On and off the page
There are writers and artists who dislike themselves – who attempt through their work to unearth, refine and then extrude something better than they are, something detached, pure and free-standing. I was put in mind of this recently while reading Ray Monk’s painful biography of Wittgenstein, who succeeded in creating a body of philosophical work so much finer and nobler than himself that for someone who has developed a strong attachment to the work, the contrast is very disturbing. Another common element of this syndrome is an aversion to the present and a desire to create something whose timelessness will take one out of the impure and anxious clutter of temporal life, something through which one can exist by proxy outside of time.
Vol. 13 No. 19 · 10 October 1991
It’s a minor point, but I must dissent from Thomas Nagel’s stern pronouncement that the banning of pornography would cause infringements of ‘negative liberty’ (absence of restrictions) which take precedence over the ‘positive liberty’ (empowerment) which it might promote (LRB, 25 July). My problem is that I don’ t share Nagel’s ready confidence in the distinction between positive and negative liberties. In my experience, ‘freedom to’ (e.g. to go to work in jeans) is hard to disentangle from ‘freedom from’ (e.g. from the office dress code). Arguably, our society’s pornographic image-culture infringes a basic negative freedom: freedom from degrading representations of oneself and one’s group. (Not that censorship is the answer: apart from anything else, the problem runs rather deeper than top-shelf pornography, as a cursory look at the newsagent’s other shelves will demonstrate.)
In any case, it is not clear precisely which negative freedom Nagel is defending here. Freedom of speech? If so it’s a freedom mainly enjoyed by a few large businesses, and the ‘speech’ in question is repetitious to say the least. It seems more apposite to describe the freedom to traffic in images of naked women as the classic capitalist freedom to sell whatever will sell. Viewed in this light, what Nagel is really doing is privileging economic over civil liberties: a legitimate position, but one which should be argued as such.
Vol. 13 No. 20 · 24 October 1991
It is naive to say as Phil Edwards does (Letters, 10 October) that the debate about pornography is not very precisely one of censorship: we have more censorship than almost any other society in Western Europe (and it would be hard to maintain that we have greater sexual equality).
In the past few months, under the current version of the Obscene Publications Act, we have seen the failed prosecution in a London court of Modern Primitives, an issue of the American arts magazine Re-Search which dealt with elective cosmetic piercing and scarification, and the forfeiture and threatened destruction of Lord Horror, a novel published by Savoy Books of Manchester which portrays anti-semitism and misogyny through an unreliable and hateful narrator, and rewrites Chief Constable Anderton’s anti-gay remarks as an anti-semitic speech. One need not particularly wish to read either of these books to find their prosecution a distressing infringement of freedom of speech.
There is an assumption at large that legislation which concentrated on sexist commercial erotica would leave all other material alone. It is practically impossible to see how this can be maintained; the definition of pornography included in the draft Bill, proposed in the last Parliament by Dawn Primarolo, on the Location of Pornographic Materials, might very well be held to include both the above cases, as well as Ulysses and Madonna’s videos. A Bill which relies on Trading Standards Officers to decide the interpretation of a loose definition is a blunt instrument. And, indeed, even among the Left and feminists, let alone among the right-wing and Christian advocates of censorship, there is little agreement about what should and should not be prosecuted.
Approached during the Modern Primitives trial, the Campaign against Pornography made it clear that they were not interested in abuses of current law – they regard all sexual representation in a sexist society as likely to be pornographic. Various anti-pornography feminists, from Andrea Dworkin on down, have made it clear that gay men, and lesbians, who look at their erotic images of choice are to be regarded as participating in the male freedom to objectify which is a crucial part of sexism: the logic of this position has been to organise the banning from ‘alternative’ bookshops of, for example, Love Bites, a collection of work by the lesbian photographer Della Grace. It is not logical to oppose Clause 28 one year and support censorship the next.
Some argue that freedom to avoid negative images of women is more important than artistic freedom. But anti-pornography legislation would only pass as part of political deals that would suppress positive sexual images: one of the most distressing sights of recent years has been that of anti-pornography feminists trying to pretend to themselves that the homophobia and anti-abortion position of their Christian allies were not important. I do not relish the obligation to defend, along with basic liberties of speech, artistic integrity and sexual freedom, the Sunday Sport: but these are real freedoms and as such indivisible. The argument that freedoms abused by the rich or wicked are not freedoms at all is not one which most of us accept in respect of the right to a jury trial or the right to silence: why then accept it over freedom of speech?