Pornography has become a problem. Or, to put it more accurately, pornography is finally being considered as problematic by leftist media outlets more comfortable advancing the cause of sexual and gender plasticity than decrying the real harm of perversion. Back in February, the New York Times Magazine published an article called “What Teenagers are Learning from Online Porn,” describing in heartbreaking detail how a generation of easy access to free online pornography is changing “how teenagers talk and think about sex and, by extension, their ideas about masculinity, femininity, intimacy and power.”
Kudos to the Times‘ Maggie Jones for highlighting the issue, but if this were a math assignment she would only get partial credit. She’s guessed the correct answer without quite understanding what makes it so. The Times piece seems to imply that pornography is hurting our children by showing them the wrong kind of sex—male dominated, aggressive, overwhelmingly straight, and featuring bodies that conform to outmoded beauty standards (which is to say, beauty standards). The unarticulated subtext is that if only children were watching some “woke” version of pornography, the issue wouldn’t be so alarming. It’s a response almost as crass as the subject it explores, an anemic reaction to an issue that’s more than an isolated contemporary technological predicament: it’s emblematic of the deeper operating logic of contemporary society as a whole. Simply put, it was a pornographic response to pornography. The Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han might argue that both the pornographic video clips and mainstream critique of them were born of the same pornographic culture. Both use the same “bare life” logic, one completely absent any recognition of moral goods and human flourishing
Byung-Chul Han is a rare breed of public intellectual. He’s a theologically trained continental philosopher who neither leans heavily on his own biography (in fact he’s considered something of a recluse) nor retreats into the hazy jargon of professional over-specialization. Unlike Slavoj Zizek, Han doesn’t play to the crowd. And unlike his continental forebears, he avoids mystification. The left would love to claim Han as one of their own, but his critiques of the contemporary world rely too much on a fixed notion of human nature for folks in the line of Foucault to have anything but an ambivalent relationship with him. What makes him so unique as a European-trained philosopher who writes for an educated public is his unified vision of human life. In a recent interview with El País, Jürgen Habermas lamented the “trend of increasing specialization” in philosophy, rather than trying “to explain the whole, to contribute to the rational explanation of our way of understanding ourselves and the world.” He must not be familiar with Han.
Han, ever a phenomenologist, begins with the experience of being human. If he’s occasionally difficult to understand, it isn’t because his thought is abstract or difficult, but because it’s profoundly simple. His arguments aren’t discreet, but meander among novels and the ideas of other thinkers, always returning to the bedrock experience of being human in the modern world. And most importantly, all of his ideas are connected. So, for instance, when he writes in The Scent of Time that “The decay of time goes hand in hand with the rise of mass society and increasing uniformity,” he’s not arguing that things are speeding up or accelerating in the modern world, but that time itself—a medium in which to pause, tarry, contemplate, and differentiate one thing from another—is being exchanged for instantaneousness. Time is essential for the revelation of truth. “Truth itself,” Han writes, “is a temporal phenomenon. It is a reflection of the lasting, eternal present. The tearing away of time, the shrinking and fleeting present, makes it void.” Time is a human medium, or, rather, a medium for the living. Instantaneousness is for computers and commodities. Knowledge “emptied of time” becomes information, which “can be stored and arbitrarily retrieved.” The destruction of time, the pressure to frantically match the pace of the digital world in our own everyday lives, is a kind of pornographication of the human experience.
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Han also connects the loss of time with the rise of “the transparency society,” by which he doesn’t mean sunshine laws or FOIA requests, but the loss of buffers between one thing and another, and especially between one person and another. Thanks to a digital world in which we are tracked, recorded, and even the most intimate details of our daily lives are willingly shared, we live in a “tyranny of intimacy.” Han writes in The Transparency Society that “The tyranny of intimacy psychologizes and personalizes everything.” He goes on to say that “…[a]s a society of revealing and denuding, the society of transparency works against all forms of the mask [the original and literal translation of persona], against symbolic appearance…. The mounting deritualization and denarrativization of society also strip it of form of symbolic appearance and render it naked.” Narrative, how humans are meant to experience the world, takes time to develop. Identity requires privacy. Both of these things are diminished in the transparency society, a “society of confession, laying-bare, and the pornographic lack of distance.”
The existential mediums required for human flourishing, things that separate one from another such as time and privacy, remind me a bit of Burke’s “little platoons.” Without these mediums, there’s no buffer between an individual and the prevailing powers controlling society. It bends the mind to think of “time” and “privacy” and, as Han argues in The Agony of Eros, the “erotic” as categorically similar to community organizations and organized religion, but in Han’s articulation they do seem to echo each other. In this rendering, pornography is simply another method of “profantion of the world.” It is the degradation of things vital to human flourishing into what Han calls a “bare” existence, which sounds like an utterly inhuman existence. In this process of the world becoming “more naked and more obscene,” things degenerate into a shadow of themselves. Thought is reduced to calculation. Knowledge is denuded until it becomes mere data. Contemplation, bereft of time, collapses into consumption. Love is reduced to sex.
This holistic view of society bending towards pornography in every aspect of itself is what is missing from the Times’ newfound concern of online sex videos. Whether you agree with Han or think “against” him, as McKenzie Wark blurbs on the back of Topology of Violence, he at least presents a full anthropology of man. Without a clear sense of how humans should live, and which values in fact contribute to our very humanity, both problems and solutions become atomized and granular—products of mere calculation. Or, in other words, pornographic.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.