Rowan William’s essay The Body’s Grace, in which he calls for a fuller exploration of how our bodies contribute to the cause of developing shared identities, concludes with a quote from Susan Griffin, atheist and author of Pornography and Silence, who he says manages to say more about theology than do most theologians. She says:
“It is perception above all which will free us from tragedy. Not the perception of illusion or of a fantasy that would deny the power of fate and nature. But perception wedded to matter itself, a knowledge that comes to us from the sense of the body, a wisdom born of wholeness of mind and body come together in the heart. The heart dies in us. This is the self we have lost, the self we daily sacrifice.”
I found the quote a little difficult to relate to the rest of the essay, so I ordered Pornography and Silence: Culture’s Revenge Against Nature from the UNT interlibrary loan system. My mom is getting a graduate degree at UNT, and the service is free for her. Oddly enough, on the book request form, they have an option which allows you to enter a ‘must receive by’ date, but in my experience, they send everything the next day through express mail, which costs a fortune. I digress.
Susan Griffin’s book starts with a simple premise. That we belong to a culture which is at odds with nature and which denies the possibility of reconciliation with her. Our culture, moreover, actively seeks to deny, repress, and ultimately replace nature. This hostility, she says, is most salient in pornography and its ubiquitous spokesperson, the pornographic mind.
Griffin argues that while some have imagined pornography to be a response to and liberation from traditional Christian morality, with its fear and distrust of the flesh, the reality is that pornography and Christianity are built on the same foundation. This foundation is a violence toward and fear of the body, a rejection of nature.
Pornography, she says, is a fantasy that culture and the pornographic mind have invented where all the characters we see, the domineering invulnerable hero male and his innocent but not-so-innocent female object, are each external representations of an inner torture that the pornographic mind daily endures.
To be clear, the pornographic mind extends beyond the mindset that produces pornography. Griffin intends for the term to cover a whole range of manifestations of one cultural illness: the desire to silence nature. Nature represents flesh, mortality, vulnerability, powerlessness. The pornographic mind would put an end to nature, but how to erase something so fundamental to our souls? By projecting it onto the body of a woman in pornography, by putting our weakness and vulnerability into an identifiable vessel, and then taking out our wrath on it.
Pornography exists to silence woman, and thereby silence nature, and thereby silence an ever-present but dreaded part of the pornographic mind. Our culture, she says, is bent on controlling all the variables. Takigs its cue from culture, the pornographic mind hates vulnerability. It hates that in real life with real women, you risk rejection. Or that these encounters can inspire emotional feeling which threatens the culture’s edifice of autonomy. To encounter vulnerability or mortality or eros is to find that the cultural image of ourselves (mostly thinking of men) that we have been given is a sham, and because our culture positions itself as the antithesis of nature, we are suddenly unable to define ourselves. We feel powerless, and then we feel humiliated.
But we imagine that nature, not the faulty images of culture, are the source of our humiliation, and so we seek revenge. This is done, in pornography and elsewhere, through humiliating what has humiliated us, nature in the form of a woman. So we turn the virgin into the whore, we tie her up, we beat her, we shove penises in her mouth to quiet her, at once to tell her that language, the province of culture, is not hers and at the same time that she is flesh, nothing more. Evil earth-bound flesh and nature.
But ultimately the humiliation is directed back to the pornographic mind. The degradation of women is one thing, but the more essential thing is that when we humiliate women, we are trying to humiliate nature, and thereby, quiet feeling in our selves. Pornography’s main purpose, she says, is to deaden feeling. To do this, it creates a fantasy environment. The viewer does not have to encounter the touch of a real woman against his skin. He doesn’t have to risk the possibility of feeling. The woman is on a screen or on paper and she doesn’t threaten his desire to be in control of himself. And all this from the misunderstanding that it is nature that imperils our purity, when it our cultural images.
One of the reasons Griffin gives for why we associate nature wholly with women is that they recall our experience of infancy. As babies, we were entirely subjected to nature. We relied, were dependent, on our mothers. As we age and take up the mantle of culture, and learn that powerlessness and dependency are to be discouraged, we feel shame from that infancy, and we seek again to humiliate who we believe to have humiliated us, our mothers, women. I’m not sure about this claim, but it does make sense in the logic Griffin has created.
Moving on, she has an interesting section which combats the idea that pornography is, at worst, a delusion, but none the less harmless. She opens Image and Event with a verse from Whitman:
There was a child went forth every day
And the first object he looked upon, that object he became
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
That’s awesome. She says, “Symbols and images are the modality of thought.” Also, that it is through images that we think and decide. “Images work a powerful effect on the mind. If we question in our hearts who we are, our minds throw up to our vision an image of ourselves. We seek a picture, a word, a name. We feel we do not know our own feelings unless they are named. And we inherit through culture the very names we give to feelings.” Quoting someone else, and this is familiar ground: “people tend to remake themelves in the image which other people have of them.” Continuing with this thought, and I apologize for the liberal use of quotations, but there is so much good stuff here, she quotes Wittenstein: “The child learns to believe a host of things. i.e. it learns to act according to these beliefs. Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakably fast and some are more or less liable to shift. What stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around.”
This makes the point so well. The quote is a little vague. In concrete terms, I think this is a good example. Let us say that “what stands fast” is a black child’s feeling of inferiority simply because of their blackness. It is not convincing, but it is “held fast by what lies around.” And the same is true for pornographic images Griffin would say. By offering ourselves up to these images, they recreate our self-understanding, and preclude more sensible images.
This also reminds me an article I saw in passing on AlDaily. The blurb said something in the way of, “Feminism is floundering as it runs up against what women actually want.” Now I didn’t read the article, for obvious reasons, but I can imagine its claims. But if we think in terms of image and event, I think there is reason to question this remark. The feminist might say that the more actual woman distance themselves from feminism’s demands, the more the feminist is needed, because culture, not nature, is fashioning women’s idendities after its images, which, after all, are made up.
There’s some really interesting stuff about how this struggle between culture and nature play out in sadomasochim, but I’ll get to that later.
When I looked again at the original quote after reading some of the book, it resonated more. I hope it makes a little more sense now. The end.