Wednesday, August 6, 2008

L'histoire de C

Some years ago I disturbed some other gay men in an online discussion by telling them that if I could choose one person with whom to be stranded on a desert island, it would be Noam Chomsky.

“He’s a really intense disputant,” one guy, a linguist who knew the Great Man professionally, warned me.

“Ecstasy!” I replied. It was expected, I suppose, that everyone would name a porn star or other hot celebrity. It would have been okay to name an older man if he were a star – Sean Connery, say – and several of the men I was chatting with were thirty or older anyway. But someone like Chomsky did not compute.

The linguist warned me that Chomsky was hopelessly heterosexual, that he had no sense of the finer things of life like food or music, etc. That we were talking about a fantasy to begin with (I’d have as much chance of getting into Connery’s britches as into Chomsky’s, I’m sure) and that haute cuisine and the Metropolitan Opera would be in short supply on a desert island, got forgotten rather quickly in the consternation over my Homosexually Incorrect tastes. I’ve always been attracted to nerds like Chomsky anyway, it’s one of my great gay thoughtcrimes.

The question is, was my fantasy of being stranded with Noam Chomsky a pornographic fantasy? If so, does that fantasy degrade and humiliate him? Or me?

A few weeks ago a video clip (above) went up on YouTube, in which Chomsky discussed pornography, and of course it inspired some discussion. It seems to be a teaser for something called “The Price of Pleasure,” apparently an anti-porn documentary, so far unreleased. Before examining Chomsky's views, I think the clip itself should be analyzed a little.

Much of the clip is narration over images. As we’re told that an interview with Chomsky appeared in Hustler magazine, “September Oh-Four issue”, the video shows the cover of the September 2005 issue headlining the interview. Oh well, nobody’s perfect! “Chomsky’s appearance was widely perceived as an endorsement of Hustler,” the narrator continues, and of pornography in general. This assumption is far from the truth.” I can’t claim omniscience, but I didn’t hear about the interview or any perception of Chomsky as pro-porn at the time. Nor does a cursory Google search indicate that I missed any flurry of attention to the matter until this video was posted to YouTube; even the feminist sites don’t seem to have heard about it until now.

The voiceover narrator reads the questions that were presumably asked of Chomsky. His responses have been edited, but the general drift seems to be that Chomsky had never heard of “The Hustler” until he received a request for an interview with them, and only after it was published did he learn the awful truth.

Voiceover with text on an intertitle: “What is your view on pornography?”

Chomsky: Pornography is humiliation and degradation of women, it’s a disgraceful activity, and I don’t want to be associated with it. Just take a look at the pictures. I mean, women are degraded as vulgar sex objects. That’s not what human beings are. I mean, I don’t even see anything to discuss!

Voiceover with text on an intertitle: “But didn’t porn performers choose to do the job, and get paid?”

Chomsky: The fact that people agreed to it and are paid is about as convincing as the fact that we should be in favor of the sweatshops in, uh, China, where women are locked into a factory and uh, y’know, work fifteen hours a day and then the factory burns down and they all die. Yeah, they were paid and they consented, that doesn’t make me in favor of it. So that argument, you can’t talk about it.

As to the fact that it’s some people’s erotica, that’s their problem. It doesn’t mean I have to contribute to it. If they get enjoyment out of humiliation of women, they have a problem, but it’s nothing I want to contribute to.

Chomsky’s not at his best here. I can’t remember ever having seen him so defensive, not even over the Faurisson brouhaha. I suppose it’s not surprising, because he’s never had to deal much with human sexuality, in either his linguistic or his political work, and he’s confessed that he hasn’t investigated feminism or been as affected by it as he should. So he hasn't thought his position through very well. But it’s a bit painful to watch him reiterate, “I want nothing to do with it … it’s nothing I want to contribute to”, like someone repudiating counterrevolutionary deviations during the Cultural Revolution. Avedon Carol speculated that Chomsky must have seen “one of those slideshow presentations by Women Against Pornography or someone in which a whole lot of unrepresentative images are shown with commentary full of falsehoods and scarewords, because he’s sounding just like them.” Maybe so, but I think he just saw the issue of Hustler in which the interview appeared. Whatever -- he seems to be talking about still photographs, not videos, let alone the now almost-defunct form of written pornography, though he seems to generalize from Hustler to all pornography.

His comment on the question of consent is good, if elementary, but it has problems. True, the fact that someone gets paid to do something doesn’t mean it isn’t degrading. Unlike a lot of people, Chomsky is aware that poor people do all kinds of work to earn a little money – not just porn or other sex work, but child and elderly care. And that’s where his argument stumbles. Is it more degrading to wipe an old person’s butt in a nursing home, or to pose for Hustler? To change a rich white person’s baby’s shitty diapers for subminimum wage (often in constant fear of being deported if one isn’t cooperative enough), or to pole-dance in a club for a lot more money? Who gets to decide? Numerous feminist critics of the anti-porn movement have pointed this out over the years, and I haven’t seen much serious engagement with the argument. Chomsky at least would agree that no one should have to do work they don’t want to do in order to survive.

What is degrading? I work with numerous immigrants from Eastern Europe who were teachers or other professionals there, and who feel degraded to be washing dishes and mopping floors for a living here in the Land of the Free. Years ago, a middle-class friend of mine (who adored the Beats for their picturesque slumming with truck drivers) was infuriated when another friend offered to get me a summer job at the factory where she worked. Evidently assembling TV circuits was good enough for her, in his eyes, but not for an intellectual like me. And often since then I’ve been asked why someone as smart and well-read as I am is working in a kitchen, when I could be a professor or least something white-collar. Which reminds me of a discussion of Michael Albert’s Parecon system I once saw on Usenet: one participant asked rhetorically why a great man like Chomsky (who’s a longtime friend of Albert) should have to clean toilets – that would be so degrading! My first thought was, Why shouldn’t he? From what I know of Chomsky’s politics, I think he’d agree with me. Underlying these reactions is the belief that some people (less intelligent, lower-class) are somehow suited to menial work, while others (more intelligent, upper-level) shouldn’t have to get their hands dirty – racism, in short.

The issue involved in porn and other sex work is somewhat different. I can't tell from Chomsky’s remarks whether he’s talking about still photographs of women exposing their genitals to invite penetration, or photographs of women being penetrated. Hustler, from what I can tell (hey, I’m a fag, I don’t pay much attention to heterosexual porn), also features a lot of ostensibly satirical misogynist material, the best-known being the notorious image of a naked woman being fed into a meat-grinder. No woman was harmed to make that picture, of course, it was a cut-and-paste job, though I find it interesting that many people talk about it as though Larry Flynt’s people did, literally, grind up a woman for a magazine cover. Such reactions bespeak an interesting literal-mindedness that I’ve written about before. Many disturbing porn images (s&m or rape scenarios, for example) are staged, just like disturbing images in horror or action films. One often hears of actors talking about how exhausting, how emotionally stressful, it was to play this or that role which involved grief or other troubling emotions. Acting and modeling are often hard work, but their products shouldn’t be confused with reality.

If displaying oneself sexually (either in solitary display or engaged in sexual activity) in front of a camera for pay is degrading, though, what about the men who perform in heterosexual pornography? Neither Chomsky nor most feminist critics of porn seem inclined to address this. I think the general assumption is that men, being horndogs, would not be humiliated or degraded by showing their stuff to audiences. In the US porn industry, from what I’ve read, male performers in hetero porn are paid less than females, and they suffer from the necessity of maintaining an erection for long periods of time in stressful conditions (in front of the crew, with their payment and future work depending on getting wood). Gore Vidal once said somewhere that Hollywood actors suffered from being on display in front of the cameras, which was injurious to their manhood, so they drank; women, he thought, are made to be looked at, and so did a lot of knitting between takes. I disagree with Vidal, but he expressed a position about people in front of cameras that’s as conservative as the anti-porn position.

Underlying most of the debate is the assumption that being penetrated sexually is degrading, and being penetrated for pay, or in front of a camera, is even more so. Few people will admit that they consider penetration inherently degrading; to do so would rule out not just pornographic images but heterosexuality itself. (To say nothing of male homosexuality.) To link images of nekkid people to degradation, though, is tricky: were the women who posed nude for Rembrandt degraded by it? How about contemporary art photography? And again, what about male models?

I realize it’s unfair of me to expect a hopelessly heterosexual man of a certain age to take such issues into consideration. In general (admitting numerous exceptions), heterosexual males are less comfortable talking about sex than gay men or straight women, and this is even more true of men of Chomsky’s generation. But Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb did a couple of posts on the Chomsky video clip, and despite his greater ease with and sophistication about the topic, still referred to pornography as something which affects women uniquely. Nor did he mention (unless he did so far down in comments) the socialist-feminist commonplaces that the exploitation of women for service by men extends far beyond the sex trade – to monogamous heterosexual marriage, for example. Imagine an elderly professor who tours the world giving lectures, accompanied by his (also elderly) wife, who monitors his health and keeps away intrusive attention when necessary; that sort of service work by wives or other women is considered a male birthright.

By the same token, misogyny permeates all of culture, high, low, and middlebrow, including the pop music that Seymour apparently loves as much as I do. His enthusiasm for the Scissor Sisters and for Prince’s “Dirty Mind” sits oddly, to my mind, with his later denunciation of pornography, though both videos and songs rely on pornographic tropes and conventions. (Is it degrading for Prince to display himself like that, even though he chose to do it and was paid?)

But then, try this video from the 1960s, which looks “innocent” by today's standards but still uses images of scantily-clad young women displaying themselves for the dread male gaze.

Chomsky’s final what-is-to-be-done remarks descend into incoherence:

Voiceover with text on an intertitle: “How should we improve the production conditions of pornography?”

Chomsky: By eliminating degradation of women, that would improve it. Just like child abuse. You don’t want to make it better child abuse, you want to stop child abuse. Suppose there’s a starving child in the slums, and you say, “Well, I’ll give you food if you let me abuse you.” There happen to be laws against child abuse, fortunately. But suppose someone were to give your argument: “Well, you know, after all the child’s starving otherwise, so you’re taking away his chance to get some food if you ban abuse.” Is that an argument? The answer to that is, to stop the conditions in which the child is starving. And the same is true here. Eliminate the conditions in which women can’t get decent jobs, not permit abusive and destructive behavior.

If appearing in pornography, or even in Hustler-style misogynist satire, is intrinsically degrading to women, how can you improve porn by “eliminating degradation of women”? The trouble with the parallel he draws between porn and child abuse is not just that it implicitly infantilizes women, it’s that it assumes that nudity and sexual activity are “abusive and destructive” for adults. In a just society of the sort Chomsky and I would like to see, I doubt that many people would choose to work in sweatshops for the sheer fun of it; they do so now to earn money for themselves and their families, to survive in the unjust world we have now. But people would still choose to have sex with each other, of their own free will, for the fun and pleasure of it. I think they’d even make images of their (or each other’s) naked bodies, or of themselves having sex. In a just society, the models and performers would choose what form those images would have. Chomsky and too many other critics of porn forget this, I think, and it reveals some serious faultlines in their arguments.