Porn as ritual communication

Reading Jay Rosen on Iowa this morning, who points back to James Carey’s essay “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” which proposes we discern two models of communication: the transmission, or “the transmittal of information across space,” and the ritual, which is concerned with creating a moment for shared belief, the aim of which is not to inform but to ensure the “maintenance of society in time.” (Iowa? And the Santorum jokes on Maddow that others dutifully post to Twitter and riff on for hours? You guess which column that goes in.)

Leaving the obvious (froth) out of the picture though — how can, or have, these two models of communication been applied to understanding pornography as media?

Both pro- and anti-porn thinkers apply the transmission metaphor; that pornography conveys information about how to have sex, who has it, and what sex looks like.

But if we take the ritual metaphor? That pornography creates a shared moment, between the audience (or consumer) and the actors on the screen. It simulates desire: the commercially-produced desire of the actors for one another, the desire of the audience for the actors, or to participate in the acts on the screen. What’s on screen doesn’t convey information so much as it advocates norms. (The act of searching for and downloading porn can’t be entirely divorced from the viewing of porn, and it — like masturbation — becomes part of the ritual communication itself.)

Anti-porn people have been much louder than pro-porn people in challenging the norms conveyed by pornography, particularly the unspoken norm that desire can be performed, that desire is a creation. They might oppose porn on the grounds that it is dehumanizing to women, but they often point to the idea that the reason it’s so dehumanizing is because it “forces” women to perform sex on demand (in opposition to sex outside of porn, which is understood to be natural, not a performance, etc.).

But what would pro-porn advocates have to offer, by taking up the porn as ritual metaphor? What values and norms would they defend in porn, or advocate for? That sex is good for its own sake? That sexual variation is a human norm? That sex is sometimes a performance of desire? That paying for sexual entertainment is okay, or good? Is that kind of argument no longer fashionable? Must pro-porn arguments always start with the sigh, “Yes, but of course no one really believes this is good sex information, but…”? Could they begin with the assertion that it is okay to consume images of people having sex, and that it is okay to pay people to have sex? How much further can a pro-porn argument go without that much on the table to start?

This might explain why so many pro-porn arguments fall apart. To apply only the transmission metaphor to porn, we end up debating whether or not pornography is a valid source of information, if pornography accurately represents sex, or if pornography is invested in educating the public. As Rosen argues of the media coverage of the Iowa caucus, the transmission metaphor is of limited use when the media in question are chiefly concerned with “the gathering of a tribe, which affirms itself and its place.”

Maybe this is just too uncomfortable a perspective to take with porn, which is undeniably invested in the perpetuation of itself, in illustrating and then obscuring the commodification of desire (the assumption being, an audience will pay for people to perform sex so long as they don’t really have to remember that what they are watching is a performance). But is the perpetuation of porn the perpetuation of a market for selling dirty pictures? Or is it the perpetuation of the idea that it is okay to sell dirty pictures, and okay to pay people who perform them? (Anti-porn people have gone after both the market and the idea.)

Can pro-porn people abandon the fight re: is porn good information or not (it is not, and it is against its own business model to become so), and take up this other set of questions, about the values and norms and community implicit in porn? Here’s Carey again:

[In the ritual metaphor], communication is linked to terms such as “sharing,” “participation,” “association,” “fellowship,” and the “possession of a common faith.” This definition exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the terms “commonness,” “communion,” “community,” and “communication.”

Here’s some fights worth having: who is presumed to be in the community of porn viewers? What are the values produced by their communion? Who is excluded from this “common faith”? Is this common faith broadening? Do we value broadness, or narrowness, in depictions of sex acts? Do we even want to see ourselves on the screen? And can we get off on difference?

(… and thank you, Jay Rosen, for making me actually want to think about porn again?)

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