Pornography, as is clear from Adrian Nathan West’s The Aesthetics of Degradation, has moved on from the moustachioed plumbers and sex-obsessed housewives that I recall from the scant attention I paid when such videos were turned on during all-night teenage house parties.
Though far from prudish I’ve never really understand the appeal of pornography, which has always seemed to me the product of a certain type of shameful male hostility rather than fantasy and sexual appetite. What I hadn’t fully comprehended is the mainstream demand for extreme, violent forms of woman-hating pornography. Adrian Nathan West’s The Aesthetics of Degradation explores degrading pornography’s effects on viewers, participants and producers, not only through literary and sociological lens, but also from a personal perspective. It is deeply intelligent, and in between compulsively reading a lot of awful writing about our current crisis, I’ve been reading, rereading and scribbling lots of notes in The Aesthetics of Degradation.
As Robert Musil wrote in The Man Without Qualities, “It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than deny it.” This sentence keeps returning to me in a week in which the radical-right in Britain have pulled off a well-executed coup to win a non-democratic referendum. As Lara Pawson puts it in the most lucid essay written so far about the 23/6 debacle, “The referendum was not democratic. It was fed by a white supremacist media that either deliberately stoked racial hatred or is so deluded with its own whiteness, it couldn’t recognise the hatred it was helping to harness. I hate to break it to you folks, but that is not democracy: it’s the building blocks of fascism.”
In this traumatic week when many of us are trying to pick up the pieces of our crushed sense of self and our futures, I also keep returning to a passage from Adrian Nathan West’s book:
“A self is not a constant, and we understand virtually nothing of what its persistence in time might mean. We do not know what perdures in the self and what is semelfactive, nor what is incidental or essential. We do not know what marks are left by the things we no longer remember, or when a memory persists in concealment and when it is gone forever. The idea of a person with a unitary self may come from what we have been told or have read than our own inner experience of human existence. Maybe another, clearer way of thinking about the variform nature of our being is possible: being as a participle and not as a noun. We do not know how far our way of talking about ourselves is distorted by our way of talking about others, or others’ way of talking about themselves or others, or to what degree the procedures involved in talking-about already distort or conceal our understanding.”
I’ve been unable to read The Man Without Qualities this week. Its questions about how our lives are related to history and how history shapes us, and how we permit history to happen to us, are simply too close to the marrow. It seems that each unfolding of history propels us in a further downward trajectory.