Infotainment is no laughing matter

Pornography has special dangers in relation to British institutions I agree with feminists that pornography is a sinister form of power
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The Independent Online
Are we moving, in the last decade of the twentieth century, from infotainment towards pornotopia? The two neologisms in the question are of American origin. "Infotainment" is widely in use and refers to an important and disturbing contemporary phe nomenon: the blurring of the distinction between entertainment and information, fact and fantasy, in minds over-exposed to television. Pornotopia is the coinage of Steve Marcus in The Other Victorians (Bantam Books, 1967). Marcus wrote: "The effect of po rnography in this regard to achieve in consciousness the condition of the unconscious mind - a condition in which all things exist in a total, simultaneous present. Time, then, in pornotopia, is sexual time. Nature, in other words, has no separate existe nce in pornotopia; it is not external to us, or "out there". There is no "out there" in pornography.''

There is clearly much in common between infotainment and pornotopia. Both extend the empire of fantasy and numb the capacity to think. Minds accustomed to infotainment are likely to show little resistance to pornotopia. I suggest that the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article should be "yes".

This is quite a frightening thought. It suggests that the coming century may be a new Dark Age. The mind, in the senses known to our culture for generations, may be becoming an endangered species. The minds of most citizens may have been so boggled by televised varieties of instant gratification, including pornography, as to turn into mere sentient sponges, compulsively feeding on flickering images. And if so, how long is democracy likely to last? Could not an authoritarian regime, in full

control of those images and manipulating them to its purposes, readily secure the acquiesence of passive fantasising masses?

As one would expect, these tendencies have developed faster in the United States than on this side of the ocean, but they have also encountered more resistance. From the Seventies onwards, there has been a huge explosion in pornography in the United States. The US author Donald Alexander Downs, wrote in 1989, in The New Politics of Pornography: "The porn market, growing for over a hundred years, exploded in the 1970s, turning pornography into a multibillion-dollar industry. Advances in technology made printed porn easier and cheaper to produce and put new forms within the reach of virtually everyone - home videos, cable porn and telephone porn. While the 1970 US commission on obscenity could state `with complete confidence that an estimate of $2.5 billion sales grossly exaggerates the size of the "smut" industry in the United States...', this figure would be a clear understatement by 1980. This explosion also confounded the commission's prediction that increasing exposure to porn would eventuate in boredom and indifference."

Some of the video porn is very "hard" indeed. One item portrays sexual abuse of children, with their parents and guardians looking on. The fans, apparently, get an additional kick from contemplating the degradation of the parents and guardians. This is not just sexual indulgence, but also involves refinements of depravity never previously available to wide audiences. But the market is there. Margaret Thatcher's assumption that family values and market values are somehow the same has the charm of innocen ce about it.

The resistance to the porn explosion has also been increasing. Traditionally, such resistance was confined to the right in American politics, and mainly the religious right. But from the late Seventies, a new and more formidable focus of resistance beganto emerge: the feminist movement. Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon argued that, since pornography involves the sexual degradation of women, and therefore is an invasion of women's rights, it ought not to be protected by the First Amendment as a straightforward manifestation of freedom of expression.

The American feminist movement in general supports this argument and lobbies for it. So far, the feminists have failed to convince the Supreme Court, but they do have influence over the media. There are a lot of feminists over there, and they mostly fallinto the category of affluent consumers. The major television networks would not be likely to broadcast any matter that would give serious offence to feminists.

The porn explosion continues, but CBS and NBC try to keep their programmes clean. In doing so, of course, they have regard to the religious right as well as the feminists. The two groups are not formally allied, or even mutually sympathetic, but they ar e both anti-porn, for different reasons.

In Britain, of course, there is nothing resembling the American religious right, in strength of numbers or political clout. Nor do British feminists appear to be as numerous in proportion to the population, or as active, as their American sisters - at least so I would infer from an announcement made last month on behalf of Channel 4, and from the lack of any notable volume of protest against the policy announced. The news item I saw was headed "Night of erotica on Channel 4". This announced a forthcoming Saturday late-night series "devoted to erotica, the sex industry and the body trade around the world and exploring pornography, urban prostitution and the growth in adult entertainment" [sic].

The man who commissioned the series on Channel 4 - Stuart Cosgrove - showed himself aware of possible adverse feminist reaction, but disposed to ignore it. He is reported as saying that "the film-makers had no preconceived hang-ups about sexual representation. They wanted to make programmes that were forthright and honest rather than hide behind the sometimes confused curtains of political correctness."

I find it hard to imagine a similar announcement being made on behalf of American public service television, the nearest American equivalent to Channel 4. So the British may, after all, beat the Americans in the race to Pornotopia.

Both infotainment and pornography tend to weaken the fabric of democracy by boggling the minds of citizens. But pornography has special dangers in relation to British institutions. The soft porn of the tabloids, in relation to members of the royal family, has a pronounced tendency to delegitimise the monarchy itself.

It would not be the first time in history that something of the kind has happened. In the 1780s, on the eve of the French Revolution, Paris was flooded with pornography about the French royal family, especially the Queen. The phenomenon is explained in Robert Darnton's The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (shortly to be published by WW Norton).

The case of old French and present British royal families are widely different in strictly political terms, since the king of France was an executive ruler, misleadingly designated as "absolute". But in psychological terms, and in relation to the sacred dimension of all royalty, the two cases are closely similar. To strip and to pry are degrading processes. The dignitary so treated loses respect and legitimacy, and soon becomes an object of scorn.

This may well be the fate of the British monarchy during the first half of the next century, if present trends continue. And it is not as clear as some people in the Labour Party seem to assume that British democracy would long survive the collapse of the constitutional monarchy.

I think the feminists are right, in that pornography is about power more than about sex. And I also agree with feminists that it is a sinister form of power. It is sinister in relation to women, but not only in relation to women. The effects of the communications revolution of the late twentieth century - including the pornographic explosion and the rise of infotainment - are beginning to undermine not only democracy but our whole culture and civilisation.