Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Among my bookmarked pages is one called “bookshelf porn.” ( It’s all photos but none of the shelves are naked. I don’t dare look for long or I get feverish.

Word roots: “porne” comes from Greek for prostitute and graphic comes from “graphein” to write. Pornography is a concept that baffles even the Supreme Court. Clearly it is supposed to be about pleasure. (How is being a prostitute a pleasure?) Clearly something is supposed to be TOO pleasant, so much so that it has to be controlled by stigma, the imposition of social taboo and scorn. (People here sneer at my books. “Get a life,” they say.) Money is involved -- money paid for something that one ordinarily thinks of as a gift (intimate expression of love) or an assault (unwanted forceful penetration). (“You gotta lotta bucks in these books.”) So, a monetary transaction that is pleasant on one side and profitable on the other. Well, heck, that’s life, isn’t it? So much so that we can talk about “food porn” or “fashion porn” -- almost anything that seems a little too pleasant and a little too expensive, offending two Puritan taboos at once.

What was up with those guys anyway? Did life have to be one long hairshirt? Isn’t that “prudery porn”? “Asceticism porn”? That stuff can get to be pretty expensive, especially emotionally. If porn is just skimming the top off of the real full-scale experience, like eating the frosting off a cupcake, then I can imagine the thrill of sitting on the Seat of Scorn. (It’s in Psalm One -- I looked it up.) But is that the full-scale experience of denying, constricting, censoring? (I’m starting to sound like a character out of “Homicide.” Oh, hey. Maybe the full version of scorn is murder. I’m onto something.)

Part of the problem with porn is knowing where to locate the source. Is it in society, who seems to believe they have the right to draw the line, maybe by confining all the merriment to Merrymount? (Historical reference. Look it up.) Or is it in the consumer, who doesn’t want all the fuss and bother of having to develop full-scale relationships in order to have sex ? (Why is it always about sex? Why isn’t it about money? Or politics?) Or is it in the producer, who has a shrewd idea of what to “make” that will sell?

Of course, once the commerce angle gets into it, there is the question of high-end porn versus low-end porn, which immediately means that there are class issues in this business, just like every business. Aesthetics may be one dimension -- how skillful and beautiful the porn is. How much power can entitle the consumer to do the most extreme thing that is even more stigmatized, like the eroticism of killing small animals or even human beings -- the “kill thrill.” (Maybe only governments are entitled to that.) Isn’t that young man just arrested for killing homeless men (his own father is homeless) indulging in “murder porn”? Homeless men is pretty low-end. What about the guy just arrested for killing society girls in Caribbean resorts? Is that high end?

The environmental listservs to which I subscribe have just begun to consider “enviro porn.” The class issue pertains here, too, because some people can afford to visit exotic spots, but I responded to the idea right away because tourists of all incomes come here, spot a snow-capped mountain, and sigh, “Oh, how beautiful!” They are conditioned by National Geographic in much the same way as naive men are conditioned by Playboy. (Sex is blonde sixteen-year-old girls on the pill.)

Personally, I’m susceptible to “shelter porn”, not so much the log/plateglass/corten-steel ridged-roof, stone mansions of rich people in Montana, but more the country cottage that’s a little rough, a little unexpected. Maybe a converted old railroad station. Not that I could or would BUY something, but that I like the pretty pictures -- isn’t that the same as porn? There’s a wide streak of Puritanism in the environmental movement, too, and they would insist on the ecological soundness of every aspect. Is it possible to have porn without Puritans? Is every context veined with sin and virtue? Isn’t there any just plain vanilla innocent life?

Alongside -- or maybe interwoven -- the continuum of money and class is the continuum of drugs and criminalization. It’s not a neat inclined plane but a twisted synergy of teasing, addiction, enslavement, that comes as much from the assumptions and practices of those who criminalize (using a Puritan entitlement) and stigmatize the most vulnerable on that continuum they can find (those who need the drugs because of their wretched lives) -- and dine out with the sleek beneficiaries of the criminalizations. (politicians, CEO’s, police commissioners) Then comes disease and the medicalization of sin, which provides even more stigma plus greater exclusion and blame. (“You aren’t taking your meds, are you?”) And that leads into more blame for poverty because every profit of some individuals has to go for meds that are sold at a huge markup by pharm corporations. (Since corporations have been ruled to be persons, they can be murderers, too.)

Writers have to take some responsibility for this. They love the plot elements of all-of-the-above for their own pornographic versions of real life. Even the writers who hope to be true and revolutionary end up repeating the same old stereotypes because if they really knew through their own experience, they would not be in a position to write. Nor am I. Everything is second-hand. If you’re talking about sex and drugs.

But I’m talking about life. Sex and drugs are not separate categories of being. Our ordinary days, our little management habits in the worlds of food, clothing, and transportation, are also tracking along the same paths. My bookshelves may be as pornographic as any. A carpenter once expressed horror that they are so poorly made. (Knocked together boards that I carried around for decades.) Someone else noted how dangerous they are, since they’re just piled up there, not attached to the wall. In fact, they have a tendency to bow out at the sides. I keep a long clamp on one so it won’t separate enough to dump the shelves of books. Very low-end this is. (The clamp makes a good radio antenna, too.)

I have books that would shock some people, though would have to be people who read since not many of them have pictures. A few expensive ones. Drugs, they are. Don’t get me started on the kind of work I’ve had to do to survive in this world and that have pressed me into rebellion. It wasn’t sexy. But I had my pleasures.

Pornography/prostitution are metonymes, the kind of metaphor that uses the part for the whole (like "skirt" to mean woman). Reading about it, paying for bits about it, instead of IT. I do know a thing or two about the continuums of religious porn. If you extend one of those lines out far enough it will reach around the planet back to the beginning, like the equator. After church one Sunday a nerdy guy came into my office and said, “A minister is meant to attend to my needs. I need sex. Therefore, you should go to bed with me.”

I stood up. I was a foot taller than he was. I said, “Well, as a minister I’m pretty low rent, but I charge a helluva lot more to be the Temple Whore.” He left. I had a lot of bookshelves in that office. I built them myself.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

In Tibetan Buddhism they call it spiritual ambition or spiritual materialism: the pursuit of spiritual ends as though they were things to be possessed, or the pursuit of personal ambition expressed in spiritual realms. The Puritans were multiply guilty of both. Not to mention they were so sexually repressed that they left a legacy in North America of prudery and phobia about sex and nudity unlike any other "developed" country.

It's at the root of how screwed up US culture is about sex. We sexualize everything for commercial reasons, then lock people up for being brainwashed into doing what the sexualized culture told them was sexy. One of the very worst examples of this is the pre-teen beauty pageant scene, a truly twisted bit of business.