I had started writing something about this (to me) fascinating (and extremely graphic) n+1 piece about San Francisco, extreme pornography, the wealthy (in monetary and information markets terms) world of Google, and a whole bunch else. But then Rod Dreher beat me to the punch again.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I came away from reading the piece with a very different reaction from Dreher’s. Dreher summarizes the moral of the piece as follows: “Unlimited money + unlimited freedom = Hell — created not by God, but by humans.” But it seems to me that that’s a moral he could have written without ever reading the piece. What I don’t know, from reading his commentary on the piece, is how the experience of reading it changed him.

Because it’s quite an intimate piece. Emily Witt isn’t a detached observer. She doesn’t just describe what she saw (though she does that, very well), but what she experienced, and how it made her reflect on other aspects of her experience – and not only her sexual experience. In that important sense, it isn’t a pornographic piece. It isn’t designed to provoke a reaction – whether of sexual excitement or, as in Dreher’s case, righteous anger. It’s designed to bring us into her experience, and reflect on it with her.

The moral she draws, it seems to me, is much subtler, and more interesting:

It’s tempting to think that life before internet porn was less complicated. There are sexual acts in porn that it would not occur to many people to attempt. We have more expectations now about what kind of sex to have, and how many people should be involved, and what to say, and what our bodies should look like, than we might have at a time when less imagery of sex was available to us. But if the panoply of opportunity depicted in porn seems exaggerated, the possibilities are no less vast outside the internet. The only sexual expectation left to conform to is that love will guide us toward the life we want to live.

What if love fails us? Sexual freedom has now extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did. I have not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with no possibilities except total sexual freedom, I was unhappy. I understood that the San Franciscans’ focus on intention—the pornographers were there by choice—marked the difference between my nihilism and their utopianism. When your life does not conform to an idea, and this failure makes you feel bad, throwing away the idea can make you feel better.

Emphasis mine. I’ve read Dreher’s wonderful and moving book, so I know he knows something about being unable to conform to an idea, and how bad that failure can make you feel. He also knows something about adopting a new idea as an alternative basis to conform to, and how bad it makes you feel when you are failed again by that idea. The problem just might lie in trying to conform your life to an idea, whether that idea is one of life as a relentless experimental journey or of living according to the dictates of an authoritative tradition. And, frankly, I have a hard time believing he really feels that he, personally, suffered from too much freedom to be who he really is.

And yet, he had a visceral reaction to a bunch of freaky Friscans flying their freak flag. Why? What’s his stake?

The answer, I think, lies in the earlier portions of Witt’s two paragraph peroration. The truly suspect position is not that of participant in this kind of event – indeed, if you read Witt’s essay, you’ll see that the participants, including those in the audience, all appear to be behaving in pretty civilized ways. The suspect position is our position, viewing safely from a distance, watching the pornographic video whose existence of makes this activity financially possible.

What’s our stake? The mere existence of these objects for consumption forces us to react – to affirm or oppose, accept or deny, look towards or look away. Of course, that’s the nature of community, and human beings are social animals – we don’t really exist, as humans, outside of a community. So it’s hard to object simply on the grounds that we don’t want to have to deal with what we don’t want to have to deal with. But we do not exist in communion with people we watch. There’s a one-way mirror in between us and them.

This is true of any mediated experience. When it aspires to art, mediated work takes us into its world. We don’t consume it; it consumes us, and after the fact we can reflect on an experience we’ve had, in a kind of fantasy. That’s what losing it at the movies is all about. Pornography goes the other direction, away from art. It is designed to move us to action – not to invite us into an experience, but to cause us to do. That’s why I talk about jihadi websites as being essentially pornographic – their purpose is to incite violence, just as the purpose of pornography is to incite sexual release.

The people attending (and, at the margins, participating in) Kink’s extreme pornographic shoot are, in a sense, participating in a much more extreme version of the kind of immersive theatre that I really appreciate. Everyone there was implicated by his or her presence. And you can see the effect of that presence in the tender details that abound in Witt’s description of the event. The participants could not deny that they were present, could not give vent to actual sociopathy because they were in a social space, with other human beings. None of that is part of the porn-viewer’s experience. The porn viewer is “free” of what makes him most essentially human – his communion with other human beings. And porn – inasmuch as it is porn (because nothing in life is all one thing or another) – is designed to exacerbate and deepen that isolation. Which in turn feeds the demand for more of the same mediated “experience.”

Lurking behind Emily Witt’s complaint that there is nothing “left” to conform to but that love will be her guide to happiness is a kind of status competition – am I living enough of a life, a life I can brag about. I am very, very familiar with that kind of status anxiety, and like pretty much all other forms of status anxiety – about wealth, or social position, or, for that matter, religiosity (pay a visit to Borough Park some time to see that one in action) – it’s toxic. And when she talks about porn, what she notes is the same dynamic – a kind of status anxiety triggered by the knowledge that someone out there is living a more exotic sexual life. But why surrender to that anxiety? Why even take it as a given?

When Witt says that love “failed” her, because she didn’t ultimately learn what she desired, I thought to myself: were you really looking for that? That is to say, were you really trying to find out what mattered to you? How you wanted to live? Or were you nagging yourself with the question: shouldn’t I want something different? And if so, why? Are we really prepared to blame pornography for a failure to know ourselves? Who is responsible for consuming whom?

The desire to conform to social expectations is built pretty deeply into human nature, because we are social animals, and no doubt wouldn’t function well as armed groups without a strong instinct to fit in. But in the internet age, that desire is dangerous, and needs to be interrogated. Now, not being ourselves, not knowing ourselves well enough to be ourselves, is dangerous. It’s not just that there is a massive media edifice out there, of which pornography is only a part, determined to convince us that we are not happy being ourselves, and showing us alternative selves that, if we only did what that edifice wants, we could become, and thus be happier. It’s that all the more or less happy freaks now have their own corners of the edifice, where they can replicate the same alienating dynamic. And as more and more of our waking hours are consumed by mediated experience, more of our psyche is subjected to this alienating dynamic. Even if Princess Donna says, as I suspect she would, that what she is doing is so much more authentic, ethical, and artistic than what porn was, say, thirty years ago, her industry’s mind-share is so much larger than it was then that the ways in which it remains alienating matter more.

Those who have made the most of freedom for themselves may find themselves in the business of cage-construction. Because it’s the only way left to make a living.

UPDATE: I should be clear that the above reflects my reactions to the article, not to participating in the kind of extreme sexual “event” described, which is nothing I’ve ever done, nor plan to do. It’s possible that my reaction to actually being there would be wildly divergent from what Ms. Witt experienced. But I guess that’s part of my point: were I to put myself in that position, which I don’t plan to do, I couldn’t avoid having a direct, unmediated experience. Watching a video, or reading Ms. Witt’s article, isn’t at all the same thing, and though Ms. Witt’s article was, to my mind, not essentially pornographic, that’s because it allowed me to enter into the experience of Ms. Witt’s mind, not because it allowed me to enter the experience of being in that San Francisco dungeon with her.

I am planning to visit San Francisco next month, though. I’ll let you know whether I see any brimstone falling from the sky.