Thursday, April 14, 2005

Dworkin



Andrea Dworkin died several days ago, and pretty much everyone has had her/his say. (I recommend Susie Bright's obit.) Wasn't sure if I was going to toss my coin in as well. I was an active participant in the porn wars of the late-80s/early-90s. Wrote about porn, obscenity and censorship, debated it (sometimes in the context of the NEA controversy that included Karen Finley and John Fleck, both of whom I shared stages with), and got into some pretty nasty arguments with lefties who despised my position. Through it all, Dworkin's shadow appeared.

I read several of her books -- "Mercy," "Intercourse," "Letters From A War Zone" -- and despite my solid opposition to her political prescriptions for ending porn, or at least forcing it underground, I was always impressed with Dworkin's intelligence and skills as a polemicist. She exhibited more fire and literary zing than the grim Catharine MacKinnon, her partner in anti-porn crusading. Unlike many writers, Dworkin was not an act. Her words were shards of broken glass, thrown at enemies real and imagined.

Dworkin suffered tremendous sexual and physical abuse in her life, and this, clearly, fueled her intensity. She wrote as if she might be assaulted any second, like a war vet who sees enemy soldiers in her backyard. Reading her, hearing her, you got the sense that the saying "Be quiet in your life so that you may be violent in your art" did not apply to her. To Dworkin, life and art raged equally.

There were two types of Dworkin defenders I engaged back in the day. The first were women who were sexually abused, and to them, Dworkin told it like it was. There were some rather spirited discussions about sexual imagery and the political questions that raised, and looking back, I didn't fully comprehend the pain and anger I encountered. Still, I respected the fact that they sought an explanation and understanding for what had happened to them, whether or not it was tied to porn. And Dworkin was the raped woman's intellectual. Fair enough. What did I know.

The second type of defender I had no time for, middle-class (some higher) women and men fresh out of college who merely parroted Dworkin's takes on porn. They couldn't argue Dworkin's points because they didn't analyze them, they memorized them. Once the script was rehearsed, that was it, save for yelling out a few choice epithets. Sadly, during the porn wars, I encountered more of the second type of defender than the first.

For a time I lived in the same neighborhood as Dworkin and saw her quite a bit on the street and in the book stores. She always wore denim overalls, no matter how warm the weather. She usually lugged a heavy bag. And she always looked tired, worn out. I tried to muster the courage to walk up and engage her, not in any hostile sense, but as someone who took her seriously no matter how much I opposed her politics.

But I never did. I felt that to do so might be construed by her as some kind of attack, and I didn't want to trigger any emotional terror. The few times we were in a book store at the same time, I'd pretend to read something while listening to Dworkin rip the writers she hated, little performances that thrilled the store's female staff. Again, I was tempted to counter her -- what safer place for a debate than a book store? -- but thought the better of it.

I'll cede ground to Andrea Dworkin regarding the present state of porn -- a truly degraded state in so many ways. From what I've seen, there appears to be a real coarsening of attitudes in depictions of fucking. I don't recall so much anger, cynicism, emptiness, aggression, and the utter trashing of the human spirit. But then, the larger culture exhibits the same nasty features, which are made nastier thanks to perpetual war, torture, nationalism, corporate piracy and religious extremism. How could porn be exempt from this, especially given its primal nature?

I know that these elements have always existed, and that there are progressive alternatives to the main quo. Maybe it's age, but I definitely see a demeaning, darkening, destructive trend.

Abu Ghraib is porn. Gitmo is porn. Hostage and beheading vids are porn. Fallujah and car bombs are porn. At this horrible rate, how long before we're all Andrea Dworkin?