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Conforming To An Idea

I had started writing something about this (to me) fascinating (and extremely graphic) n+1 piece [1] 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 [2] 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 [3], 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 [4] 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 [5] 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 [6]. 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.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Conforming To An Idea"

#1 Comment By Johnny Silence On May 13, 2013 @ 5:52 pm

Hi, Noah. I’m a big fan of your writing, but this piece left me confused. I’m not certain what the thesis here is. Is the thesis that the increased role of mediated experience in our lives estranges us from ourselves, so that we think of ourselves as if watching from outside as we attempt to conform to externally imposed narratives? Or is the thesis that one ought not conform oneself to an idea? Because here, I’m not sure what the “self” would be except another idea to conform to. “Am I being my authentic self?” seems to be as potentially constraining story-idea to live by as any other, and as potentially alienating from the life lived.

#2 Comment By Noah Millman On May 13, 2013 @ 7:31 pm


Not sure how I feel about the formulation, “am I being my authentic self?” Depending on what you mean by “authentic” and “self” I could agree that this is extremely important or I could disagree rather strongly.

I don’t think a “story” is at all the same thing as an “idea” – so I’m not sure what a “story-idea” means. I am very partial to narrative approaches to psychology – to thinking of one’s life as an unfolding story – but I think that metaphor resists approaches to life that are rule-based, that start from outside, with some pre-conceived notion, and try to live by it.

My point about mediated experience is that it isn’t authentically social. Watching porn is fundamentally different from having sex because there’s nobody else in the room with you – it’s mediated. But more than that, porn is designed not to draw you in to a world, but to manipulate you to achieve a physical response. This is a characteristic not only of porn but of advertising, of propaganda, of a lot of mainstream entertainment – it’s a quality common to all kinds of bad art.

To the extent that I have an argument, it’s that, because of social and technological changes, it is more important than ever to have a pretty thoroughly grounded sense of self. But I’m skeptical that creating highly conformist communities of resistance is an effective way to achieve that; I rather suspect what you get that way are manifestations of an anxiety about a lack of such grounding.

So I don’t have a solution to any problem here, but I do kind of have an approach. Which seems to work for me, but maybe not for everyone.

#3 Comment By Patrick Harris On May 13, 2013 @ 8:01 pm

I must confess I’m at a loss as to how you might define “pretty civilized” behavior.

#4 Comment By Matt in TX On May 13, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

This piece of yours is really awful. Alan Jacobs’ response to it is a good start. Mr. Dreher dances around a lot of what’s actually in the article, so maybe you feel justified in doing so, too, but come on. You could start by acknowledging the fact that anal fisting is an extremely dangerous activity and there is no way to make it safe. I know, I know — how bourgeois, to worry about the actual physical health of the people involved in this kind of stuff. The mindset of the people being described in the article is the same as the mindset of those who (admittedly unwillingly) launched the AIDS epidemic, which killed thousands of San Franciscans. The fact that this mindset hasn’t gone away (and check the current HIV statistics if you doubt this; we’re still infecting one another in huge numbers, we just have drugs to keep most of us from dying quite so spectacularly) should be a source of tremendous sadness, not an opportunity for you to wax philosophic about “knowing oneself.” How about staying alive and healthy? Yeah, I know, but the ennui…

What really leaps out from your essay is the claim that there are these “more or less happy freaks,” your completely unsupported assertion that happiness is to be found in these orgies just as much as it is anywhere else. Well, look at Alan Jacobs’ response to your post. The author of piece in n+ 1 isn’t really looking at the people around her — she quickly turns away from the homeless denizens of the Tenderloin, for example, to gaze longingly at the Google employees, absorbing every detail. If you don’t think there are real and serious consequences to the kind of stuff in this article, it’s probably because you know money, you’re used to being around money, you see the world through a heavy glaze of money. You used to work in finance, after all. You see one tiny sliver of the world, a sliver that can afford to dabble in self-destruction, because the money protects them, and you, from any real harm. Remember what Nick Carraway said about Tom and Daisy? “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” That is what rich people do — it’s what rich people did back in the 20s, and it’s what the rich of San Francisco do now, and you don’t want to see it, so you don’t see it.

#5 Comment By Kate Marie On May 13, 2013 @ 10:43 pm

Yes, Noah, I’m a fan, but I have to agree with Matt in TX and Alan Jabobs on this. But maybe I’m misunderstanding you, so a few questions: Are you claiming that any “unmediated” experience in which human beings behave as social animals (that is, in some sort of activity with other human beings) is not “suspect” and cannot be alienating in the same way pornography is? Isn’t almost all human interaction mediated by language? Would it matter to you whether the actions being engaged in were actions you considered immoral — say, someone consenting to be stabbed to death in front of an audience? Would that be “pretty civilized,” provided that the same careful protocol was followed?

#6 Comment By Noah Millman On May 13, 2013 @ 11:30 pm

When Alan Jacobs takes me to the woodshed, I suspect I belong there. I posted a follow-up, partly clarifying what I’m trying to say. But perhaps I don’t know what I’m trying to say.

But a couple of things:

First, yeah, I know money. And I’ve smashed up a thing or two. And I responded by reexamining the principles by which I was living to see if I could not smash things up again. I’m on a kind of relentless “know thyself” kick for a reason – because carrying around a rule book to keep me from smashing anything really didn’t work.

Second, no, I don’t think an “unmediated” experience can’t be alienating. You can have sex with a prostitute and both of you can be completely alienated. But you can also have sex with your wife and be completely alienated. And you can have sex with a prostitute and you can both be emotionally present. I do suspect that it is very difficult to work as a prostitute and make a habit of being emotionally present. When I’m in a very Todd Solondz mood, I suspect it’s very hard to make a habit of being emotionally present for everyone, full stop.

My argument was that porn paradigmatically aims to create a state of alienation, and that the experience of being in the room, participating, would necessarily be different from the experience of watching a video thereof – radically different. That doesn’t mean I’d want to be there – honestly, I don’t think I could stand it, and I don’t actually want to find out if I could or not.

As for a ritual stabbing-to-death: so, what we’re talking about here is a scenario where somebody wants to commit suicide and he’s abetted by an audience member. I’m pretty sure that’s murder. Are you asking whether we should legalize assisted suicide? Or whether, if we posit a world in which assisted suicide is widely accepted, it would be civilized or uncivilized to do it on-stage, with audience participation? Meanwhile, a variety of American states kill people, in a ritualized manner, in front of an audience (generally a mix of official personnel, media, and relatives of the murder victims). The rituals are precisely what tell us that we are still civilized. Of course, we may be kidding ourselves.

#7 Comment By Johnny Silence On May 14, 2013 @ 1:20 am

Thanks for your response, Noah. It’s much appreciated, but I’m still not clear on just what is going on here. On the one hand, I agree with Alan Jacobs’ critique of this piece, but on the other I think you concede too much to his critique in your followup post. Apologies in advance for my prolixity.

I think that my desire to push back against you in these two posts is rooted in your argument that “it is more important than ever to have a pretty thoroughly grounded sense of self.” Now, as it happens, this is a claim with which I wholly agree. The problem for me is that I can’t see any way to think of this self which is not grounded in what I described, in an admittedly infelicitous turn of phrase, as a “story-idea.” Let me try to explain why I still think this is the right, if unbeautiful, phrasing.

My reason for using this clunky hyphenate is that I’m responding to your point about conforming to an idea. As I see it, any idea with which the individual tries to conform must necessarily be at the same time a story: Rod’s religious development isn’t about “God” or “salvation” “order” or “transcendence,” even though it is in part about each of these things. Likewise, Princes Donna’s sexual-ethical position is not just about “pleasure” or “consent” or “transgression,” full stop. Rather, these terms are given content and meaning by being embedded in stories and, as you say of Rod, traditions. Rod’s journey is one that takes place within the ideational constellations of particular veins of institutionalized Christianity, while Princess Donna exists in a counter-tradition that exists in opposition to the religious-moral story in which Rod lives.

What I’m getting at is, the ideas with which Rod and Donna work to conform their lives only make sense within stories. This is important because (it seems to me) any idea with which we try to conform our lives must be embedded in a story. Let’s say I live for liberty. What’s the content of the word? Is it in Isaiah Berlin’s terms a positive or negative liberty, or some admixture? Who are my exemplars? Or, say I live for Christianity. Do I adhere to the Church Fathers, to Vatican II, to Billy Graham, or what? These ideas are only intelligible within stories. I think that the idea of the self, as described in this post and the following, is embedded in the story of existentialist freedom. That’s a story with which I have a great deal of sympathy, but it’s still a story, and still an idea with which one has to try to conform one’s life. In the end, I suppose that I don’t see how you get to an intelligible human existence without trying to conform your life to one story-idea or another.

Last, and only tangentially related, I think that Alan Jacobs is wrong to identify degradation as the opposite of civilization. I can’t describe the chattel marriage of pre-20th century Western society as anything other than degrading to women, but I also can’t describe it (especially in the 18th and 19th centuries) as anything other than civilized. It’s just that the story we live has changed. I live in a story-idea in which my wife and are are equals. I know that this is a new story, but it doesn’t make it any less true, or me any less civilized.

#8 Comment By Kate Marie On May 14, 2013 @ 1:28 am

As for a ritual stabbing-to-death: so, what we’re talking about here is a scenario where somebody wants to commit suicide and he’s abetted by an audience member. I’m pretty sure that’s murder.

Well, yeah, me, too.

Are you asking whether we should legalize assisted suicide?

Or whether, if we posit a world in which assisted suicide is widely accepted, it would be civilized or uncivilized to do it on-stage, with audience participation?

Well, not exactly. I suppose my point may be trivial, but it seems to me that your finding the activities described in Witt’s article “pretty civilized” is premised on a certain moral neutrality; please correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t seem to have an opinion about the morality of the degradation that is being “performed,” so long as consent is carefully ascertained. What I’m trying to get at is whether you would feel the same way about it (“pretty civilized”) if the actions being performed were, in your opinion, deeply immoral (without violating the principle of consent).

#9 Comment By Kate Marie On May 14, 2013 @ 1:29 am

I messed up the italics on my previous comment. Sorry.

#10 Comment By Anderson On May 14, 2013 @ 11:10 am

I’m not sure what I think about the n + 1 piece, but I definitely appreciate Noah’s being candid and trying to think about pornography.

Myself, I was struck by this — “But more than that, porn is designed not to draw you in to a world, but to manipulate you to achieve a physical response”

— because I had been pondering the particularly inane, yet catchy, dance-pop tune* I was playing over & over last night. I was feeling down, and cheering myself up. I’m not sure that my emotional response to the song was any more valid aesthetically than an orgasm via pornography would have been.

Don’t have time to look at it right now, but Nietzsche’s criticisms of Wagner (and Wagnerians) might be relevant not only to my pop song, but to porn, too.

*If you must know: “I Love It,” Icona Pop. It is particularly vile that I first heard the song on a TV commercial.