Pornographic imagination

“The pornographic,” writes Paul W. Kahn in Putting Liberalism in Its Place , “is the ecstatic moment shorn of religion. It stands in the antipolitical tradition of the hierophanic. The sacred too can displace ordinary forms of language. In both, we are rendered speechless, without even that most rudimentary form of speech – our own name. In another age and another culture, this would be the moment of spiritual rapture and complete identification with the oneness of the universe: Freud’s cosmic feeling of unity.” In our culture, that space is occupied by the pornographic imagination.

Porn is “a kind of entertainment,” Kahn continues, but “dead serious entertainment.

“It is about the denial of death, the state, the family, history, markets, and even language. At the center of the pornographic moment, there is a vision of a total lack of responsibility extending beyond that moment itself. Responsibility is an acknowledgement of the claims of the other. It appears to the pornographic imagination as a diminution of the self. Ethically, we understand this as a form of immortality, politically as a revolutionary threat. In popular political culture, this convergence was expressed in the melding of ‘free love’ into the antistatis vision of the counterculture of the 1960s.”

Porn involves a kind of epiphany, a sacred moment contrasting with the profane world: “We do not live in the pornographic any more than we live in the constant pressure of the sacred. We are inevitably drawn back into the profane world of language, family, markets, and politics. The world in which we are located has a history as well as a commitment to a future with a certain meaning. We bear on and in our bodies the complex representational meanings of this world. Saint Paul spoke of the true circumcision as a mark on the heart. We all bear that mark; it is that by which we read ourselves. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that, whenever love fails, the claims of responsibility are experienced as a submission to power. Without love, a life fully constituted by responsibilities can take on a sort of desperation as one loses a center to and of the self.” For the pornographic imagination, then, any exercise of authority impinges on the self as an act of tyranny.

The pornographic understanding of woman is ambivalent. On the one hand, as feminists have argued, pornography objectivizes women. On the other hand, Kahn notes, “the tale that men are telling in the pornographic is one of women’s equality as well – not an equality within the ordinary institutions of power, but an equality in the capacity to transcend those forms of power. Men cannot experience a freedom in the denial of the state and family, if it appears a literal irresponsibility. There will always be a battle of self-perception between freedom and irresponsibility. If the family is present as counterclaim, then there is an inevitable perception of moral failing. In this fantasy of freedom, women must appear as equals, engaged in the same self-discovery as men.”

In short, “The pornographic message is freedom,” and that freedom from the burdens of history must ideally include everyone, men and women. The pornographic imagination is not limited to porn strictly speaking: “One need only look at the romantic fantasies portrayed in the popular women’s magazines and romance novels. We need to ask of those representations: Where are children, politics, and markets? Where are death and the phenomenon of aging? Romance shares in the structure of the pornographic just to the extent that it claims that a life can be complete – that is, full of meaning – in and through the singular experience of the physical presence of the other.”

Kahn argues that in the end pornography establishes the status quo. The pornographic and the romantic become isolated moments of “self-discovery” that give glow and vigor to the ordinary life that they renounce. Once the pornographic begins to speak, it can only speak of “just those institutional structures of power against which it has set itself. In the end, it affirms normality.” In this respect, the pornographic is structurally similar to liberalism: “Like liberalism, the pornographic imagines a prepolitical moment that would found a new social order. It presents its own myth of overcoming the chaotic conditions of meaninglessness brought about by the fall.”


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