“Pornography,” writes West, “is a play of illusions constantly struggling to transcend its irreality.” It is perhaps for this reason that the depiction of abuse is so popular among its users. To put it simply and crudely: A woman having an orgasm on-screen may or may not be faking it, but a woman being urinated on on-screen is, genuinely and verifiably, being urinated on. So the oft-repeated moral defense that such abuse isn’t “real” because it is staged is manifestly disingenuous; the things being depicted have, self-evidently, actually happened. West gives similarly short shrift to another common argument, that the actors involved give their consent: “It is fallacious to suppose we possess a single subjectivity and are incapable of forcing ourselves into situations contrary to our will.” If this feels a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut — casually panning out to an attack on freedom of contract, the entire basis of economic existence for the past three hundred years — it tells us something about why the debate around pornography is so compelling even to people who have no particular interest in the material: it contains, in concentrated form, many of the ethical dilemmas that underscore all our lives as workers and consumers.
West raises a more subtle and immediately pertinent point when he questions whether it is even possible to give informed, meaningful consent on behalf of one’s future self, when undertaking something one has never previously done, and which is likely to — indeed, appears designed to — cause psychological harm. If, as a society, we are sufficiently sophisticated about consent to understand that in certain circumstances it is vitiated — say, when a person is underage, or mentally infirm, or extremely intoxicated — then why can we not take proper account of the likelihood of psychological damage arising from certain forms of extreme ill-treatment? West also discusses the psychological phenomenon known as repetition compulsion, in which victims of abuse feel compelled to reenact a trauma. He speculates that a significant proportion of porn actresses may well suffer from this condition, in which case the profession would amount, in effect, to an industrial-scale abusive exploitation of a self-selecting group of vulnerable people.
West’s primary target is indeed an industry that is both exploitative and, in its fraudulent pretensions to moral propriety — its “cession of ethics to legalistic sophism” — borderline psychopathic. But a concern with the end user is never far from the surface; moving away, as it were, from the production side to the consumption side, the implications of such sadistic pastimes for gender relations at large are hugely significant. It is hard to quibble with West’s assertion that there is a direct link between the systematic subjection of an individual to humiliation or distress and that person’s “symbolic annihilation.” In this regard, it is worth noting that making computer-generated images of child abuse is, quite rightly, forbidden by law: because, even though there is no “victim” involved in their production, it is understood that the dissemination of such material is likely to fuel certain proclivities that will lead, in turn, to actual real-life abuse. That the same sophistication of insight is not extended to material that portrays the abuse of women — in a world rife with domestic violence — is an anomaly that warrants scrutiny.
These are, of course, well-rehearsed arguments. In common with many progressive critiques of the sexualization of contemporary culture, they betray a deep, and deeply problematic, ambivalence about the long-term moral legacy of what used to be called the permissive society. West’s critique invites a question — what exactly ought to be done? — which he does not burden himself with answering because, despite its polemical tone, this work is only a thoughtful meander through one man’s subjective take on a subject, and not a social policy paper. Its withering j’accuse against a particular kind of complacent, self-serving, and hypocritical pseudo-morality is really the limit of its ideological message. Though embellished by certain novelistic traits — in a number of autobiographical segments, West’s experiences and reflections are attributed to a third-person protagonist called “the narrator,” a playful nod to the “autofiction” that is much in vogue these days — The Aesthetics of Degradation is essentially a mini philosophical treatise on the contingent nature of freedom in late capitalist society, for which pornography is a cipher.
Most of the forgoing is covered in the first six of the book’s nine chapters. Thereafter, things take a turn for the obscure. Chapter seven is an essay on contemporary art, in which West bemoans the “claptrap” of the blurbs that accompany conceptual art installations, and observes that “the work of art itself is just a pretext,” a cipher for the currents of capital that are the true art of our time. There is a marked shift in tone in this segment, an injection of snark. At one point, West remarks that he would “be happy to see [artists] destitute and forced to exercise some menial profession,” before adding “I say this without any special ill will.” He goes on to disparage bourgeois attendance at art galleries as “a cryptolect signaling membership, real or aspired, to a given class defined in opposition to some vague notion of the vulgus,” and its counterpart in the “ritualized symbolic penitence” exemplified by attendance at Holocaust exhibitions and other sites of secular pilgrimage. This is all reasonably diverting and entertaining, but, except insofar as it falls within a broad critique of the hypocrisy of bien pensant opinion, it feels like rather too long and self-indulgent a digression. This, I suppose, is the prerogative afforded by framing the work in an ostensibly novelistic format: the author isn’t bound by the ordinary rules of etiquette governing coherence in works of nonfiction. He is free, not only to lose the thread if he so desires, but also to dabble in perplexingly antiquated turns of phrase — say, beginning a sentence with “I do not mind saying that …,” or indicting his times as “this exceptionally vulgar and unsightly age” — for the sheer whimsical hell of it.
The Aesthetics of Degradation is an idiosyncratic work, but its eccentricities do not significantly detract from its readability. One inevitably finds oneself wondering if West is holding something back in terms of his reasons for writing the book: a number of personal reminiscences, such as a recollection of feeling physically ill after seeing a gaping on-screen anus, have a certain melancholy candor, but the matter of the author’s own relationships with pornography and sexuality are kept, for the most part, tantalizingly off-stage. This is probably for the best, though: it would have meant a very different sort of book, and likely a less interesting one. What we have instead is a brief, punchy provocation, informed by a strong sense of human compassion — an incitement to readers to think deeply and honestly about a question of profound social importance.
Houman Barekat is a writer and critic based in London, and founding editor of Review 31.