Chris Forster

Shall we discuss Byzantine erotica? (29)

If I can claim to have any area of expertise, it is in the relationship between Anglo-American literary modernism and early twentieth-century obscenity. (If that sounds arcane, think Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover—two novels that were accused of being pornographic, but have since been "vindicated" of that charge.)

Until recently I've assiduously avoided looking past the midcentury mark, but recently I've been widening my perspective. "Pornography" means something very different in contemporary culture than it meant a hundred years ago, and this difference has implications for how we understand the literature of these respective periods. In the early part of the twentieth century, the struggle for publication often led authors to try to demarcate as clearly as possible the border between "art" and "obscenity." As the place of "pornography" has changed over the course of the century, becoming in the last twenty years a part of "everyday life" (here I'm echoing the title of Jane Juffer's At Home With Pornography: Women, Sex, and Everyday Life), the attitude of writers towards pornography has undergone a similar shift. Susan Sontag, Salman Rushdie, and Martin Amis (among many others) have all thought pornography a significant enough phenomenon to merit comment of some kind. (Note: for me "contemporary" means something like "since 1960," or even "since WWII"). And David Foster Wallace himself wrote about pornography in his essay on the 1998 Adult Video News Awards (quoted below).

So I've been thinking about the relationship between "the Entertainment" of Infinite Jest and pornography, but postponing writing about it, figuring I'll be better able to say something once I've finished the novel. But Matthew Baldwin's post over at infinite summer headquarters (as well as the general spirit of infinite summer, in which people share the experience of reading as it happens) prompted me to post something a little early.

[WARNING: The following contains no spoilers, but I do quote from pg. 560--as of today, I'm on 648; you've been warned.]

Everything said in Matthew Baldwin's post about video games, and about what makes them so compelling, strikes me as correct (i.e. it is because video games incorporate some simulacrum of "choice" that they are so compelling); and, as Matthew notes, choice is one of the key philosophical terms in the novel. But in the Maranthe and Steeply debates the question of choice is always, "Why would you choose to watch the film?" It is a choice at one remove from the experience, not the experience itself. (There is more to be said here about choice and the allure of the Entertainment, but I'm trying to be brief).

So I wonder if pornography does not provide an equally compelling analogue for the Entertainment as video games. As I noted in an earlier post, Infinite Jest imagines a future where advances in technology tended to exaggerate the effects of broadcast culture, rather than undermine them. In the future of IJ there is video on demand, but there is no remix culture (no GirlTalk) and no participatory web (no, um, blogs...). As Matthew's post suggests, video games provide an interesting analogue for the Entertainment because they compellingly integrate choice into the experience of "play." What about pornography would make it an interesting analogue?

Well, consider this passage from later in IJ (warning, this is the one from 560--but no spoilers, I swear):

Randy Lenz reguiles [regales? pun on guile? -CF] Bruce Green about . . .Delawareans that still believed Virtual-Reality pornography even though it'd been found to cause bleeding from the eye-corners and real-world permanent impotence was still the key to Shangri-la and believed that some sort of perfect piece of digito-holographic porn was circulating somewhere in the form of a bootleg Write-Protect notched software diskette and devoted their cultic lives to snuffling around trying to get hold of the virtual kamasupra diskette and getting together in dim Wilmington-area venues and talking very obliquely about rumors of where and just what the software was and how their snufflings for it were going, and watching Virtual fuckfilms and mopping the corner of their eyes, etc. (560)
This is one of those throw-away lines in Wallace that, if you look at it too closely, suddenly seems to contain all sorts of answers. I mean—that "bootleg Write-Protect notched software diskette" sounds like the Entertainment, right? Pornography here becomes something so addictive, something so enrapturing, individuals pursue to the detriment of their own well-being. For these Delawareans, Virtual-Reality pornography promises genuine fulfillment.

One finds a similar conceit in Don DeLillo's early novel, Running Dog—a novel that, like IJ, revolves around a rumored film that characters in the novel are vying to obtain. In the case of Running Dog, the film is a sort of homemade Nazi porn film, made in Hitler's bunker in the last days of Nazi rule (I guess you missed that scene in Downfall, huh?). I won't spoil the ending of Running Dog (though I won't heartily recommend that novel either), but, as in IJ, the desire to track down this very odd piece of "entertainment" proves fanatical. Something about pornography seems to capture this fanatical drive.

So what is it about pornography that makes it so compelling in these instances? In part this is simply pornography's sexual content. It excites the sort of obsession characteristic of sexuality. But that answer isn't very helpful if we're interested in understanding Wallace's novel, or any other work of contemporary fiction that engages with obscenity. Wallace, and others, are interested in pornography as a particular medium, with its own technology for manipulating affects, and perhaps its own aesthetics. Sexuality is, in this sense, the least interesting thing about pornography. This, admittedly, requires bracketing very real legal (there have been obscenity prosecutions this year), ethical, and economic issues surrounding the "adult" industry. But let's turn to Wallace's treatment of pornography.

In his essay on the Adult Video News Awards for Premiere magazine (reprinted as "Big Red Son" in Consider the Lobster), Wallace provides an interesting and textured discussion of pornography. (Though, in the end, the most interesting aspects of Wallace's discussion seem to give way to anecdotes about his actual experiences at the AVN awards.) At one point he quotes an essay by David Mura on pornography addiction. The essay, Wallace says, is "a bit New Agey but interesting in places" (19); (this sort of muted praise for "New Ageyness" itself sounds like Wallace's treatment of NA/AA clichés in IJ). Mura writes,

At the essence of pornography is the image of flesh used as a drug, a way of numbing psychic pain. But this drug lasts only as long as the man stares at the image. . . . The addict to pornography desires to be blinded, to live in a dream. Those in the thrall of pornography try to eliminate from their consciousness the world outside pornography. . . In engaging in such elimination the viewer reduces himself. He becomes stupid. (19; my ellipses)
Written in 1998, two years after IJ, this passage seems to directly recall the Entertainment; here is the sort of viewing experience which renders its viewer "stupid" (here in the sense of stupified more than simply idiotic, I think). In this rapt state the viewer escapes "psychic pain" by becoming "blinded," and by "liv[ing] in a dream." Pornography, in this sense, simply carries the sort of escapist logic of television or film to its logical terminus. Frederic Jameson makes a very similar point in the opening words of Signatures of the Visible, his collection of essays on film (in which, however, he never returns to questions of pornography after these provocative opening words):
The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination . . . Pornographic films are thus only the potentiation of films in general, which ask us to stare at the world as though it were a naked body. On the other hand, we know this today more clearly because our society has begun to offer us the world—now mostly a collection of products of our own making—as just such a body, that you can possess visually, and collect the images of.
Jameson's description identifies the same attitude of passive reception, of attention paralyzed by its own delectation, that Wallace describes in the viewers of the Entertainment.

So what? Why does this make pornography an interesting avenue for understanding the Entertainment?

Whatever the Entertainment is (and hopefully we'll learn a little more before the novel's end), it is a reflection of the cultural landscape as Wallace imagined and understood it when the novel was written. And it seems that for Wallace, as for Jameson, the pornographic film captures well something about the culture in general. Jameson and Wallace both understand the pornographic film as a sort of synechdoche for the larger culture. For Jameson, pornography represents "the potentiation of films in general"—"the visual" itself is essentially pornographic; for Wallace, the culmination of all entertainment is "the Entertainment." This is frightening indeed—a sort of Adorno/Horkheimer nightmare of the culture industry (and Adorno has been mentioned in IJ at some point, right?).

But there is something else going on here too. For Wallace, at least, pornography may also be a source of genuine humanity—a fragile source, but a uniquely authentic one. In a long footnote (where else?) to the AVN essay, Wallace describes a detective who is a "hard core fan." When this detective is asked "why such an obviously decent fellow squarely on the side of law and civic virtue was a porn fan," his answer is "the faces." "It turned out that the LAPD detective found adult films moving, in fact far more so than most mainstream Hollywood movies, in which latter films [sic ?!?] actors—sometimes very gifted actors—go about feigning humanity, i.e.: 'In real movies, it's all on purpose. I suppose what I like in porno is the accident of it'" (16). The accident of it; the briefs moments where something breaks through the performance, some indicator of being overwhelmed (think here again of all those debates about choice; Maranthe/Steeply, etc).

Wallace himself elaborates:

[The] detective's explanation is intriguing, at least to yr. corresps., because it helps explain part of the deep appeal of hard-core films, films that are supposed to be "naked" and "explicit" but in truth are some of the most aloof, unrevealing footage for sale anywhere. Much of the cold, dead, mechanical quality of adult films is attributable, really, to the performer's faces. These are faces that usually appear bored or blank or workmanlike but are in fact simply hidden, the self locked away someplace far behind the eyes. Surely this hiddenness is the way a human being who's giving away the very most private parts of himself preserves some sense of dignity and autonomy—he denies us true expression...

But it's also true that occasionally, in a hard-core scene, the hidden self appears. It's sort of the opposite of acting. You can see the porn performer's whole face change as self-consciousness (in most females) or crazed blankness (in most males) yields to some genuinely felt erotic joy in what's going on; the sighs and moans change from automatic to expressive. It happens only once in a while, but the detective is right: The effect on the viewer is electric.

These moments are intriguing because these seem to dissolve distinctions; between viewer and actor and, in Wallace's account, between male and female; while men and women, Wallace suggests, act differently when they are putting up a front, the "genuinely felt erotic joy" seems to dissolve such differences.

So we have two different accounts of pornographic film: in the first, pornography induces rapt stupefaction; in the second, it prompts an electrifying experience of one's own humanity, of identifying (ID'ing?) with another person. Are these two different accounts of the same phenomenon? Are they contradictory? Or are they two entirely different things that just happen to exist in close proximity, like the meat and the poison of the pufferfish? In both stupefaction and ecstacy there seems to be a relinquishing of self—but one is an ecstatic letting go, while the the other is a stupified giving in.

I'll wrap up now; but note that here, Joelle, her role in the Entertainment, and her own obscured, hidden, face would merit consideration in these terms. (And, for that matter, a more general consideration of gender would also seem appropriate.)

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