(March 2021) – By Jada Sirkin
This article plays with the double meaning of the word "género". In Spanish, "género" means both gender and genre. That something is degenerated can mean that it has lost its genre or its functionality. Also to say that someone is "degenerado" can mean that they are obscene, rude, or ill-mannered.
Literary and film genres matter less to us in their primitive, "pure", unchallenged forms than in the degradations that such purity has undergone, in the manifestations that, in trying to reformulate generic norms, tell us to what extent the genres have failed to propose a vision of human and social reality - and to what extent they have rightly, though partially, pursued such a vision.
Frank D. McConnell, Cinema and the Romantic Imagination
...we are determined to separate ( circumcise?) eroticism from pornography or, instead, to define them, to enclose them in stagnant and uncontaminated compartments (sex for smokers, eroticism for non-smokers... or vice versa?). Is it really worth it?
Ramón Freixas y Joan Bassa, Sex in cinema and the cinema of sex
Mumblecore, melodrama, new Argentine, Brazilian, Iranian or German cinema, and the nouvelle vague and Italian neorealism, dada, drama and dogma, that of ' 95, comedy and horror, and class B and suspense and thriller, noir or English detective stories, and those recommended for you, and because you have seen such and such, and the most seen today in Greenland, and art cinema, or experimental, or video dance, and video essay and video minute, which yes, in that case is more concrete, it lasts a minute, but why, this apparent, cultural, frantic need to say novel, or nouvelle, or essay, or self-help, figurative and abstract, why, if not because Blockbuster has to arrange its shelves?
To know if it's going to be good.
From the creators themselves, from the critics, from the distribution and commercialization platforms, from (and towards) the user's need to know, a priori, what kind of experience they are about to encounter, the uncontainable propulsion to labelling is deployed (or expressed).
—The jelly will be a horror one.
And this knowledge reassures us.
Experiences (the aesthetic ones, the other ones) come to us packaged in what we call genres and sub-genres. The classifying label tells us what to expect, prepares us to laugh or to cry —or to laugh AND cry. Or to laugh and fear, or for that kind of excitement that pornography is supposed to produce, which, let's face it, we don't quite know what it is.
Is an erect penis pornography? And a semi-erect one? A kiss with tongue and saliva, when the saliva passes from one mouth to the other, and it is visible, undeniable, is it already pornography? Is the anus the most unconscious and tense part of a culture? A radiant, explosive, fierce performance, is it pornography? And a highly codified performance? Perhaps that is the one, the performance that contains the scream inside a significant grimace! Is screaming a pornographic act?
To clasify an audiovisual or literary content as pornography, do we need to see an elongated object entering a cavity? Flaubert was the target of a scandal (today, historically important and already culturally naive) for his (today subtle and celebrated) beloved "Madame Bovary". The scandal, of course, made him sell more books. Scandal sells, that is a commonplace. The question is, why common places sell and what is beyond the common?
What is a scandal, why does it sell, does it sell because it confirms to cultural souls that what they consider obscene is in fact obscene? Is scandal the reassuring part of obscenity? We buy scandal to buy safety. Scandal confirms a moral order, we make fuss to define, rather confirm, the edges of the scene. That won't get in!
There is also the topic of provocation.
A few years ago we would watch Von Trier's films with what is called "explicit sex" and it was hard not to wonder if the filmmaker was in fact wanting to provoke us. At least, it happened to me; and it's something I often wonder: are they wanting to provoke me in a specific way? Do they want something concrete from me? Do they want to use me as a reactive surface that confirms the obviousness of a desired effect? Although I like to believe artists have the best intentions, I find it hard not to be suspicious.
Anyway, we have the issue of the expected effect. Why do we need to know what the person who gave us the gift of his art wanted to tell us, or do to us? Why do we value the equivalence between plans and results? Are we creatures addicted to consistency between cause and effect? Is provocation successful when it provokes what it wants to provoke?
The question is whether achievement is pornography, whether provocation (successful or not) is pornography and/or (if you will) whether pornography is provocation.
What is pornography?
Perhaps the deep, real pornography, beyond what we commonly call "porn", is that attempt to define an intention —that desperate attempt to communicate: the attempt, or the pretense, of a clarity that, if we investigate, we discover to be false, cultural, impostured, forced and caricatured —perhaps even unnecessary. Thus we say: in my (pornographic) discourse, the message, diaphanous, unpolluted, comes from my artistic hands to yours, daily and asleep. We have managed to communicate, we have "understood" each other.
Hence, the subject of understanding: Is understanding something hideous? Is it obscene? No, it is too little obscene! It is legible —too legible.
In what we usually call pornography, legibility reaches its peak and explodes in an orgasm of anti-ambiguity. There is no obscenity in that sense, everything remains within the scene. Everything is seen, everything can be seen.
Is there anything off-scene in a porn?
Could a porn be a little more ambiguous —or subtle? Is pornography the dissolution of ambiguity —of complexity? Is pornography, precisely, the opposite of obscenity? In porn writing, everything is visible —there is no noise in the message.
Let us say that pornography is the (pretense of) elimination of noise in a message —a message that becomes too (obsessively and commercially) clear. Pornography as the totalizing pretension of the image: in the porn image, everything is in view, nothing is left out of the picture —there is no obscenity. Pornography as the denial of the possibility of obscenity. In this sense, the pornographic narrative is the perfect narrative. Everything is understood, everything makes sense, everything has an ending (viscous, but solid).
Without obscenity, without noise, the screen becomes an ejaculation of clarity. In a pornographic experience, everything is clear and legible, there is no doubt about what is happening. We know where we are aiming.
The genres (gender) help us target, to understand what is going on, who we are with, if it is a man, if it is a woman, if it is a trans person, if it is a non-binary person, if it is a blow-up doll, a pig or a pumpkin. The sub-classifications of audiovisual porn are infinite and very curious. The catalog of fantasies has achieved a remarkable specificity. It is true that, to some extent, socially, labels proliferate to liberate us. Today this seems true in the case of gender issues. Coining new labels serves to free us from the cultural oppression of old dualities.
Hence, a question could be: do we use the new labels as portals for liberation or as new shelters?
I'd say: a bit of both.
To free ourselves from names, we multiply names. It seems that we cannot function without names, not yet at least. How would we organize ourselves, as a society (as Netflix) without names? How would we sell ourselves experiences without the possibility of describing their attributes?
(By the way, who writes Netflix synopses?)
Etymological research: "pornography" comes from Greek, and before that from Indo-European. "Grafia" is writing. The "porn" part has to do with prostitute, and selling and trafficking. From the same Indo-European root of sell, it seems, comes "interpreter", in the sense of intermediary or negotiator.
I am interested in thinking of pornography not as the explicit exposure of the "sexual" but as a kind of communicative intention —that is, more the explicit than the sexual. A negotiation with ambiguity, a profitable interpretation of the complexity of life. The idea would be: when the product is its label, we are dealing with a porn experience —one that cannot be more than what it claims to be. Use me like this or don't use me, says the pornographic label. The porn product is not what comes inside the jar with the label on it, because there isn't even a jar, just a label. But it is the most deceitful label, because it does not assume that there is no jar, it pretends that there is, and shows it, in great detail, as an extreme barbarity of realism.
Whether it is the image of two or more human bodies in coitus mode, whatever it is, if what is happening is the trafficking, or the sale-buying, of a package of information already interpreted, mediated, if ambiguity and mystery are reduced to zero, if I am not allowed (or: if I don't allow myself), as a consumer, to have any more experiential alternative than what the genre (the proposal) in question prescribes, then, I say, we are in front of (or within) a kind of pornographic experience. An extremely mediated writing. A commercial writing.
Again, of course, we are not talking about the genre called "porn," that which depicts sexually explicit situations. We are talking about porn as that which equates the explicit with the real. Porn as that which assumes that everything is said and that that is the real. Pornography as an extreme of realistic pretension.
The formula would be:
The real - the mystery = the porn.
Pornography would be the writing of a reality stripped of mystery. Of course, that writing is not exclusive to the genre we call "porn." In fact, we could say that most of our exchanges, insofar as they are governed by grammars that demand decoding and reduction of noise-ambiguity to the maximum level of simplification, are (or tend to be) pornographic. Saying to someone "I know you" is a pornographic gesture. Without fear of exaggeration, we could say that definition is pornographic in itself. Why such a race for definition? HD, 4k, how many mega-pixels do we need to value the image of a piece of meat? Why the value is placed on definition? High definition! In photography as well as in communication, noise is despised. We want sharpness, virile, turgid images. And to value blur, we need to understand that the scene is a dream or say things like "how artistic". The notion of "art" serves us to accommodate (also allow) confusing experiences.
But in general sharpness is what we want. Sharpness is valued as much as erection. Erection is thought of as the gauge of a fuel tank. If there is no 100% erection, we understand that something is wrong. Why is the flaccid penis signified as lack of interest? Why do we need such tonic experiences to feel alive? If the experience doesn't turn us on to the brink of explosion, we get bored. The effect (genital arousal) feels important, concrete and real. Big perceptual setup: the explicit (what is seen, the sign, the erection, the arousal) feels very real. The effect of reality is not even felt as an effect (of language). We believe, as old realism does, that what matters are the "experiences themselves" (the world), and not the legible and clear meaning we put on them.
In what we are thinking of as the pornographic (the writing of the obvious, the creation of a need for understanding, the regulation of an effect) we are too much inside the scene already written and diagrammed by the intention of generating a precise and unique effect. It is not about sex, it is about clarity. The pornographic would be the unidirectional use of the image-the image used for one thing only: to obtain one kind of heat, one kind of arousal. Genre: genital. It can be genital arousal, it can also be emotional arousal, it can be mental arousal. We could say a violin and a gesture, synchronized, strategically, to produce a specific emotional effect, we could say that they are fulfilling a pornographic mission. In other words, we would say that pornography is simplification, a domestication of perceptual experience.
In her article "The Pornographic Imagination", Susan Sontag makes an assessment of the obscene. Art, she suggests, has an obscene function —we use art to get out of the scene, to die to the written-what is prescribed by the cultural coercion machinery. Culture, as a pornographic survival apparatus, forces us to read what must be read to remain within the social scene -pornography and belonging.
A trans-pornographic (trans-cultural) fiction would be an obscene fiction. Although it may be simplifying, let us say this: if culture is pornography, art (the aesthetic shake) is obscenity. The obscene is what frees us from the scene.
"Scene", I understand, in its etymology, has to do with "hut". The scene, let's say, is like a mountain shelter. As we mentioned above, labels, insofar as they give us a certain security, function as shelters. If genres are like shelters, would the degenerate be like what frees us from the prison of genres? If genre is what guarantees the experience makes sense (i.e., that we "sense" what has already been made sense of), would degenerate experience be what makes it possible for us to... just feel?
Let’s think of the scene as the representation of the I, which would be the organizing center of the meanings of experience. The scene is like a sphere within which the perceptive possibilities of identity (individual and collective) orbit. The scene is the gravitational field of the SELF. The hyper-codified messages of cultural pornography (I insist, not what we usually call porn) solidify and sustain (or so they try to do) the stability of that sphere of possibilities. If obscene is what is left out of the scene, perhaps it is also what gives us back a sense of mystery and freedom. The obscene gesture says: there is more than we are allowing ourselves to perceive: if we look sensitively enough at the edges of the game board, we will discover that the circle does not close —the line opens, the spiral restless.
What would a degenerated fiction look like? What would a not (so) packaged life look like? Is human sensitivity prepared to not know —not so much— in advance, what kind of texture it will encounter, or is encountering, at every moment? Why do we need to understand, all the time, what is going on? Because we make decisions, almost always, based on the narratives we build from reality! Why? Maybe because we don't take the time to listen, to perceive, to let it happen. And why don't we listen? Because we identify so much with the maps we draw over the territory. And why do we identify so much with the maps? We had to do so in order to survive. For us to survive, we had to organize ourselves on the basis of narratives —beliefs. Believing guarantees stability, but it also atrophies our sensitivity. With this atrophy of our intelligence, with this ancestral terror that we hold, how can we let life happen without organizing it? Our mind works in an excessively moral way: we can hardly operate without our catalog of what is right and what is wrong.
Genre (gender), the prior definition of the kind of experience to be had, helps us decide whether we want to or not, prepares us if we do, drives us away if we don't - it gives us clarity of choice. We know, beforehand, what genres we are attracted to. I love horror, we say, like someone who claims to love raspberry jam —as if all raspberries tasted the same.
So far, we can say that the genre fulfills a decent and even honorable function. On a social level, it organizes us. In artistic creation, genre can also function as the structure with which the force of singularization dialogues and from which it is derived. The structure contains and at the same time makes differentiation possible. Up to a point where it goes from enabling to impeding. What is this limit? Genre also formats us, over-predisposes us, accommodates us in a somewhat prejudiced and, let's put it this way, anesthetizing perceptual mode.
How much do forms allow us and how much do they limit us?
If I go to see a butoh play, I expect tremors, squinting eyes, slowness, the cliché of what I already understood butoh to be. If I go to see a Scorsesse play, I want De Niro, guns and casinos. If I meet X, I expect to have more or less the same time as I already know I have when I meet X.
I live quite stuck in the need to define, at every moment, whether things are going right or wrong. Whether I like it or dislike it. If it nourishes me or takes away from me. Labels are double-edged weapons. Writing a manifesto allowed the Danish directors of 1995 to allow themselves (or to generate a social context of permission for them to allow themselves) to make those messy and beautiful films —perhaps beautiful because they are messy and messy because of the decision not to over-organize intensity.
Life is too intense and it terrifies us. We need to organize that terror. To understand the history of art, and the history of thought and culture, and social and political history, with nomenclatures and definitions, yes, of course it has its function and its richness. It organizes us to say that around 1500 something began in the West that came to be called the Renaissance, and that it had to do with a perceptive turn of the human being towards the centralization of the self as a privileged point of view —a privilege that will derive in the creation of the spectator of Hollywood mode cinema, which with that way of assembling the shots allows to see things from all sides, as never before. Thus, it organizes us to understand the baroque sensitivity and to call it baroque, a word for multiplicity and shadow.
But could it be that we get a little too comfy in our understandings?
I understand that Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski do not identify with that name that some invented for their early cinema of the first decade of the 2000s: "mumblecore". At the same time, I think the name served, or still serves, in some cases, as a container for a perceived different kind of experience. Even they claim that the label served to get their cinema seen more. By saying "mumblecore" you relax the expectation of being told a linear story with tension and only important action and dialogue —to say the least.
In that sense, we can celebrate that at least we have the labeling technology to open our minds/sensitivities to what we might not initially be willing to integrate as a possible aesthetic experience.
Even saying "we are going to see a film" prepares us physically, emotionally and mentally for the possible experience that we associate, by memory, by story, with watching a film. Could we sit to watch a film without accommodating ourselves in the perceptual context prescribed by the recipe of "watching a film"? What if at the beginning of a film there is a sign that says "this is not a film"?
Now, for example, what do you think you are reading? An essay? A manifesto? What would happen, for example, if now the line were to be
and the ideas
by this way
of distributing the words on the page?
It would be difficult
that the words
wouldn't come rushing in to rescue you from the discomfort produced by the need to know what's going on —if this was a prose essay!
Spoiler alert warned, what a surprise when Robert Rodriguez's already ancient "From Dusk Till Dawn" suddenly turns from a detective film to a vampire movie. If you had no idea, the surprise is shock. The shock is short-lived, because things stabilize easily: vampires are easy to understand, we know they need human blood and that they live at night, the sun, garlic and stakes in the chest. It's not that the film degenerates, it just changes genre. To sustain (if it is to sustain, because perhaps it is just the opposite: to dynamite images), to sustain, I mean, to allow the restless and delicious, vibrant, complex ambiguity of what we can call "life", does not seem so easy —not, at least, for the human mind, which wants, needs, it believes, to tattoo maps on the surface of its uncertainty.
Perhaps fiction is a context to explore the relationship between the certain and the uncertain, to rehearse possibilities regarding the use of labels, names, definitions, edges, shapes, maps. To love maps is to assume that they are maps, they are not the territory. It is not to stop using them, it is to understand that they are only tools.