Monday, January 18, 2010

Abstraction and porn


Today I‘ve been thinking about Neuromancer and abstraction and the Amish and porn. Neuromancer, because I’m re-reading William Gibson’s novel for the first time in twenty years. Is that why I decided to start a blog? Because in 1989 he totally sold me on the future, he made technology seem sexy and potentially subversive and reassured me that there would be a place for rebels and outsiders to make their way through a virtual world that he imagined as having large subcultures devoted to crime and art and the zones where the two intersected. In 1989 I was like totally into crime and art! (In the meantime, however, I’ve developed into a technophobic curmudgeon. When people are surprised or even miffed by the fact that I don’t usually carry a cell phone and I’m not on facebook, I sometimes joke that it’s my Amish genes. ((This is a joke not because I don’t in fact have Amish genes, but because I’m not a genetic determinist.)) While there are a variety of complicated reasons, probably, for this technophobia, the most visceral and pressing in my daily life is that sitting in front of a computer makes me ill. It fucks up my spine and gives me headaches. I know, I should work on my posture, I should go to IKEA and buy some ergonomic chair – there aren’t any problems that purchasing a product won’t solve, are there? But I am stubbornly resistant and so, in the world that William Gibson envisioned, I would be a total dinosaur, overly tied to the petty complaints and suffering of the meat, as his narrator dismisses the human body. It’s true.) In the preface to this edition, Gibson discusses one of the things he totally missed in his 80s vision of the future, cell phones. He doesn’t discuss another glaring omission from cyberspace: the prevalence of porn. Oh, sure, there are some fetishistic zones and erotic pleasures in WG’s cyberspace, but nothing to suggest the vast circuits of information constantly feeding us more and more images of the poor, suffering meat, in various postures of pleasure and abuse.


But what got me started thinking about porn was the show of quilts at the DeYoung, Amish Abstraction, which I wrote about last month for the Bay Guardian. At the time, I was thinking a great deal about how the show was packaged as being reminiscent of 20th century abstract art – as opposed to, say, Islamic abstract art, and I was thinking about how both the Amish and Muslims have issues with figuration. For the Amish, you don’t represent the self (or any other self) because it would be a form of self-aggrandizement. And you don’t want to aggrandize any selves but the great big daddy self in the sky. Ego is bad, at least human ego – God ego is what we’re here to praise and celebrate and make the best of. And in Islam, the non-representational character of Islamic art is apparently related to the prohibition against “imitating God’s works”. A common critique leveled against America (meaning global capitalism) by Islamic ne’er-do-wells is the pornographic nature of our culture. Figurative images are inherently erotic, inherently pornographic and global capitalism/techno-culture is swimming in images.

Although these issues with representation are justified quite differently in the two cultures, they both end up on the same abstract spectrum as the abstract expressionists. So then I’m thinking about the analysis that ties the rise of abstract art in America to corporate sponsorship and its push to embrace art that wasn’t figurative or political. (Ideas developed, for example, in Bram Dijkstra’s American Expressionism: Art and Social Change 1920 – 1950 and which I’m grossly simplifying.) Abstraction then serves to counter politics, porn and ego. Three of my favorite things. You want a tightly controlled social order (as with the Amish or Saudi Arabia or 50’s America) you don’t want figuration, you want abstraction. You want conformity and erotics invested in established forms of social organization. Despite "the inevitability of Amish porn," that’s an easy enough binary to make us all feel happy about embracing politics, porn and ego, right? But the pornographic social order of global capitalism isn’t very satisfying either and I’m thinking of how Baudrillard and Virilio have mapped out the ways that we are living at the mercy of a rapidly evolving and uncontrollable proliferation of images that doesn’t necessarily share the same goals and pleasures as the life-world. An autonomous set of images that doesn’t serve many actual creature’s interests. Not just the human meat, but all the other unfortunate species that share the world with us in this configuration. And it feels pretty bleak and so maybe I’m nostalgic for the hope I had in 1989, reading Neuromancer for the first time, that technology would open up creepy and hilarious and sexy new spaces for cerebral and erotic interaction instead of the depressing computer screen I’m staring at with its links to Facebook and Twitter. I don’t think we can very well pretend that the democratization of porn has proliferated an abundance of strange and liberating new possibilities for eros. I think it can do better. Porn seems crucial as a space in which the desires of the present and the future are not just mirrored (a very unsatisfying role to imagine for representation) but created. Porn is the operative metaphor for advertising and consumer culture. Pornographic appeal is the over-arching factor in the creation of celebrity. But porn can be allied not only with ego, but with politics. Therefore… what? I don’t know, I’m still thinking about it.

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