Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

48: Susan Sontag part III:
The Pornographic Imagination

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         In her essay “The Pornographic Imagination,” Susan Sontag claims that pornography has only been considered worth studying as social history or as a psychological perversion. She suggests that there has not really ever been a critical theory of pornographic literature as a separate genre (that is, literature considered as art with inherent standards of artistic excellence) and that we are poorer because of it (Q1). Sontag mentions many but uses mostly two works as examples of good erotic literature: “Story of O” and “Histoire de l'Oeil” (Q2).
         Two reasons for why there has not arisen any critical theory of erotic literature are that (A) the sociological and psychological discourses have universally labeled pornography as harmful and perverted resulting in a certain fear of all of it; and that (B) the definition of literature in the English speaking academic world has excluded pornography. This exclusion is for four dubious reasons: literature should have 1) more than one purpose; 2) a beginning, middle and end; 3) care for the means of expression and 4) at least one round fully formed character. (Q3)
         Art in general is defined by Sontag as: “...a form of consciousness; the materials of art are the variety of forms of consciousness.” Then, in order to link art to the pornographic imagination she writes: “By no aesthetic principle can this notion of the materials of art be construed as excluding even the extreme forms of consciousness that transcend social personality or psychological individuality.” (Q4)(Q5)
         For Sontag the quality that makes a work of art (including erotic literature) good and worthy of a place in the history of art is “...its originality, thoroughness, authenticity, and power of that deranged consciousness itself, as incarnated in a work.”
         A major point that seems to be repeated throughout her essay is the root similarity between erotic literature and religious or spiritual literature. “Pornography that is serious literature aims to 'excite' in the same way that books which render an extreme form of religious experience aim to 'convert.'”(Q6)
         There is a “totality” in all great literature and erotic literature is no different. Everything in the work must contribute to the goal of the work. As such everything that is in the work's total universe is useful and adaptable for the purpose of the work. There are many such imaginations: the logician's, the artists, the revolutionary's, the Freudian's, the madman's etc. but the most developed is the religious' imagination. This is reflected in the large number of terms and concepts that are borrowed by all the other imaginations. (Q7)
         However there seems to be something unsettling about the use of religious vocabulary and metaphor for erotic literature. Although the ecstasy of sex may be similar to the ecstasy of religious experience, they are two very different things. “To try to make a fresh way of talking at the most serious, ardent, and enthusiastic level, heading off the religious encapsulation, is one of the primary intellectual tasks of future thought.”(Q8)
         The popularity of pornography and its simultaneous condemnation as perverted points to a pathos that modern society cannot or does not satisfy. Everyone has a need to be a free individual but everyone also has a need to transcend the “personal” to be part of “something bigger” (in positive sounding language) or to be a “cog in the machine” (in negative sounding language). This humanistic need is catered to in pornography in the objectification of people and actions.(Q9)
         Sontag believe that some pornography has “...its peculiar access to some truth. This truth – about sensibility, about sex, about individual personality, about despair, about limits – can be shared when it projects itself into art.” but it breaks rules by going there; the rules of polite society. By going where most do not one can find there knowledge and with knowledge there is power. This is what is at stake with pornography in the modern world: its knowledge is a power that can harm. (Q10)
         Q1 In the same way that there is good literature and poor literature in other genres, (such as poetry, epics, romances, adventures etc.) do you think that you can distinguish between good and bad erotic literature. (I think 'erotic literature' is the term more commonly used today than her term: pornographic literature). If so, what would be some of the qualities of good verses bad erotic literature?
         Q2 Have you heard of these two works? What do you know about them?
         Q3 Do you think that these are legitimate reasons to systematically and summarily exclude all erotic literature from the possibility of being good literature? Are the claims made against erotic literature really never true?
         Q4 She seems to be saying that what ever you can become conscious of can be turned into art. Does this sound believable? “When people venture into the far reaches of consciousness, they do so at the peril of their sanity, that is, of their humanity. But the 'human scale' or humanistic standard proper to ordinary life and conduct seems misplaced when applied to art. It oversimplifies....The exemplary modern artist is a broker in madness.” To be an original artist, does one has to be a little insane? It would seem that leading a bohemian life style is conducive to being a great artist. Do you agree or disagree? Would you consider 'Dexter,' a drama about a serial killer who only kills other serial killers (a drama about an extreme of human consciousness), to be a good drama?
         Q5 Sontag suggests that obsession is at the heart of greatness. A historically obsessed consciousness will give us a great work of history (eg Winston Churchill); A romantically obsessed consciousness will give us a Shakespeare; A religiously obsessed consciousness will give us a popular religious text (eg the Left Behind series); A science fiction and/or fantasy obsessed consciousness will give us Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Why shouldn't a sex or lust obsessed consciousness be able to provide great literature? Is an obsessional consciousness necessary, useful or a hindrance to great art?
         Q6 I think some examples of the religious literature she is talking about are: “Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross; “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis and the works of other mystics. In both spiritual and erotic literature there seems to be a much more singular devoted and explicit purpose than in most literature. Do you agree or disagree.
         Q7 How often do we use religious words as swear words; how often do we use religious words in general; words like: sacred & profane, holy & abomination, divine& devilish, sacrament, sublime, spirit, soul etc. How often do we secularize religious actions in words like: road trip, test of faith, awakening, salvation, etc. Is the vocabulary of the religious imagination really the most developed and the most common?
         Q8 Do you see any problem with using religious vocabulary and concepts to describe non-religious experiences? Should we be trying to develop new vocabulary for each of the total imaginations that exist in the world? Would that needlessly complicate things or clarify things? Or do jargon and code words already do this (code words like: “420” and “open minded”)?
         Q9 Do people have a need to transcend the personal? Is the idea of total personal freedom satisfactory or do we need more than freedom? In the process of transcending the personal is there a humanistic difference between the positive and the negative expressions of “being a part of ---(a machine or something greater)”? If so do you see a connection between the objectification in pornography and its popularity? Do you think that people who are meaningfully a part of something greater are less likely to enjoy pornography than people who are un-meaningfully just a cog in the machine?
         Q10 In a sense all power and all knowledge is dangerous. She seems to be giving a justification for censorship by saying so that and also that perhaps some people do not need to broaden their consciousness. Do you accept her reason for the censorship of some pornography? Then she points out that such an attitude is extremely paternalistic. Do you think censorship is paternalistic? Finally the question is not: should pornography be censored; rather it is whether good and bad pornography should be lumped together. Do you believe there is good pornography?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren