Theology and the Pornographic Imagination A Metaphysical Critique



Published Nov 3, 2022
Khegan Delport


A significant portion of the disseminated criticism of pornographic production appears to be polarized on the ethical dimensions of such critique. While not negating this approach, this essay aims to delineate some ontological tendencies of the pornographic imagination and to offer a critique from the vantage of a theological metaphysic. Hereby a moral reading is not negated by supplemented by a metaphysical one. Beginning with a critical examination of one of the most influential essays on the topic, namely Susan Sontag’s ‘The Pornographic Imagination,’ I suggest that the aesthetic vision of pornography is predicated on a denial of difference, and finally anticipates no gratuitous reciprocity but rather a return of the same, and (in agreement with Georges Bataille) that the ultimate drift of pornographic excessiveness is towards the solipsism of death. Within this totalized imagination, its consumption fabricates a certain affective relation to material bodies that implies a radical narrowing of vision and sensory possibility. This is manifested at several levels, including both form and content, from its very medium to its deployment of language. It is further put forward that this is not necessarily a unique phenomenon but is the by-product of certain tendencies within modernist technology and capitalist production. Following Walker Percy, Catherine Pickstock, and Douglas Stewart, amongst others, I argue that it is difficult to understand the advent of pornography without a simultaneous description of the modernist cartography of being and its regime of representation. This concerns the way bodies are spatialized and mechanized into a manageable plane of immanence susceptible to modernist ideals of panoptic observation, technological “standing reserve” (to echo Heidegger), within a priority of virtualism and voluntarism. This part of the argumentation should not be read as an anti-modernist screed, but rather as a contextualization and genealogical rendering of pornographic imagination as simply one form that visual and literary modernism has taken. At the end of the essay, an alternative metaphysic of desire is put forward, with the assistance of Rowan Williams; following his general exposition, it is argued that a broadly Augustinian and Patristic vision of Trinitarian desire and liturgical incorporation provides a salient avenue for the affective and ontological repair of the self.

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Pornography, Metaphysics, Modernism, Susan Sontag, Rowan Williams, Imagination