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Testing elephants.

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it—

Justice Potter Stewart

A solid essay from David Campbell on the prickly troubles baked into the term “disaster porn” (or “development porn” or “poverty porn” or “ruin porn” or “war porn” or “famine porn” or hell just plain “porn”) when used to refer to depictions or representations of atrocity and suffering:

[Carolyn] Dean calls “porn” a promiscuous term, and when we consider the wide range of conditions it attaches itself to, this pun is more than justified. As a signifier of responses to bodily suffering, “pornography” has come to mean the violation of dignity, cultural degradation, taking things out of context, exploitation, objectification, putting misery and horror on display, the encouragement of voyeurism, the construction of desire, unacceptable sexuality, moral and political perversion, and a fair number more.

Furthermore, this litany of possible conditions named by “pornography” is replete with contradictory relations between the elements. Excesses mark some of the conditions while others involve shortages. Critics, Dean argues, are also confused about whether “pornography” is the cause or effect of these conditions.

The upshot is that a term with a complex history, a licentious character and an uncertain mode of operation fails to offer an argument or a framework for understanding the work images do. It is at one and the same time too broad and too empty, applied to so much yet explaining so little. As a result, Dean concludes that “pornography”

functions primarily as an aesthetic or moral judgement that precludes an investigation of traumatic response and arguably diverts us from the more explicitly posed question: how to forge a critical use of empathy? (emphasis added)

That’s the trouble with “porn” as a critical term: it’s been pwned by the pejorative.

For some reason the same day I got pointed at Campbell’s piece I thought of “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” for the first time in years.

Bruce Cockburn wrote the song in 1984, shaken by a visit to a Guatemalan refugee camp; apparently, it was his first explicitly political single. —A helicopter flies overhead, everyone scatters, and he wishes he had a rocket launcher: “I’d make somebody pay,” he sings, and then “I would retaliate,” and then, “I would not hesitate,” and finally, “Some sonofabitch would die.”

Canadian radio apparently used to fade out just before that last line.

Anyway, I’d never seen the video before:

And while I’d never call it pornography, and I don’t for a moment think it in any way creates an incurable distance between subject and viewer or leads to compassion fatigue nor do I see it at all as a threat to empathy or as something to dull our moral senses nonetheless: there is something unpleasant going on in that video and what it’s doing, what it did.

Disaster tourism, maybe? Atrocity holiday? —Oh to his credit Cockburn himself insists the song is “not a call to arms. This is, this is a cry…” And the video does indeed highlight—well. His impotence? His frustration? His embarrassment? As it keeps cutting back to him, singing with a vaguely pained expression in those theatrically smoking ruins. Goddamn I wish I could do something. Man if I had a rocket launcher. What fury I would wreak to help you all. Would that I could.

And I just keep thinking of what it was the Editors said: oh but you paid your taxes. Would that you had not. —Oh but Mr. Cockburn’s a Canadian. And that’s an American-made helicopter in that opening lyric, isn’t it.

If I had to functionally describe pornography, this elephant in the rhetoric? —Well. I’d always thought I’d copped it from Kim Stanley Robinson, but damned if I can find the passage in Gold Coast where I thought he’d laid it out. But: any work that stimulates an appetite without directly satisfying it, that tacitly but openly acknowledges that’s just what it has set out to do, that fulfills an agreement between artist and audience to appeal to this metaneed, to satisfy the need to need to be satisfied. And there’s achingly gorgeous effects to be wrought with this stuff and sublimities galore, and dizzying pushme-pullyou games of surrogacies and vicarosities to be played, and squinting at the elephant this way lets us get at some of them while dodging the worst of the pejorations: we can speak of food porn, and designer porn, and book porn, and furniture porn, and we all know what it means; we’ve seen it. —Catalogs and lifestyle magazines: some of the most pornographic work we make.

In that sense? Then maybe? This commercial for a pop song skirts that border of the pornographic: a thirst for justice, an appetite for outrage stoked but explicitly, openly left unsated. —Oh but then we see the problem’s not the numbing, not at all: it’s the transference, the metaneed, the outrage pellet, the thing called up and bodied forth only to satisfy something else entirely, something inevitably smaller. The pornography of politics, the smut of Twitter revolutions, the whoredoms of Facebook petitions—

Good Lord. The trouble with the elephant isn’t that it’s hard to describe. It’s that when it gets up a head of steam it tramples everything in its path.

Cockburn, who has made 30 albums and has had countless hits, visited another war zone this week: Afghanistan. And the conflict involves a member of his own family. His brother, Capt. John Cockburn, is a doctor serving with the Canadian Forces at Kandahar Airfield.

[…]

Cockburn drew wild applause when he sang “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” which prompted the commander of Task Force Kandahar, Gen. Jonathan Vance, to temporarily present him with a rocket launcher.

“I was kind of hoping he would let me keep it. Can you see Canada Customs? I don’t think so,” Cockburn said, laughing.

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