.

    As for UBC … I did my undergarduate degree there. Started in French and Slavonic Studies and then switched to Theatre. But this, it seems, all took place a million years ago.

    When we moved down here to California, I went to Berkeley … and once there, I made much the same comment as you just made about UBC. Graduate school at SFU was so much more rewarding for me intellectually than was the experience of the Berkeley of 1985 or so … and not long into my City and Regional Planning studies there, I dropped out!

    And I hear you about Harvard! Two members of my extended family went to Harvard … and they do impress me with their ability to drop names — that of other Harvard graduates!

    Comment by maria — November 27, 2003 #

  9. I always enjoy articles pertaining to surrealism. Thanks for the read!

    my surrealism directory:

    Comment by Josh Neuman — October 16, 2006 #

  10. sorry.. it’s


    Comment by Josh Neuman — October 16, 2006 #

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