I was fascinated to read Foucault’s account of the Greek attitude towards sex in the second volume of his History of Sexuality. Greek philosophy was concerned with the issue of pleasure and sexual activity, but in a very different manner than the medieval Christian culture that followed it. As Foucault recounts, the Greeks were concerned not with particular sexual acts or particular partners (genders, etc…), and whether acts were right or wrong, but instead with amount, timing, and agency. There was a particular emphasis on being able to enjoy ones pleasures while maintaining a measure of self-control and deliberation in doing so.
I can only imagine that this Greek critique, if faced with pornography would seek a kind of orthopedics of pornography, rather than side moralistically on the territory as a whole. How does one enjoy something like pornography well? When does it become a nuisance and intrude on ones other attitudes and experiences? How do we assess the qualities of porn? etc…
The Christian attitude that followed certainly evacuated the middle ground of moderation in the discussion of pleasure, repeating in every kind of enjoyment the fall from Eden into evil and impurity. This has historically polarized discussions on subjects such as sexuality and we are left with the very Modern counterpart to this attitude in the apparent plague of addiction. The question is no longer about how we can learn to moderate our relationship with pleasure in a sustainable way, but instead a question of whether each individual pleasure has the substantial capacity to thrust us into the bonds of compulsion; whether it is addictive.
The 20th century’s preoccupation with the medicalization of addiction, a clear extension of the trends of medicalizations and institutionalizations Foucault discusses throughout his work, reduces the popular discussion on topics such as pornography to one about porn addiction, and might escape this trope only to revert a couple centuries to a discussion about sexual morality.
Consequently, most people either sit in a space of disavowal about things like pornography, or plummet into passing a grand verdict on its existence. I think, particularly in the Christian culture of the US, there are a lot of charged syllogisms in the ether of the culture that condemns what might be a discussion about pornography qua labor, quality, use, frequency, context, etc… to getting sucked into conclusions people are all to primed to jump to in a moment of hesitancy about something they feel guilt or shame about.