Custom dictates that in December one is to recommend books that have some, even oblique, connection to this festive period. This may be something of the joy of love and friendship or perhaps something to help with the kind of melancholic reflection common to the event that marks the end of another calendar year. The Aesthetics of Degradation by Adrian Nathan West, however, is something far darker and affecting, but I read it in November so here we are…
The Aesthetics of Degradation is not an easy or comfortable read, though it is an engrossing and fascinating one. The book is an experiential exploration of the ethics surrounding the consumption of violent pornography, at once a first-person phenomenology, a media analysis, an ethical meditation and a compelling polemic. To say that the book is anti-pornography would be similar to saying the work of Karl Marx is anti-factory, when really there is far more at stake. West is at once specific without being myopic. His real target is a culture that has manufactured the desire to dominate and degrade others. In particular, others who, due to a variety of social and psychological factors, are more vulnerable.
The key to this work not merely being a puritanical screed is the way in which West manipulates form and voice in such a way as to criticise behaviour normalised by ubiquity, while simultaneously implicating himself. In the following long quotation, West’s narrator addresses himself as such, in a manoeuvre that is is at once distancing and confessional and is thus able to offer an immanent social critique from acts of intimate violence.
What is the sense, the narrator writes, of slapping a person and calling her a whore and not meaning it? It is as though male sexuality has come to demand the same exemption from moral scrutiny presently accorded to businesses and political institutions that conceal their turpitude behind imperatives to profit making or budget austerity. In our hearts, we know it is unconscionable to slap a person we love, to call her a whore and to make her cry, but we are no longer equal to the moral duty to love; for decades entire industries have labored to multiply our cravings and subvert our resistance, and now, the ethical will, the bulwark against compulsion, has grown withered. We have dismantled and defanged every religion, creed and ideology that might have educated us in the harm of self-indulgence, and we have come to see, by the spectacularization of wealth and luxury and the repulsive character to whom so much of it accrues, that we deserve all we have seen, and that any deprivation entitles us to outrage. The specious declaration, ‘I am doing this but I don’t mean it’, is only permissible because, for both perpetrator and victim, the psychological consequences of acceding to mendacity are less severe than those of examining the circumstances that have led so many men to malignancy to tenderness, contempt to regard, and so many women to allow such men to purchase their submission with the most meager simulacra of caring. (52)
The subtle switch in the sentences from the universal (a person) to the gendered pronoun (her) is illustrative of the ethical deficit that conversation on the nature of pornography often run up. This is a field of human suffering, and the politics of it are inexorably tied to patriarchy and misogyny. To focus on one issue and neglect the other is to cede ground to positions supported by wilful ignorance.
With this book, West has made an intervention into the debates surrounding pornographic media that can cut through the platitudes of many of the loudest voices…
In copying out this passage, I was transported back to the oppressive yet compelling reading experience of the night I lost sleep to finishing the book. While there are moralistic terms here, West uses them advisedly. “Heart” here is a synecdoche for the normative structures we depend upon for our survival and by which we assert our identities and right to participate in society. The violation of these structures is in relation to another set of structures that have lead so many of us, in the words of Foucault, ‘to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us’.
One such structure is the bedrock principle of liberal democracy; that we are distinct individuals of fixed and unchangeable identity. However, as West shows in his discussion of trauma and consent, such a notion is used to obfuscate the ethical responsibility of the action we participate in or help to perpetuate. In short, the bear minimum of discursively defined consent is insufficient when what is agreed to can produce the kinds of trauma that can transform an individual. However, the nuances of this sophisticated argument are difficult to adequately illustrate here.
With this book, West has made an intervention into the debates surrounding pornographic media that can cut through the platitudes of many of the loudest voices in the debate and reminds us that this is at once a wide-ranging systemic issue and also an intimate immediate experience. To neglect either element is to stifle the discussion. If I was to suggest a single critique, it would be that the books elegancy hangs upon the fact that it is unrelentingly bleak. Thus, West does not offer any hope of a kind of media practice that explores and develop desire and sexuality in ways that are not degrading and damaging. That said, that subject perhaps has enough cheerleading and what is required now, from the white male constituency, is a sobering note to remind us what is at stake while we are all getting it wrong.