Harold Jaffe is the author of 28 books, as well as many shorter works in Best American Short Stories, Chicago Review, Kenyon Review, Paris Review, among other venues. He has won two NEA grants in fiction and two Fulbright fellowships. His fiction and nonfiction have been translated into many languages, including Czech, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, and Turkish. He teaches Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University, where he also edits the literary-cultural journal Fiction International. Jaffe is well known for his technique of docufiction, a literary form which treats and fictionalizes news reports and other published data to expose their philosophical underpinnings, ambiguities, nuances, and hidden agendas. PORN-anti-PORN is his 28th book. This interview was conducted through a series of email correspondences in February 2019.
NEW ORLEANS REVIEW
Your compelling volume, PORN-anti-PORN, has a broad mix of themes and orientations to its subject matter. At times, the book’s investigations via fictional renditions seem deliberately contradictory, likely a technique for exposing and highlighting various dimensions and polarizations of the topic. This multiplicity, perhaps akin to Derrida’s “self-difference,” provides a fertile ground for inquiry.
Your introduction offers pointed comments on the book, particularly concerning the corporate/religious dialectic concerning sexuality as a means of control; the schism in online/offline behaviors; the dueling worlds of “reality” and virtual “hyper-reality”; and the geographic survey of porn types in various countries across the globe.
How did you finalize, or begin to finalize, selections of the fictions within the book? Do you conceive of the work as generally having themes which converge in a particular direction, as portraying a multiplicity of concepts from which the reader may choose, or as a presentation of widely divergent orientations, which together offer a gestalt overview?
Are you familiar with Brutalist architecture? It interests me especially in its uninterest in cohesion, preferring in the instances I admire, centrifugal, deliberately uncohesive figurations. “Brutalist” relates to “Brut,” raw, Jean Dubuffet’s word for the art he uncovered in the 1940s—drawings, painting, sculptures created by institutionalized souls accounted mad.
I use “accounted” because it is poor and working class people primarily who are institutionalized. The wealthy are usually able to elude being locked up.
Canonical artists like Klee, Kandinsky, Giacometti, Balthus, DeKooning, and Rothko admired Brut artists because they are outside the social mores that enslave the rest of us. Brut artists can soar without hindrance, like the children in Blake’s “Holy Thursday” whose collective song breaks through the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling. And Brut artists can plummet beyond canonical depression. Brut artists suffer, of course, but most canonical artists would accept keener suffering in their circumscribed lives if their art were elevated thereby.
We are and must be indentured to the world we inhabit, and even though mimesis often refers to capturing the essential rather than the current, with the world rapidly winding down, current is all we have. Our current is without cohesion and without melody or identifiable harmony. My writing employs that dissonance and asymmetry both to call attention to the different “landscape” and because, even as Yeats is indentured “to a dying animal,” himself old, we are indentured to the rapidly dying world. Prometheus comes to mind, Prometheus Bound, not “unbound,” as Shelley hopefully imagined.
I think of Duchamp objecting to what he called “optical” art, which depended on beauty and harmony as experienced through the eye, a beauty and harmony that had nothing to do with the post World War I reality that Duchamp inhabited. That was the inception of the ordinary as art. The notion was to experience the world you were compelled to inhabit. The non-optical art advocated by Duchamp segued into conceptual art where the power is not beauty, as such, but idea, the mind conceiving, imagining. After-image.
PORN-anti-PORN is filled with contradictory responses because they are everywhere to be felt and seen in the end-of-the-world delirium humans exhibit toward the body in passion.
Your description reminds me of certain forms of vision where images are seen through a variety of refractions/angles simultaneously. It also reinforces the concept that true intellection necessarily involves viewing phenomena from different perspectives.
Beyond the commentary on the topic you provide in the introduction, are there additional specific aspects of pornography affecting society which you feel are, at present, most important to consider or maintain an awareness of?
The signal problem is that pornography is run as a quick-fix hyper-capitalist multi-billion dollar industry. The result has much less to do with the passionate body than with pedal-to-the-metal extremity. Comparing Japanese pornography with its long heritage of displaying the sexualized body with American porn tells the story. Over centuries, the Japanese have eroticized virtually every bodily function—defecation, menstruation, vomiting; moreover, they have estheticized sadomasochism, for example, with restraining ropes bound in precisely exotic patterns. But given the infectious cutthroat competition which has invaded the porn industry, even the Japanese are more often than not going for the quick fix.
The quick fix includes crude stereotypes directed at females in general, racist slurs directed at performers who are or pretend to be Africans, Middle-Easterners, East Indians; or directed at the “disabled”—amputees, midgets, poorly endowed males and females. Inevitably there are the disruptive pop-ups and quick money-making ads that pock whatever site you’re on.
Some self-defined feminists, such as Wendy McElry, have asserted that “Pornography benefits women, both personally and politically,” and other social critics, such as Camille Paglia, have asserted asserted more broad-based values: “[P]ornography… helps to rebalance the modern psyche: middle-class workers are trapped with their tyrannical machines at home and office. Pornography, with its surging animal energies and guiltless display of the body, brings the flame of organic nature into that mineral wasteland.” In what ways, if any, do you feel that the wide availability of Internet pornography has positive benefits for women or for society?
Feminists who write favorably of pornography do not mean the pornography we see online. They refer to a non-gender-biased body play without the ubiquitous mega-male dominance that characterizes heterosexual porn.
PORN-anti-PORN is antagonistic toward the cynical, biased extremities of Porn Hub and allied sites, but favors depictions of the rapturous body. The naked communal body exhibiting the polymorphous perversity that Freud championed is a healthier disposition than the #MeToo body as private property with razor wire all around. Camille Paglia’s notion that “pornography, with its surging animal energies and guiltless display of the body, brings the flame of organic nature into that mineral wasteland” is applicable if we are talking about a display of the body that is not filthied over with money.
In the three decades prior to mass public use of the Internet, mainstream American films permitted a high level of violence, and censored an equally high level of overtly displayed sexuality. With respect to violence, I’m thinking of films such Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Robocop (1987), and Natural Born Killers (1994). The rise of the Internet seems to have allowed mainstream filmic/video sexuality on a level equal to pre-established norms of filmic violence. Your fictions “Watching” (in which a mother sets up encounters where men brutally assault then kill her daughter) and “Too Big” (in which a mother cuts off her son’s genitals) posit sexuality and violence, perhaps in equal measure.
Can you comment on the parity and/or disparity in the presentation, consumption, or commodification of pornography versus violence in mass media, or in the forces which control it?
The US has always been quick to display the body torn and battered by accident or war; but that same body healthy and naked has had to contest major censoring difficulties. A crucial reason is that the body-atrocity photo satisfies much the same function as the healthy naked photo without having to square off against the pious resident puritanism which is always an obstacle in the US. Read Ballard’s Crash.
At the start of the counter culture movement in the late 60s, media naturally hesitated to display the naked body which young people were openly exhibiting. But following the money, it became clear that mega-profits were precisely with the counter culture. As a result, one would have to look hard for a mainstream film between, say, 1968 and 1972 which didn’t display frontal nudity of female or male or both.
That is when the cries of “cooptation” began. Movies especially, but also TV, were recuperating the earnest energies of the counter culture and transforming them into lukewarm Pepsi. Hence, when young people in the boondocks felt the urge to protest they would often look to the media-seducing coopted versions of the counter culture rather than to the thing itself. The mainstream cooptation, along with the the US’s chronic repression, won the battle and the Age of Aquarius sank back into popular history as a very brief blip in the world of pain. 430,000 years left according to the Kali Yuga.
Your fiction “After the Revolution” provides a long list of porn scenarios and types. And your introduction discusses a particular scenario of online power inversion, which contrasts with its real world analogue: “Offline, #MeToo primarily addresses males in power who sexually abuse females under them. Online, teenage girls sexually assault and abuse their fathers and ‘superiors’,” asserting domination. Is it your sense that this particular female domination, which seems to be a porn sub-genre, is merely another porn type from the list, or does it have a macroscopic relevance for male/female social dynamics outside of the digital (video) realm?
Hegel uses the dialectical term Aufheben, loosely translated as “sublation,” to refer to a pull-push motion at the same time. The term was employed with slight variations in post-structuralist discourse. Regarding your question of female dominance on porn sites, Aufheben simply inverts the #MeToo template of power-males abusing women under them by having teenage girls sexually abuse their fathers or “superiors.” The motive here is an impudent inversion of female-body-as-private property for the sexy shiver of it. Call it “pull.”
The other, seemingly opposing, motive for female domination on porn sites is to ironically confirm the ongoing feminist demand for equality by turning it into females “facesitting” on males, assaulting the male’s penis, or committing other acts of sexual domination. Call it “push.” The power brokers of Porn Hub and related sites never heard of Hegel, but they know much better than Hegel what sells.
Your book certainly does not denounce sexuality as a whole, and some fictions seem to celebrate it. I’m thinking of “Cartwheel in Oklahoma” (where a teacher performs the cartwheel sans underwear), “IgA” (which describes the bio-medical benefits of sex), and “Tantric Sex” (which describes the pleasure, energy, and experiential value of sex).
On the other hand, your fiction “Just Like Gin” presents the viewing of porn in as simply another drug addiction, and references to drug use run through a number of the fictions. “Addiction” describes viewing pornography as “wiring your brain into a dopamine-overloaded junkyard.” However, the second (similarly titled fiction) “Porn Addict” abruptly discounts the diagnosis of porn addiction—at least according to the sentiment of the persona in the fiction.
To what extent is the viewing of porn necessarily a dopamine overload which negatively impacts the psyche? Is the viewer of porn always either risking, developing, or feeding an addiction while viewing it?
Neurology as a medical term is ubiquitous now, even substituting for psychiatry or psychoanalysis. I am suspicious of its algorithmic propensities because among other things it attributes so-called existential problems to the workings of the brain. A sensitive young person has a breakdown and it is reflexively assumed that it is a brain malfunction. Couldn’t it be a malfunction in the culture the sensitive young person is responding to?
RD Laing, David Cooper, and their colleagues, called existential psychiatrists in the 60s, detailed assumed breakdowns which they called breakthroughs, the patient feeling or noting a disorder before the rest of us, walking point, as it were. Now, with the world decisively out of joint, the repressive culture blames it on the patient’s brain. Dopamine, serotonin, histamine, epinephrine . . .
Yeah, OK, maybe. The BODY is in violent disrepair. Maybe it’s an ontological problem about the human condition? We have depleted planet earth, so it could be we are doomed to ass-backwardness. Forget dopamine. Think with your chest. I look to the cultures I admire—the Hopi and Pueblo, the Oglala Sioux, and the single word to best describe them is heart. Our rational thinker-fathers, such as Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes, elevated the mind’s logic above all else. For the Hopi it is the heart’s “mind” that is crucial.
In PORN-anti-PORN I give more or less equal weight to opposing attitudes to pornography with irony here, there, or lurking.
A number of the fictions in the book seem to characterize a primary condition relating to “malfunction of the culture” as a generic sense of isolation which pervades our current world. “Forever Alone” presents a Japanese device where the user can hug himself/herself, and suggests that human beings are not only isolated from each other, but exceedingly self-centered. “All Female Ant” presents the notion of a “World Without Sex,” where females of the species “replicate themselves to produce genetically identical daughters.” And “Cuddle Café” depicts a Japanese café where males, seemingly longing for true physical closeness are allowed to “nap next to a clothed young girl for a fee,” but “[s]exual requests are prohibited.”
To what extent do you think that the prevalence of Internet pornography is a result of failed interpersonal human contact, or vice versa? Is this prevalence a cause or a symptom of individual human isolation?
Can I revive a post-structuralist term, “overdetermined”? The movement away from what formerly was called the “real world” into the electronic sphere is overdetermined, in that it has several related determinants. The earth is perishing, but the electronic “earth” appears to be thriving. Via medical technology, humans increasingly have inorganic matter of one sort or another implanted in their bodies, becoming more cyborgian by degree. Artificial Intelligence, DNA “editing,” cloning, and other such techniques, are progressing with urgency.
For more and more humans, especially the young who have lived most of their lives in the virtual world, the electronic sphere is “real” and what is left of the natural word is irreal; catastrophe is kin to entertainment; alias identities are equivalent to biological identities; intimate familiarity with the electronic sphere represents high intelligence. Ah, but virtual e-touching and e-passion are not the same as the “actual” embrace, which is still humanly necessary—though I think fading for many souls who live and “love” electronically.
My theory has been that even those millions of humans unable to acknowledge finitude, the first time in human history that Mother Earth is perishing, are responding to it nonetheless. There is a global mania loosed offline and on, which feels much like end-of-the-world agonies. In the US, I imagine a semi-invisible line which formerly demarked a kind of civility beyond which one did not venture. That line has been long effaced. Now, blatant lies and any cruelty imaginable are everywhere.
As robotic and holographic technologies are developed, it is likely that virtual experiences, especially in the pornographic realm, will become even more “hyper-real” than they already are. Can you offer any prediction about the trajectory of these developments as they relate to porn fixation, or intimacy in interpersonal relationships?
I was wondering when you would pose this question. Absolutely, a portion of our one-percent, privileged souls, will die, but they won’t “die.” Cloned, their corpse roboticized, or hologrammed, their Twitter and Facebook accounts ongoing, they will vote e-Republican or e-Democrat, accumulate bitcoin, and go about their e-day. The rest of us who more or less survive will live underground, underwater, or in the atmosphere.
Pornography will be infinitely more satisfying. The mega-rich will possess their own bots which they can program in a thousand different ways. By then the programming will be simple—even a mega-rich fool will be able to master it.
R. Bennett’s work has been widely published, including reviews and literary criticism in American Book Review, Journal of Regional Criticism, Texas Review; fiction in Mississippi Review, Paris Transcontinental (France), Tulane Review; poetry in Manhattanville Review, Oxford Magazine, Wisconsin Review; and, articles in The Nippon View (Japan).2