Mediations in Mediations: Escaping the Immediacy of the Pornographic

Over the last few days, I have had the privilege of discovering Andrew Gregory’s recent album, The Song of Songs (available for free download here). Better known for being a member of the Gregory Brothers, the family behind the Youtube phenomenon, Autotune the News, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Andrew moonlights as a serious singer-songwriter, with ties to Sufjan Stevens and the Welcome Wagon. His latest offering is a rich and orchestral modern interpretation of the Song of Solomon, a labour of love five years in the making. Andrew describes writing out the entirety of the Song of Solomon, colour-coding it for parts he had completed, parts he needed to work on, and parts he was going to leave out. Anyone familiar with the biblical text will be impressed by the clarity of its voice in Andrew’s finished work.

The Song of Solomon has long held a peculiar fascination for me. However, hearing a sensitive presentation of the words of the biblical text within a contemporary musical idiom has added a new dimension to my previous experiences of the text. I have been struck, to a greater degree than before, by the stark contrasts that exist between the lovers and their world within the Song and the world and agents of the pornographic. Perhaps this contrast is nowhere more apparent than in the pornographic imagination’s preference for the immediate over the mediated.

Within the following, I will speak of the ‘pornographic’ as denoting a particular form of perception, appropriation, and representation of the body, the other, and the world. While most clearly epitomized in the sexually explicit media that we commonly refer to as pornographic, media that will serve as the most prominent material for comparison, I hope that it will become apparent that it is an apposite term for a more comprehensive form of relating, with relevance far beyond its most obvious referent.


The Erasure of Mediation

…his lips like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh.

Pornographic Optics, Profane Rhetorics

The pornographic seeks to erase all distance and to grasp its object immediately. It is not therefore accidental that the pornographic has become especially associated with modern visual media. The eye occupies an elevated position within the Western sensorium. Sight is our primary metaphor for thought (‘worldview’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘illumination’, ‘vision’, ‘the mind’s eye’, ‘theory’, etc.) and is the organ of rule, judgment, and control. We oversee, inspect, regard, observe, supervise, survey, and surveil. The extension of the eye’s control over its world, and the rendering of all reality as an image beneath its sway is a primary impulse of modernity. The pornographic is in continuity with this form of optics.

As the art critic John Berger has argued, modern technology has empowered the eye in its quest to render all as image, and subject all to its control. The camera enables us to ‘capture’ reality as manipulable image, as something that can be cropped, retouched, resized, reframed, resituated, and recontextualized at will. The camera’s image is perfectly portable and reproducible, and no longer places the same demands on the viewer to adopt bodily postures relative to a unique physical representation in order to take it in. With the Internet and our modern connected devices, the image can be accessed and consumed privately. The claims that the image makes upon the viewer are minimal: facilitated by modern visual media, the controlling power of the viewer’s gaze knows no limits.

The very fact that the work of the camera makes the viewer’s act of gazing one that requires no effort or activity seemingly absolves the viewer of responsibility for their gaze: the camera is the active party in the gazing, and the viewer is just passively receiving its images. As reality is assimilated and specialized into the image, mediation itself disappears.

Pornography is the means by which we can render and consume sex as image by wresting it from the process of mediation, from the careful and subtle negotiations it demands. In short, pornography saturates sex in the immediacy of the hyperreal. By allowing us to elide mediation, it collapses the distance between ourselves and the other, convincing us that we can – and perhaps should be able to – grasp, that is objectify, the other without the interventions of language, time, or energy, thus making sex seem effortless and ephemeral.

Even when language is present within the pornographic vision, it too attempts to erase traces of mediation. Pornography betrays its essential character in the use of the profanity, the form of language that debases things by detaching them from all relationship to anything beyond themselves or from any mediation of higher meaning. In this way, linguistic profanity and visual obscenity conspire together to efface the body, making it only an object upon which to act, and in doing so, possess.

Pornographic discourse is thus characterized by its resistance to language, as it traverses and maintains distance by being a mediator. Pornographic subjects typically speak at each other, but not to, or even with each other. Even when there is an ostensible address to the other, the form of language employed reveals hostility to the pattern of free address and response of language that mediates and sustains social relations. Language ceases to be a medium of relationality and communication, and instead becomes the subject’s means of self-presence, excluding the other, instead of drawing them near. Finally, pornographic language aims at the expletive: it is about immediacy and intensity, not meaning. The expletive is the fragmented form that language takes when it is locked in the present, ceasing to bear any relationship to a discourse that either frames or develops from the strength of the feelings of the moment.

A Rhetoric of Distance

Many readers of the Song may find themselves struck by its florid and startling imagery and metaphors. We see hair compared to flocks of goats, teeth to sheep, and breasts to fawns. While the exact import of some of these metaphors may escape us, I want here to remark upon their rhetorical form in the Song. Michael Fox has argued that these arresting metaphors depend for their full meaning “not only on the extent of the common ground but also on the ‘metaphoric distance’ between image and referent: that is, the degree of unexpectedness or incongruity between the juxtaposed elements and the magnitude of the dissonance of surprise it produces.” A greater “metaphoric distance,” then serves to excite desire and “aesthetic pleasure.”

While the pornographic seeks to assimilate all to the hegemony of the image, within the rhetoric of the Song we witness the establishment of an expansive and playful distance. The contemporary reader may be amused by the comparison of the Shulamite’s waist with a ‘heap of wheat set about with lilies’ (Song 7:2). The distance between the two metaphorical terms would seem to preclude their meaningful connection. However, such metaphors do not depend upon a straightforward sensory connection between the two terms, nor do the metaphors function as euphemistic substitutions to be decoded. Rather, the metaphors serve to create daring associations, associations that elicit the imagination’s engagement, exposing the fecundity and plenitude of meaning. The heap of wheat is associated with abundance and with sustenance, with fertility and vitality. It also invites the hearer to explore the possibility of a relationship with the various other connections of wheat in the Scriptures, such as the sexual associations of grain and wheat (e.g. Ruth 3:6-7; Job 31:10) and the temple as the site of wheat and the threshing floor (1 Chronicles 21:18-30; 2 Chronicles 3:1). The lily, which appears several times within the Song (2:1, 2, 16; 4:5; 5:13; 6:2, 3), suggests beauty, but also evokes all of the garden imagery of the Song (4:12-15; 6:2-3), and obliquely gestures towards the broader biblical use of garden imagery in connection with the trysting places of Eden and the temple, where lilies also appeared (1 Kings 7:19, 22, 26; 2 Chronicles 4:5).

The chosen medium of the Song is the veil of language. Veils simultaneously allow us to draw near, while also maintaining separation and difference. They deny immediate access, presenting us with desire as a reality that entails the radical co-inherency of presence and absence. The pornographic, however, rips away this veil. The circumlocutory character of erotic writing in the Song of Songs directs our mind around the sexual act in a way that excites wonder. Its startling metaphors, such as those mentioned above, are characteristic of a rhetoric of desire, which relates seemingly distant terms in order to slow us down and allow us to savour the erotic dance of absence and presence, arousing the aesthetic tension that is characteristic of true desire. Deep difference in playful relation, unassailable to a logic of the Same, is the key characteristic is the essence of desire.

In contrast to the pornographic image, then, the Song is a celebration of distance and mediation as constitutive of desire. It employs a rhetorical form that gestures at an ontological incompleteness, an openness, and an uncircumscribable order. It celebrates the charged intervals within the music of God’s reality. It suggests the necessity of the peregrination of the self through the other and the traversal of difference through self-sacrifice and love.  In this way, the Song sustains difference, allowing the other to resist subjectification to the mastery of the immediate image as it struggles to erase all difference.


The Absent Body

Whither is thy beloved gone, O thou fairest among women?

The Pornographic Body

In Putting Liberalism in its Place, the Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and Humanities at Yale, Paul Kahn, argues that the pornographic body’s ‘only temporal condition is the present.’[1] It is a body that is free from death, from labour, from the procreative consequences of sex, from enduring relationships, from family, society, state, economy, history, and the future. The pornographic body is undiluted presence in the immediacy of the now, a rejection of the play of presence and absence that is required of the historical body.

Stripped of relationality and rendered a distilled and purely punctiliar realization of an autonomous will, the pornographic body is anonymized, robbed of its personal character. The sexual act is divested of its interpersonal intentionality, through its exposure to an objectifying third-person view. In the words of Roger Scruton, “the obscene is the representation or display of the sexual act in such a way as to threaten or ridicule its individualising intentionality, by placing the body uppermost in the thoughts….”, not as the embodied presence of the beloved, but as mere sexualized ‘flesh’.[2] The immediacy of pornographic bodies entails the erasure of personal embodiment, which must, if it is to avoid being objectified, be mediated.

Expected to be completely conformable to the will of the viewer, the pornographic body takes up its position within the fantasy frame of the voyeur, a frame which it must not disrupt. This way of exhibiting the body presents no real alterity, being placed thoroughly at the disposal of the voyeur.

The Body of the Beloved

While the pornographic body anonymized and subjected to the voyeuristic gaze, the bodies of the Song are always personal embodiments, features tenderly traced in the poetic language of love – mediations wrapped in mediations. The bodies of the Song are types and symbols, windows that open out onto worlds. Jewish and Christian exegetes have historically found in this book an allegorical or typological depiction of God’s relationship with his people, or Christ’s relationship with the Church. In regarding the bodies of the lovers, our gaze does not terminate on mere bare flesh, but is led to discover in their union a transcendent beauty and divine reality that surpasses the immediacy of the physical referent. In Solomon’s unanswered calling and knocking at the Shulamite’s door (5:2-8), for instance, the Christian reader can also hear the voice and knocking of Christ at the door of his Church (Revelation 3:20), seeking communion.

Robert Alter writes:

…the world is constantly embraced in the very process of imagining the body. The natural landscape, the cycle of the seasons, the beauty of the animal and floral realm, the profusion of goods afforded through trade, the inventive skill of the artisan, the grandeur of cities, are all joyfully affirmed as love is affirmed.[3]

The Song is a song of desire, a song of joyful presences and troubled absences, a song of yearning, longing, waiting, and remembering. It is also a song of tasting and thirsting. The pornographic, by contrast, is characterized by a suffocating immediacy, which precludes such a temporal dance of desire.[4] The lovers in the Song never thoroughly possess each other’s bodies, but describe each other in mutual wonder. Their bodies are continually arriving gifts, springs of life and pillars of strength to each other, their grace located in their unceasing donation. The Shulamite is like a garden of fruits and spices, its aromas excited by the winds of heaven, a place to which Solomon can always return for delight and sustenance (Song 4:12-5:1; 6:2-3). Such imagery suggests that Solomon cannot circumscribe or fully control this gift, which flows from a source beyond his mastery.

Such a consent to mediation and the inability to possess and control is even more pronounced in the case of the relationship between Christ’s body and the Church. In the gospels we see various attempts to enclose, to find, to touch, or to cling onto the resurrection body of Jesus. However, Jesus’s body can consistently escape constraint, limitation, and recognition. This is perhaps most clearly seen in Luke’s Emmaus road narrative (Luke 24:13-35), where the unknown fellow traveller of the disciples is only revealed to have been Jesus in the breaking of bread. As the French Catholic theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet expresses it, the disciples’ eyes ‘open on an emptiness – “he vanished from their sight” – but an emptiness full of a presence’.[5] The body of the resurrected and ascended Christ cannot be rendered an ‘available object’ but is always marked by simultaneous presence and absence in a site of symbolic mediation, which eludes all attempts at mastery or circumscription. Chauvet writes:

Luke in effect asks his audience, “So you wish to know if Jesus is really living, he who is no longer visible before your eyes? Then give up the desire to see him, to touch him, to find his physical body, for now he allows himself to be encountered only through the body of his word, in the constant reappropriation that the Church makes of his message, his deeds, and his own way of living. Live in the Church! It is there that you will discover and recognize him.”’[6]

It is essential that the Church be recognized as a site of absence no less than a site of presence: a Christ with no absence would be a corpse. It is in the absence of Christ that testimony is found to his freedom and otherness. On this account, the emphasis upon a de-eschatologized immediacy of the presence of Christ to the individual soul in much contemporary evangelical worship should be a cause of concern. Such worship risks negating the otherness and personal freedom of Christ. Mediation, absence, and longing must be constant elements of any faithful form of worship.

In an analogous manner, the body of the beloved will always elude our possession. The quest for the absent lover is a key theme within Gregory’s presentation of the Song. When I awoke this morning, I could not find my love. Though I had slept beside him, I could not find my love. The lover’s presence is never mastered, but is desired and longed for, sought after, discovered, rejoiced in and savoured, yet never comprehensively possessed. The freedom of the other forecloses the possibility of the immediacy of the possession of the other’s body and presence aimed at by the pornographic.

The bodies of the lovers in the Song are not circumscribable presences, but are characterized by arrival and departure, presence and absence, distance and proximity, identity and non-identity, and thus by a metaphoric, familial, political, and social relation, always caught up in the whirling hurly-burly of a deeper reality. To each lover, the other’s embodiment is an invitation of life in all of its fecundity and vitality, a calling to venture into a new narrative and world, and into a gracious future that beckons beyond the stultifying immediacy of the present.


The Social Other

…we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee.

The Autonomy of Pornography

The pornographic is a denial of and an attempt to escape from the mediation of the social other, from the community that witnesses to meaning, from the institution, the child, economic production, and from political rule. No historical memory is evoked, nor claim placed upon a future. Kahn sees the pornographic as the rejection of discourse and the attempt to transcend the (socially grounded) mediation of language. The pornographic body ‘does not reach out symbolically toward the past or the future.’[7] Instead, pornography attempts to attain to freedom by stepping outside of the social process, to seek love and sex without the intrusion of children, politics, history, church, and external restraints. The pornographic body produces its own meanings and is not subject to ongoing social processes or open to third persons.

Without the social other or third persons, the pornographic naturally gravitates towards objectification. In effacing third persons, the second person is also effaced. Lacking the third party to serve as a mediation of the relationship, there is nothing to prevent the assimilation or objectification of the other to the will and intentionality of the one, thus, in a way characteristic of pornography, objectifying the sexes . Where there ceases to be a social order in which identity can be differentially articulated, that identity will be articulated solely in terms of the first party’s relationship to them, subordinating the second party to the ends of the first.

Within pornography we encounter a perverse vision of freedom: a freedom from social mediation that regards mediation as an imposition preventing the immediacy of personal autonomy.

A Threefold Cord

In a 2011 article in First Things, Peter Leithart addresses the concepts of the pornographic and the romantic, observing how both of them are characterized by an absence of the third. Without the third, Leithart argues, the second person is either objectified by or undifferentiated from the self. He concludes:

Human relations need an intrusive third party if they are to be healthy. As Jenson says, “Friendship that is too exclusive either withers or becomes destructive,” and “a sheerly bipartite confrontation of economic or social entities is doomed to conflict.” Most especially, “God has arranged that the mutuality of married love—the inevitable paradigm of I-Thou relatedness—shall be achieved by acts whose term is the child—a paradigm of the intrusive third party—whose free agency or suffered absence is the final bond between the couple.”

Following the work of Robert Jenson, Leithart relates this pattern to the life of the Trinity:

A theology that minimizes the role of the Spirit cannot fully affirm the love of the Father and Son. Through an intrusive third, the Spirit, the Father is eternally what he is, “the available and lovable Father” to the Son.

The Song testifies to just such bonds. Throughout the Song third persons are present and the love of the couple is recounted to them, and witnessed by them. The different voices and addressees within the Song impressed itself upon me with renewed force as I listened to Andrew Gregory’s album. The Song is not the song of one voice and of one person’s love. Both lovers sing to each other, of each other, in unison with each other. They continually testify of their love to a wider audience, an audience that has its own voice. In He is Radiant & He is Ruddy, the daughters of Jerusalem respond to the Shulamite’s request in If You Find My Lover, Tell Him I am Faint with Love – ‘why should we go tell your lover? Is he better than any other?’ As constant witness to the couple’s love for each other, the community frees the couple to be who they are for each other. Unlike the common romantic image of the couple who are absorbed in each other’s gaze to the occlusion of the entire world, the couple in the Song are continually relating their love to a broader public. Unlike the voyeuristic third party of the pornographic, the Song’s viewer is also interlocutor, guest, or friend, involved in a relation enduring through the mediation of time.

The lovers also desire each other as those who find a place and identity in a wider society. Among other reasons, the Shulamite is desired on account of her reputation:

There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number. My dove, my undefiled is but one; she is the only one of her mother, she is the choice one of her that bare her. The daughters saw her, and blessed her; yea, the queens and the concubines, and they praised her. – Song 6:8-9

The Shulamite relates to her beloved in the same way, desiring him as one who occupies a particular place in society. Solomon is the one surrounded by the valiant men of Israel, the one crowned as the King of Israel (Song 3:6-11). Much as the lovers constantly relate their love to a society beyond them, so their desire is aroused by the perception of their beloved as one with public status and reputation.

The mediation of the society expands the movements of love, self-gift, and desire. In their union, the couple wish to relate themselves to a wider public. Their union is discourse-creating and meaning-producing, a bond that projects itself into the world. In their union a fountain is opened up, producing a stream of life that will flow out beyond them to others.


The Gift of the Other

Let my beloved come to his garden…

Where the pornographic optics of immediacy, control, and complete exposure would seek dominance, the Song celebrates a rhetoric of difference-traversing desire, one which approaches the body of the beloved indirectly, allusively, and poetically. The perfect presence of the pornographic body is replaced by the ephemeral presence of the iconic body. In opposition to the totalizing assertions of the perfectly present pornographic body, this presence acts as a microcosm of and window into a wider world. In this way, the iconic body, as it constantly arrives and departs, stimulates desire through a dialectic of presence and absence. The Song overcomes the sterility of the pornographic body, as the embodied union of the lovers burgeons out into the world, spreading its life. By introducing the dialogic of a social other to the erotic encounter, the Song avoids the objectification that results from a closed duality (as monologic).

The Song is a celebration of mediation. It is a celebration of the gift that cannot be contained, of the cup that runs over, of gratuity and extravagance. It is a celebration of a creation irreducible to a stagnant homogeneous logic of the Same, but which bursts forth in ever more glorious and surprising – and therefore difficult, challenging, unexpected – differences. It is a celebration of the body as a site of meaning’s presence and production. It is a celebration of a creation that excites desire across its differences and distances, where the very sustained intervals between related parties serve as their means of relation. It is a celebration of the mutual indwelling and interrelation of person, society, world, and body, where, beyond all measure, possession, control, or mastery, the presence of the other breaks into our life as a sheer benevolence.

[1] Paul W. Kahn, Putting Liberalism in Its Place (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ: 2005), 204.
[2] Roger Scruton, Sexual Desire (Continuum, London: 2006), 32.
[3] Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs (University of California Press, London: 1995), 130.
[4] One could argue that certain forms of Christian worship succumb to this unhealthy immediacy, the de-eschatologized immediacy of Christ’s presence to the individual soul replacing the mediating veils of language and timing of desire characteristic of biblical erotics in the liturgy and the celebration of the Eucharist as the opening of our eyes upon an absence filled with presence.
[5] Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 1995), 170.
[6] Ibid, 166.
[7] Kahn, Putting Liberalism in Its Place, 206.