Writing About Prostitutes

Author’s Note

What follows  is a triptych of reviews that originally appeared in the second issue of the long-defunct print edition of The Hoover Hog, way back in 1997.  I’ve made a few changes and plugged in some links, but it still feels awfully dated, and at times wince-inducingly  pretentious.  Such is youth.

Andrea Dworkin died in 2005, and no one has replaced her. Her final years were marked by declining health and a slow descent into delusional depression, the effects of which can be felt in her desperate-cry-for-help essay, "The Day I Was Drugged and Raped" (2000).  She did manage to publish a memoir, Heartbreak (2002), which I recommend despite its many flaws.  Here is a beautiful excerpt from Dworkin’s early and still unpublished work, First Love.  Here is John Dolan’s most thoughtful euology.  And here, for good measure, is Adam Parfrey’s classic animadversion, "Fucking Andrea Dworkin," as it appeared in ANSWER Me #4.  I miss her.

In the years since Total Abuse was released, Peter Sotos has turned out a unique and constantly evolving body of  confessional literature that remains shamefully ignored by the critical establishment.  I think Special (1998) is a masterpiece, but his more recent work is distinguished by a powerful and deeply introspective verisimilitude, and sadness. Especially noteworthy are two works published by Void Books, Selfish, Little: The Annotated Lesley Ann Downey, and Comfort and Critique, both of which are available here.  His most recent book is Show Adult (2007), which has been the subject of some controversy.  I discuss Selfish, Little here  (sorry, it’s in French).  Here is Dennis Cooper’s commentary on Sotos.  Here is a recent interview with Sotos.  Here is another.  And here is one more.

Following the release of XXX, Wendy McElroy hasn’t written much about pornography, which is neither surprising nor disappointing. She continues to write for a variety of libertarian forums, where she remains true to her voluntaryist roots. You can find her latest commentary at iFeminist, or on her personal blog,  where she has recently garnered some marginal distinction for her dissenting views on the Ron Paul juggernaut.  Most recently, she edited Liberty for Women, which I haven’t read. Here is an interview with McElroy from Right Wing News. And here is her semi-classic essay, "Why I Would Not Vote Against Hitler."

Transcribing this mess has taken longer than I anticipated, but I do intend to post  more material from the old Hog from time to time.  The next installment from the vault will be my review-essay on The Turner Diaries and Camp of the Saints, which is called "Race Baiting on the Brink of Apocalypse."

For now, it’s back to the antinatalist-abortion noodlings, which should be up in a week or so.  My apologies to those of you who give a shit.  I’m a slow monkey.   

Memento mori.


Writing About Prostitutes (1997 – The Hoover Hog)

…he holds my head still by my hair and he pushes his cock to the bottom of my throat, rams it in, past my throat, under it, deeper than the bottom, I feel this fracturing pain as if my neck shattered from inside and my muscles were torn apart ragged and fast, an explosion that ripped them like a bomb went off or someone pushed a fist down my throat but fast, just rammed it down, and I feel surprise, this one second of complete surprise in which, without words, I want to know the meaning of this, his intention; there’s one second of awesome, shocking surprise and then I go under…

                                        — Andrea Dworkin, Mercy

Where are the products that the arch feminists promise?  The ones that complement and support their rants of brutal misogyny and sociopathic self-absorption?  The pornography that breathes and breeds abuse?  The videos, magazines, and photo sets that exist unequivocally above the common, simple-minded analysis of doggerel and money-charged excesses?  The work crystal clear in motive and hard action that lays waste to any need for the clichéd female rhetoric of thoughts-equal-action?

Where can one go for the good stuff?  The mean, mean evil-minded material that proves the monolithic porno business to be as dirty and sad as the feminists need it to be?

                                        — Peter Sotos, Parasite

Pornography benefits women, both personally and politically.

                                        — Wendy McElroy, XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography          

Mercy, by Andrea Doworkin. Four Walls 8 Windows Press, 1991, 344 pp.

There you are again.  Dirty corduroys bunched sloppily at your ankles, right hand gripped tight around that half-erection, your mind stupefied by the hard porn flickering before your greedy eyes.  Looks like you’ve treated yourself to another evening of unseemly indulgence.  Another date.

Tonight it’s the industry "veteran,"Jamie Gillis, putting some silicone wench through the paces.  No pretense of plot or narrative; they stopped bothering with that long ago.  Just a good show of flesh and subtle degradation, like you’ve come to expect.   Mr. Gillis, it seems, is wedging an arm-size dildo up her barely lubricated gash, impatiently loosening her up with a slightly smaller device.  But the thing’s not going in easy, and at some point her affected oohs and ahs gives way to a more serious … grunting.

Out of nowhere the scene jump-cuts to the obligatory "money-shot." Why?  Something must’ve happened.  Injury?  Did the festivities get a little too rough for the distributor’s sense of market propriety? Did the veneer of consent blur into something more questionable?  You’ll never know, but the possibilities are enough.  Rewind.  Now shut your eyes and pick up the pace, a flood of afterimages reeling before your mind’s eye till the white-hot moment of payoff when you come in your hand…

…and wonder — not for the first time — if maybe Andrea Dworkin has a point after all? 

Perhaps all those dirty pictures really do add up to an ideology of patriarchal powerlust.  Maybe it really is less about getting you off than getting you prepared to put the whores in their place. Maybe the penis is violence. Maybe…

Nah.  Chalk it up to the porno blues. The fleeting fog of  post-ejaculatory ennui.  All too familiar by now, and certainly nothing to be taken seriously. How perfectly ridiculous and embarrassing.  Better not tell anyone.  And really, you should get out more.

I will fill you with remorse because you fucked me to groundmeat and because you buy it and you sell it and the hole in my heart is commerce to you.

                                        — Andrea Dworkin, Mercy

Like the hardest porn, Andrea Dworkin’s  writing has a way of staying with you.  And for good reason.  As anyone who’s taken the time to read it knows, her work — both fiction and theory — is informed by something more than writerly ambition and rank indignation.   Unaffected and sincere as well it may be, Dworkin’s save-the-women stance fractures to reveal a brooding obsession with the images and words she decries.  Those wily Canadian customs agents didn’t seize her books for nothing, you know.

And I’m not the first to notice that her prose is charged with a darkly erotic intensity that belies, or at least complicates, the hard moral line of her gravamen.  Keen to the dangerous undercurrent of her texts, some critics have suggested that the corpulent crusader may be holding back on us.  "What’s missing from Dworkin’s posture of rage," uppity columnist Richard Goldstein wrote in a 1984 Village Voice article, "is confession."   Pop-feminist hack Erica Jong goes further, chiding Dworkin for failing to acknowledge Sade as a literary influence.  Still others offer a more cynical interpretation, seeing in her contradictory personae an "attraction-repulsion for sexuality" that is merely typical of her upper middle-class pedigree and of her inescapable identity as "a spoiled hippie princess." According to this view, averred by Screw columnist Micharl Perkins, the whole Dworkin enterprise is at its core scarcely more than an exercise in self-promotion.  A gimmick, or shtick. 

Dworkin’s ambitious second novel, Mercy, is probably the nearest thing to a true "confession" that we may expect — and although leaving her enigma unresolved, it nevertheless provides a wealth of insight into her motivations and prejudices.  And beyond such cheap speculation, it stands as a powerful and affecting memoir, and an apposite  literary synthesis of her political and feminist thought. Oh, and yes, as her detractors are only too quick to point out, Mercy tips the pornometer.  It is a very dirty book.

Mercy opens with a wicked pastiche of academic-feminist fatuity and ends in the self-deluded voice of a Paglia-bred porn lovin’ femmie dyke.  As a satirist, Dworkin proves to be at once vicious and sincere. And her caricatures — or false prophets — contrast to stark effect with the the central narrative of "Andrea," the novel’s victim-protagonist.

The story begins in Camden, New Jersey, 1956, with a nine-year-old Andrea alone in a sparsely populated movie theater.  Basking in her hard-one independence, the precocious little girl is soon approached by a "strange dark-haired man" who takes the seat beside her.  Against her fearful protests, the man whispers in her ear, then touches and molests her.  Dworkin’s anguished first-person telling evokes a dread sense of claustrophobic nightmare-panic  — the helpless anger and fear that is unique to childhood.

Eventually, Andrea struggles from the man’s clutches and runs to enlist the aid of a teenage usher.  Who indifferently shows her to another seat.  Confused and shaken, she runs out of the theater to find her parents.  Who assure her that, "thank God nothing happened." 

Andrea’s education has begun.

With its biographical periphery, the opening sequence provides a psychological backdrop for all that follows. Andrea’s later disillusionment with the peace movement and its hypocritical male icons finds root in her indignation over her parents denial. Her quarrel with men, with rape, war and nature; with God and Sade, and with the unholy dragon that is pornography — it all traces back to these fragile, terrified moments at the hands of a sexual predator.  The germinal trauma that would define her life and mission.

And just as in the classic porn formula, Andrea’s violation beckons her to an odyssey of discovery and revelation.  Only her conclusions differ from the standard fuck parable; there is no ecstatic epiphany at the end of this dark alley.  No liberation or erotic awakening.  Only debasement and horror and mad bottomless rage.

"Leaving the humiliations of childhood,"  the story continues, an 18-year-old Andrea makes for the big city, for New York, circa 1965, where she slums with junkies and whores, where she styles herself as an anti-authoritarian war resister, where she squats with bohemians and dropouts, where she romanticizes her self-imposed destitution. Where she is raped. 

It happens in a Lower East Side apartment.  Her boyfriend, Arthur, is at the local hospital where his sister is dying of cancer.  Andrea waits for him, but is soon attacked by his roommate, Eldridge, an artist with a hostile demeanor.  Again, Andrea puts up a good fight, but he’s having none of it.  The telling is electric and brutal:

…he forced me down on the bed and hit me flat out with his fist in my face and  he raped me and pushed me and he hit me and he was in me, sitting on top of me upright, my skirt was up over my face and he was punching me; and after I was bleeding on my lips and down my legs…

That’s the first full-on rape scene in Mercy.  Many follow.  As her life’s journey unfolds, Andrea finds herself repeatedly on the wrong end of a hostile erection — or metal speculum.  While in jail for political disruption, she is sexually humiliated and severely injured by prison doctors.  As an ex-patriot in Europe, she whores and cavorts among  radicals and finds herself the victim in a procession of  violent sexual encounters before taking her place as the wife and bruised plaything of an unarmed revolutionary cum sadist, who whips, hogties, beats and rapes her endlessly.  As a starving writer back in the States, she unwisely takes shelter in the abode of an egotistical painter who layers on the soft soap then rapes her but good.  Mercy is replete with sex crime, always described in brutal, emotionally rending, pornographic detail.    

A mood of palpable violence is ever-present in Dworkin’s dense, stream-of-conscious prose, always lurking in the shadows, then bubbling up like some unburied nightmare.  In a style vaguely reminiscent of  Burroughs’  "cutups" rape events are revisited and replayed in an implacable cycle, often without warning or  reason, like violence itself.    It’s as if Andrea is psychically enslaved by her own history of abuse, by her "body memories" and mental scars.  Her victimization is cast as interminable, inescapable. A locked trap.  "These are the elements of memory," she writes, "constant, true, and perpetual pain."    Rape is the crime that keeps on taking.

And always there is the specter of pornography.  Or, to be more specific, Deep Throat. When Andrea is gullet-raped by an opportunistic cab driver, she knows where he got the notion:  "I figure the boy who did it to me got it from [Deep Throat]," she writes, "because, frankly, I know this world from A to Z and no one banged a woman’s throat before these current dark days."  And later, again the environs of a moviehouse, Andrea watches in horror as her "friend,"   Linda Lovelace, suffers pre-Max Hardcore esophageal indignities on the big screen.  As the porn queen’s "throat stretches like a snake eating an alligator" under the thrusting force of  Harry Reams’ massive cock, Andrea’s anger boils into a seething fury.

The scene — which constitutes one of the novel’s two endings — culminates in a psychodramatic rage-fantasy in which Andrea symbolically proclaims her spiritual communion with victims everywhere:

And I go outside Deep Throat where my friend Linda is on the screen and I put the gasoline on me, I soak myself in broad daylight and many go by and no one looks and I am calm, patient, gray on gray cement like the Buddhist monks, and I light the fire; free us, I start to scream, and then there’s a giant whoosh, it explodes more like wind than fire, it’s orange, around me, near me, I am whole, then I’m flames. I burn then I die.

"Gray on gray cement."  Ever the martyr, Andrea has the final word.  Burn and die, baby.  Because in case you still don’t get it, this is war we’re talking about.  A Holy war waged for human salvation.  "I’m a veteran of Birkenau  and Masada and Deep Throat," she tells us.  Holy War.  Holy Burning.

Mercy is rich with moments of terrifying beauty and horror. In one brilliantly conceived sequence, Dworkin crafts an exquisitely potent metaphor around the Masada mass suicide of the Old Testament.  The role of God is likened to that of an incestuous father:

He made history an incest on his children, slow, continuous, generation after generation, a sadistic pedagogy, love and pain, what choice does a child have? He loves you with pain, by inflicting it on you, a slow ardent lover, and you love back with suffering because you are helpless and human, an imprisoned child of Him caged in the world of His making; it’s a worshipful response, filled with awe and fear and dread, bewildered, why me, why now, why this, why aren’t You merciful, why aren’t You kind; and because it’s all there is, this love of His, it’s the only love He made, the only love He let’s us know, ignorant children shut up in Daddy’s house, we yearn for Him and adore Him and wait for Him, awake, afraid, shivering; we submit to Him, part fear, part infatuation, helpless against Him, and we thank Him for the punishment and the pain and say how it shows He loves us, we say Daddy, Daddy, please, begging Him to stop, but He takes it as seduction, it eggs Him on, He sticks it in; please, Daddy.  He didn’t rest on the seventh day but He didn’t write it down either, He made love, annihilation is how I will love them.

And of the Chosen People, the Jews who took their lives? 

…we were God’s girls you might say and freedom, then as now, was in getting sliced; a perfect penetration, then death; a voluptuous compliance, blood, death.  If you’re God’s girl, you do it the way He likes it and He’s got special tastes; the naked throat and the thing that tears it open, He likes one clean cut, a sharp, clean blade; you lay yourself down and the blade cuts into you and there’s blood and pain; and the eyes, there’s a naked terror in the eyes and death freezes it there… God’s girl surrenders  and finds freedom  where the men always  bragged it was; in blood and death…

Thus, the vagina is God’s fuck-wound.  Circumcision, an obedient son’s gesture of submission to Daddy ("…the penis is sliced so they’re girls to him").  Violence is fated, a sacrament to God-the-Father, Who, as ever, is the most jaded porn freak of them all.

Here and elsewhere in Mercy, Dworkin comes precipitously close to betraying a what I suspect to be the repugnant core of her quixotically sifted worldview — that the confrontation she invites is ultimately with something immovable. Nature, or fate.  Or biology.  "Was Sade God?" she asks at one point, tellingly.

The straight line, of course, is well rehearsed. It’s society. The violence and hate and rape and warfare — it’s all symptomatic of a deep cultural malaise, endemic to our condition perhaps, but not to our nature.  Porn is but a tool of the great patriarchal hegemon, an instrument of oppression (we will know we are free, Dworkin has written, when pornography does not exist).  And men are bad because they are branded by the sad and sick culture in which they are contained, and trained.

But it all begs a more basic question, does it not?  And it strains credulity to believe that such a simple conclusion could elude a mind so keen.

Ms. Dworkin, I seem to recall, has spoken favorably of chemical castration. Take it however you please.  I think is wise to the true face of her enemy, which is why she rages with such abandon.  And it is this anguished fatalism that distinguishes her work from the dry palaver that passes for standard feminist discourse.  Her adversary, she knows, is possessed by power far greater than anything Foucault dared imagined.  Greater than "patriarchy" or "sexism" or anything else in the tired slideshow of feminist-fantasied bogeymen.  Unlike the sheltered Wymyn of academe, Dworkin looks into the abyss of History and decodes a legacy of brutality, rape, and incest; she sees "the story of man," the story from which she knows there is no escape.  She is "forever a child imprisoned in the world of His making."  Yet she goes down swinging.  Which is something.

When, in the final chapter (and second ending), Andrea imagines herself as a phallocidal avenger, rampaging through the "rape emporiums"and bludgeoning men at every turn, she brings another pornographic trope to it’s forgone conclusion: rape begets revenge.  But hers is the explosive rage of a zealot, expressed in the certain knowledge of defeat.


It’s funny.  There are times when I think I can see right through Andrea Dworkin, and there are times when I feel convinced of her sincerity.  She is forever intriguing.  And somewhat in spite of myself, I cannot help but like her.   The cheap shots are too easy, boys.  Even the best of them.  Yes, she spells America with a "k," and she voices an abiding contempt for male erectile tissue.  At times she comes off every bit as irrational and wrongheaded as her critics allege her to be.  But she is also a passionate and fearless witness to human frailty in the face of horror.  And she will be remembered as a writer, which may have been all she ever wanted. 

Those of you who blanch at the show of misandronous ululation are well advised to get over it.  Dworkin deserves to be read.  Not because she’s right, but because she’s good.  And in the extant literature of contemporary pornography, her work stands virtually alone.  Truth told, only one relevant comparison even bears mentioning.

Andrea Dworkin, meet Peter Sotos…                      

Total Abuse: Collected Writings, 1984-1995, by Peter Sotos.  Goad to Hell Enterprises, 1996, 240 pp.

Like Ms. Dworkin, Peter Sotos refuses to view women as mere sex objects.  He sees the person behind the flesh.  It’s important to him.  Indeed, by most outward appearances, the author of Total Abuse would seem to be quite an enlightened gentleman; he’s sensitive, articulate, introspective and intelligent. He’s very much in touch with his feelings and not afraid to express them.  And in a time and culture marked by neurotic inhibition, he is resolutely comfortable with his sexuality.  He’s as polite and good-humored as they come.  An all around well-adjusted chap.

So what ever could be the problem?

Could it be something as simple as the fact that Mr. Sotos delights in the rape and torture of children?  That he jerks off to atrocity films and finds degenerative AIDS  titillating? 

Is that the sticking point?

Or is it that he doesn’t cloak his tastes and predilections behind some convoluted ironic moral pretext?  Or might it be that Sotos really is a great writer?  Is that the rub?  Maybe you suspect he’s on to something.  That he knows you better than you know yourself?  All of the above?  None of the above?  What, then?

A blow job in the dark isn’t a blow job at all.

                                        — Peter  Sotos, Parasite

I remember when I first encountered Sotos’ child rape and torture narrative in ANSWER Me! #4.  I doubt I had gotten through the first page when I noticed that my breathing had become  slightly erratic.  I could feel my heart beating.  I had to put the thing down several times before I could finish it.  Then I had difficulty sleeping.  It just wouldn’t go away. How fucking embarrassing, I know.

I understood precisely why the piece was appropriate, even necessary, for the infamous "Rape" issue of  Jim and Debbie Goad’s groundbreaking magazine.  It’s hard to imagine that any other material could so powerfully have dramatized the mind-set of a sexual psychopath.  I recognized Sotos’ stylistic originality, and his mordacious pitch-black wit did not elude me.

What I didn’t get was my own reaction.  You see, I’m just not the squeamish type.

I suspect that part of what caught me off guard was the overwhelming presence of the victim.  To his considerable credit, and in stark contradistinction to every self-imagined "transgressive" hack in the business, Peter Sotos brings the full humanity of his prey into crystal-sharp focus.  He dwells in her conscience and feeds upon her agony; and by amplifying every fragile nuance of a specific little-girl personality, the unrelenting cruelties are shaded all too horrific, and real.  Perhaps The Basement bore distant comparison, but Kate Millet’s empathic motives were anchored by a safely branded editorial investment. With Sotos, you’re on your own.  This was sadism as vertigo. And I had never encountered anything like it.

In addition to a nine page interview and an insightful introduction by publisher Jim Goad, Total Abuse reprints the full text of three complete works:  Pure, Tool, and Parasite, representing nearly all of Sotos’ writing through  1995. A good portion of the material (including the entire third volume of Pure) had never before seen publication.  But brace yourselves because this a far cry from some boilerplate shock-fest.  There is no detached fetishism to be found in these pages.  No latex, and no high-fashion whips and chains. No playful exploration. Nor any of the cheap jokes and strained apologies to which you jaded gorehounds have grown accustomed. Instead, there is so much of what’s been studiously hidden from view.



It’s "Banned Books Week" as I write this, which means the usual lot of civic-minded PBS liberals will soon convene at the local public library for their annual consciousness-raising ritual.  They’ll be clucking over the standard list of comfortingly inoffensive objects of past censorship, real and imagined. Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick, even — gasp —  The Holy Bible will be on display.  All for our edification and calculated outrage.  Apparently those right-wing Christian cretins are still chomping at the bit to keep our kids from reading Fahrenheit  451.  And the kicker is, they don’t even appreciate the irony!  Rest assured that for all the slogan-slinging and free-speech lip service, our self professed banned book readers will steer well clear of difficult issues.  And the laundry list wont get any dirtier than Naked Lunch.

Just thinking about it, I’m half inclined to show up unannounced and treat those Molly-Ivins-quotin’ pinkos to a taste of some truly controversial literature.  Imagine how they’d shuffle and squirm to the brutal cadences of Mr. Sotos’ Pure, a "banned book" if ever there was one.  In keeping with the spirit of the event, I’d be sure to select a passage tuned to piss off old Rush Limbaugh and the Christian Coalition.  Let’s see, maybe a little essay called "Kiddie Torture" would do the trick.

I would step up to the podium, clear my throat, and in my best A.M. register, I would express my solidarity by reading:

Child abuse is sublime pleasure.  All the great extremes — genital torture; forced, unlubricated rape; butchering — all these pleasures and more reach their pinnacle when the victim is a small child.  The orifices are extremely tight and usually virgin, an absolute joy to mangle, rip and violate.  The pained screams ring more shrill, more impassioned, unhampered from years of growing up fat and jaded.  Virgin territory brings the fresh cries and intense reactions of crushed and forever retarded innocence.

What’s that?  You, in the front — how does it go again?  You say you’re all for free expression, BUT…

Save it for the judge, hypocrite.  If you want to mewl about the evils of censorship, you’d best be prepared to walk the fucking walk.  Because Pure is the Genuine Article.  Far from being just another entry on some long abandoned rural school board blacklist,  its author was literally incarcerated for publishing it.  What happened to your delicate slippery slope logic?  Where were you when Peter needed you?

First published back in the McMartin-hunting 80s, Sotos’ mimeographed mag of masturbatory malice, mayhem and misogyny barely got out two issues before it became the target of Illinois censors eager to flex the authority of Meese-Commission-inspired anti-porn statutes.  The skein of events leading to Sotos’ arrest is somewhat involved, but for present purposes we’ll simply note that on December 4, 1985, after trailing him for nearly a year, police stormed Peter’s Chicago apartment and booked him on a litany of trumped-up charges, which included obscenity and possession and reproduction of child pornography.  You can read more about it here, but the bottom line is that the Illinois government spent over a million dollars to punish a man for expressing offensive opinions.  And no one gave a fuck.  Not the ACLU.  Not the People for the American Way.  Not NAMBLA.  No one. 

Sotos’ status as a bona fide thought criminal inevitably lent his magazine an aura of singular notoriety in the hushed on-dit of samizdat subculture.  And for once, the legend seems justified.  Whatever one thinks of it, Pure broke new ground.  Long before John Marr declared that "Murder Can Be Fun," Sotos was celebrating human bloodlust in its darkest and cruelest manifestations.  This was true crime writing from the perspective of a surrogate criminal; or, more on point, from the perspective of one who exalts the criminal urge.  Despite the retrospective funk of juvenilia, it was genuinely disturbing and positively original.

The first issue opens with a quote by Joseph Goebells:  "Man is and remains an animal.  Here a beast of prey, there a housepet, but always an animal," which is followed by a concise statement of purpose: "In our search for extremes," Sotos declares,

we are constantly bombarded with humanist, feminist, and other equally asinine diatribes that writers employ to alleviate the strain of their "conscience" or to try and seduce us into their maudlin world of false securities and self-contempt.  PURE exists, then, for those who desire extremes and are tired of listening to and/or acting like housepets.  PURE salutes and encourages true lusts.

Having set the tone and erased the lines, Sotos proceeds to chronicle and honor the predatory impulse wherever it resides. Official media-glossed accounts of lust-murder, child rape, and Nazi atrocities are reworked into salaciously sadistic narratives.  Sotos fills in the gaps, as it were, so that a whore killer is cast as  "incorrigible libertine" while his victim is described as "a whimpering little bag of sweaty meat and grease."  And Ted Bundy, far from being vilified as a dangerous public enemy, is aggrandized as "the greatest living American example of genius."

In Pure we find the first expression of themes and obsessions that would henceforth inform and infuse Sotos’ literary mission:  his laser-cruel magnification of the victims’ crushed humanity; his lingering emphasis on surviving family  — especially mothers — in whose grief and suffering "the libertine may forever enjoy his crimes"; and his unabashed enthusiasm for the "work" of the infamous "Monster of the Moors," Ian Brady, who is approvingly described as "the world’s most complete murderer."  Such motifs, for lack of a better term, converge to affect a spirit of malevolence and danger that is simply unmatched in the world’s crime literature.

Pure‘s coverage of the McMartin preschool abuse trial is rough reading, to be sure, but also fascinating in light of when it was written and what later came to be known.  Just as their credulous belief in the reality of ritual abuse and satanic conspiracies gave journalists and social workers license to project lurid shades of wickedness and perversion onto the Rorschach blot that was the McMartin preschool, so did their gratuitously inventive speculation serve to feed Sotos’ purer fantasies, allowing him to detect in Raymond Buckey’s mild-mannered countenance the "detached, cold, sexually studied look" of a criminal mastermind.  It’s a double gotcha, and a telling one at that.  Sotos’ McMartin-inspired essays, published in the second and third issues of Pure, are powerfully disturbing.  But all the sordid details, all the titillation and tease, we now know, was unwittingly provided by the dirty minds of government do-gooders, media parasites, and, lest we forget, the children themselves.  Yet Sotos is the monster.

If the shocking potential of the first two issues of Pure is slightly mitigated by a somewhat fannish mentality and a mite too much Nazi-praising hyperbole, things become more serious with the third volume (which, owing to the paternalism of Illinois law enforcement officials, was never allowed to "hit the streets").  It is in the pages of Pure #3 that Sotos first writes explicitly about what is probably the only subject capable of eliciting more bad feelings than Nazi idolatry.  And that subject is child pornography.  Not the soft-focus David Hamilton portfolios, nor those cheesily politicized NAMBLA playground sets. But the vicious deep-underground backbrain material where, as Sotos puts it, the "fear and shattered chastity, the forsaken trust and shock of brutal reality" cannot be denied or tempered by any measure of rationalization. With mindracking realism, Sotos describes the "material" and the black psychology underlying its appeal.  This is shattering, almost unbearable reading, I promise.  And I don’t even like kids.

"His greatest sin," Jim Goad has written of  Sotos, "is verisimilitude." Recall that not only was Pure singled out for prosecutorial censorship, it also had the shrinks and cops well-nigh convinced that Sotos was a seasoned criminal  — that he was, in the words of one psychologist, "definitely involved" in the torture, rape, and murder of children.  Reading through Pure lo these many years later, it is tempting to shrug off such hysterically overwrought pronouncements as being uniquely symptomatic of the Geraldo-fueled, Satan-chasing moral panic that prevailed at the time.  But still.  At some level we are not surprised.  Even sans graphics, Pure remains as potent as legend would promise.  To ecumenically habituated eyes, it must have seemed like poison. Or evidence.


Jaded as I am, I can understand why people are deeply offened by Peter Sotos’ work.  It surprises me not in the least that that after being exposed to his prose, otherwise docile hipsters sometimes find themselves huffing violent ill-will.  Here’s a testimonial letter from an avowed non-fan, reprinted in Parasite vol. 18:







Revulsion can be sincere, even when it’s not. If you abominate Sotos, I’ll extend the benefit of doubt. 

If you say he’s a bad writer, well, then you’re lying.                                  

In the years following his life-defining run-in with the law, Peter Sotos kept a low profile. He worked as a truck driver for a meat distributor and struggled to pay down his legal bills. He retained a marginal subcultural personage as an auxiliary member of the power electronics band, Whitehouse.  But mostly he kept quiet.  And it was somewhere in the space of this imposed silence that he discovered his voice as a mature writer. 

In addition to being the most mind-jarringly intense material ever
committed  to print, Tool is a testament to Sotos’ worth as a superior litterataur.  His style is lean and precise and instantly recognizable; a note-perfect economy of cadence, structure, and inflection, deftly trained to communicate the unspeakable.  His command of language can be astonishing in its originality and power.  The man is a born writer. 


Her face is typical ghetto sludge.  Drunk, glassy eyes covered in yellow film, stupid hung mouth.  Ratty hair and wrinkles and blemishes.  Niggers shouldn’t wear makeup.  Rouge or blush or whatever-the-fuck caked on and mottled leather skin with deep pores and sores.  Greasy.  So fucking old. Pathetic.

Choke on it, prose-poets.  This is perception distilled to a vicious essence. Punctuated in clean riffs, at once emphatic and delicate, like the music you’ll never make.  The recognition may not be welcome, but you know this whore, whose face  Sotos describes as "ghetto sludge."  Ambiguity is denied.  Like the greatest artists, Sotos shows us what we are unwilling to see. And not some glossed-over facsimile of the forbidden, but the real thing.

Tool may be described as a densely assembled collection of metafictional narratives — or extrapolations, or investigations — differing in pace and tone yet bound in cathexis to a kind of unyielding psycho-sexual gravity.  It opens in high gear, with an eleven page child abduction fantasy (the same aforementioned text that appears under the title "Quality Time"  in ANSWER Me! #4) that can be fairly described as excruciating.  Inspired by the crimes of Ian Brady, the real-time narrative unfolds through the monologue of a lust killer as he torments and tortures a captive ten-year-old girl.  Beneath the tone of unremitting cruelty there is a current of oblique media commentary, with the child’s soon-to-be murderer ruminating obsessively about moralistic rape documentaries, child prostitution exposés and the like.  The effect is disorienting, and relevant.

In the slideshow vignettes that follow,  Sotos revels by turns in the desperate misery of inner city crack whores, track-marked white-trash peep show specimens.  And despondent glory-hole habitués.  He wallows in the suffering and subtle hypocrisy of bereaved families whose tear-streaked faces inevitably become the focal point of talk show melodrama.  There’s a world of pain out there.  Sotos breathes it in and serves it back in ferocious prose.

The upside of  Sotos arrest is that it inspired some of his most full-on powerful writing.  Chapter Five is the standout of Tool, the piece de resistance toward which every concentric strand returns.  Perfectly paced, dangerous, hardboiled, and terrifying, it recounts the author’s hotlight grilling at the hands of police interrogators.   They think they’ve snared a devil, but Sotos cuts through the outrage and pose.

"I don’t figure they’re all perverts," he writes,

Sheep.  Like the rest.  That’s all.  However, there must come a time when the "material" they handle ceases to feed the shock of the new and enters the nether-regions as slog or burnout or mania.

And it seems the cops have been poring over just such "material," a clandestine kiddie-porn magazine called Incest IV,  to be specific — the objet d’filth that  provided the necessary pretext for Sotos’ detainment.  Of course, they’re only too eager to let the pervert know just how disgusting and horrible it all is.  A black cop in particular, wants Sotos to appreciate his burden:

The nigger tells me he hates looking at this stuff.  I think every cop, dick and DA has made sure I knew that.  I would suggest another job.  Honestly, it can’t be worth it.

Just imagine the horrible possibility of one of these poor men fucking their wives’ depths, grabbing her big titties and sucking her tongue and plowing ever harder, ever faster when, all of a sudden, that evil image of child fellatio hits him in the forehead.  I’m sure it’s enough to make him lose his erection.

Against a backdrop of official procedure and macho good-guy talk, Sotos describes the statutorily defined images.  Then the crime scenes.  A cop asks him how often he masturbates.  Back to the good-guy prattle.  "Does this stuff… turn you on?," asks another. Back to reality.  Slowly the facade is blurred, and the implications become clear.  It can’t be worth it, yet somehow it is.

In his self-adulating autobiography, Mindhunter, the renowned serial crime "profiler" John Douglas tells us about the "horrible stuff" he sees.  "You build defense mechanisms," he explains.

Only he doesn’t explain.  In Tool, Sotos does.    


While Catherin MacKinnon gets a private screening of the Bernardo snuff tapes, our man Sotos is left to slake his libido with less potent material.  The result of his aesthetic pursuits is Parasite, a collection of the first twenty issues of his (now defunct) monthly journal of criticism, literary and otherwise.

Within the context of well-crafted review-essays, Sotos turns a laser eye to the crimes of culture and the culture of crime.  Buckets of news-filtered kid-gore are served up in cruel juxtaposition to the palpable anguish of grieving parents, courtesy of CNN.   The simian sexuality of Cabrini Green street whores is cast in a dangerous continuum with "the sky high love and care" fantasy sexuality exuded by your wife or girlfriend.   Sotos mocks the pretense of "pro-porn-with-limits" feminism and sees straight through the ostentatious sublimations of ReSearch faggots, Charles Manson devotees, and such other confused denizens of the ersatz underground.  True crime paperbacks, child abuse documentaries, talk show dysgenisis, gonzo porn videos, AIDS memoirs, feminist theory — it’s all grist for the mill.  Where else are you going to find a work of earnest criticism that considers the text of Only Words alongside a Gang Bang video compilation?  And to see it pulled off so brilliantly?      

His take on the priggish Canadian killjoy is dead-on, by the way.  He pegs her as having "a thinking rapist’s mind," and speculates as to the hard core of her fallacious fulmination.  "Ms. MacKinnon," Sotos observes, "is so obsessed with the dangerous possibilities of sex — and more to the point, its understated violence —  that she sees  it everywhere." 


Her arguments tend to sound closeted and hysterical, and her reasoning is based on using welfare line ghetto rats as a rule.  Added to that an overwhelming sense of fear and hatred (she cannot get beyond the notion that a penis can do anything but RAM into a vagina) and what you have is someone, a girl, who is almost romantically abused and beaten and raped into submission by her own mind.

And since it’s bad form to mention Ms. Mackinnon without also tipping one’s hat to her sister-in-arms, Andrea Dworkin gets her turn as well.  Specifically, Sotos comments on her visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, as reported in Ms. magazine: 

Pleading for a Holocaust remembrance which IS NOT MALE, Andrea wants to see all the excised clitorises  and injected uteri, all the naked, shaken, whipped, beaten, squashed, punished, precious women from the golden days of the Nazi death camps.  And we couldn’t agree more.

"Despite the horror," Sotos writes, "Andrea Dworkin can’t seem to stop looking, and she’s clamoring to see more."  Yes.  She wants — needs — authenticity and true horror.  Just like Sotos.  One senses a strange spiritual communion.  (The cheap analogy, of course, being Lecter and Starling.)

And there is much more.  Sotos  deconstructs the "complicitous atavism"
inherent in Andrew Vachss’s moralistic crime fiction and prods at the
"titillating learning disabilities" of G.G. Allin fans. And for
nostalgic souls, there’s even a lively round of armchair Ripperology.

But the salient convergence may turn with Sotos’ study of of several books and one PBS documentary concerning "Genie," the developmentally stunted "wild child" who survived years of abuse and neglect to be exploited by throngs of Nobel-coveting scientists.  In her interminable suffering, the harshest verities of existence are magnified to precision: 

Hers is a truly remarkable life of excruciating torture and its eternal recurrence, both physical and metaphorical, that lies beneath the tasteless, selfish, veneer of love and concern.    

And then, like the bumper sticker says, you die.

In the annals of cultural criticism , Parasite is sui generis.   Sotos’ approach is obsessive and  personal, yet detached by the critical instinct of a trained deconstructionist. Wallowing in Schadenfreude, his editorial investment proffers discomfiting insight into an ineffable psychic intersection where lust and victimization and power collapse into a worldview at once repulsive and insistent. Implacable, and everywhere shaded by terrible revelation. 


"My sexual tastes stem from a full philosophy and Weltanschuung" declared Peter Sotos in the infamous interview that first appeared in Apocalypse Culture whenever ago.  And without question, a brute but feigning logic is available for those still inclined to play; if individual gratification is the highest purpose, and true lust is to be sated only in the timbre of unrelenting cruelty, an absolutist pleasure principle will trump every imagined constraint.  But beyond the crudely conceived mien of unadulterated hedonism, such a system is damned by conceptual problems.  When crime is food, the taste is blunted, is dulled, is doomed perforce. 

Taken at face value, an emphatic rejection of such moral categories as love and compassion is neatly irreconcilable with the qualitative resonance the game demands of such ostensible vagaries, or of the persistence of belief that reifies their meaning.  "You like to feel their conscience," Sotos writes in Tool, "gives their pain a resonance." But in sexualizing the conquest of this tender specificity, the libertine implicitly acknowledges and renews the reality he would deny.  Like the fascists in Salo, he "accepts the terms to break them," but he accepts them nevertheless.  If love should be exploded as a vacuous nonentity, Sotos’ early narratives would seem limp and inconsequential.  Which, they do not.  It’s the same recurring paradox one finds in Sade:  vice triumphs over virtue only to recreate it in perpetuity.  Inverted moralities are funny that way.

So we are left with an untenable ethos, a solipsistic chimera.  But the stakes were never thus.  Psychology is not philosophy. Taste is not judgment. Like Colin Wilson’s forgotten Outsider, Sotos eschews or transcends the ideas that "produce theological thinking and philosophy."  For the Outsider — for Sotos — the salient distinction "is between being and nothingness."  This is where the burden must rest.  So, having no choice, he calls it as he sees it. And somehow the constitution of one man’s perception, radically individuated and easily condemned, seems upon careful reflection less aberrant than confident assurances would have it.  Witness McMartin, Wenatchee, JonBenet;  not the referent, but the spectacle that feeds it back.

Do you really believe Bret Ellis is above it all?  That Abel Ferrara doesn’t lust to rape a nun?  And what about Andrew Vachss — that patch-eyed child-abuse crusader cum lurid crime novelist who goes on Oprah, all tight-lipped and angry to tell us how BAD he’s seen it get and how EVIL these kid-brutalizing "freaks" can be?  You think he’s impervious to corruption?  Like some absurd Calvinist hero?  Me, I’m not buying it.  Whether they choose to admit it or not, my gut says most people — and virtually all men — have privately chased thoughts and fantasies similar to those forming the core of  Sotos’ preoccupation.  I know I have.  It’s just that people recoil from the implications.

They prefer their blow-jobs in the dark.   

The "death pussies" as Jim Goad calls them, want to have their sadism and condemn it too.  Or mock it.  Or cloak it as required, with careless words and excuses.   Those serial killer trading cards, they assure themselves, are all good campy fun.  The mondo movies, the German pornography, the true crime library  — all trace to an ingenuous curiosity  about the dark side of human nature.  Thanatoxis reduced to thriftstore effrontery. 

The unstated rule is that it’s OK to wax intellectual about the lure of snuff, provided you mask your interest behind an impenetrable vocabulary of morally tinged self-justification. It’s catharsis, or transgression.  Expiation.  Satire.  Performance art.  Whatever works.

Sotos breaks the rule.  He forces the card.  And he calls the poseurs on their shit. While the devotees of death culture  continue to run in circles to avoid confronting the black heart of their precious obsessions, they now have Total Abuse to  contend with. And suddenly things aren’t so much fun anymore.  The practiced circumlocution is less easily sold, but that erection doesn’t lie. It’s time to stop pretending. Time to come to terms with "the viciousness and frailty of lust."   

XXX:  A Woman’s Right to Pornography, by Wendy McElroy.  St. Martins Press, 1995, 243 pp.

After wading through the libidinal darkness that is Dworkin and Sotos, it’s good to be reminded that sexual expression needn’t be such a sordid affair.  That it can be, and often is, well… fun.  Not to mention educational.  And liberating, even.  That’s the preordained theme of libertarian feminist Wendy McElroy’s XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography, a disappointing but enjoyable addition to the growing literature of pro-porn feminism.

Addressing her anticipated female readership, McElroy lays it on the line:

If you love to give blow jobs, pornography applauds you.  If you wonder about sex with a woman, pornpgraphy makes it seem harmless.  If you wish to be overpowered by a man, porn allows you to see what it might look like. Videos make no comment on which sexual preferences are acceptable; they eroticize every aspect of the human body, from feet to breasts; no sexual question is wrong to ask… Pornography is the true arena of tolerance.

Hooray for pornography!

McElroy is generally competent, if less than rigorous, in her discussion of the standard feminist antiporn arguments. She sees through the Foucauldian casuistry about internalized oppression, and she reminds us that laws purported designed to protect women have a tendency to backfire.  Recently drafted Canadian anti-smut statutes, for example, have already led to the seizure of lesbian texts, including works by antiporn crusaders like Kate Millet and Andrea Dworkin.

Similarly, by McElroy’s unconventional but more or less persuasive reasoning, illegalizing porn would likely have the worst repercussions for women who choose to work in the industry — the very people for whom feminists profess such overweening concern.   Since "[t]he law cannot eliminate pornography, any more than it has been able to stamp out prostitution," McElroy draws the obvious conclusion that "[antiporn] laws will simply drive porn underground."  And as with any other illicit market, "[w]ithout recourse to unions or the police, performers have little control over their working conditions," so, "making pornography illegal will take away whatever safeguards for women presently exist." 

McElroy only intimates as much, but with supply and demand criminalized, I’d further wager that the prevailing product content might become a fuck of a lot sleazier, too.  "After the porn ban," you can stay tuned as the bruised kiddies, unwilling turd-slurpers and red-dicked St. Bernards finally get their shot at center stage.

From her somewhat selective survey of the hard research into the psycho-social effects of porn, McElroy correctly notes that "studies and experts continue to disagree as to whether there is any relationship between pornography and violence."  She points out that "real world feedback" in Germany (where a glut of distinctively nasty porn has been followed by a decrease in sex crime) and Japan (where there’s a veritable shitload of ultra-violent smut, but relatively few rapes per capita) poses a prima facie empirical challenge to those supporting the "imitation theory" of sexual pathology.

What’s more, much of the current research is plagued with methodological problems.  For instance, in their rush to assign blame to words and images, many researchers muddle the all-important distinction between correlation and cause.  Thus, while oft-cited "interviews in which rapists confess they consumed violent pornography before committing their crime" may, as McElroy writes, "indicate nothing more than that men who rape may also enjoy brutal images of sex," this elementary truism doesn’t stop the feminists and moralists from dragging out Ted Bundy as "Exhibit A" in their campaign against smut.   

So libertarian far, so libertarian good. 

Still, at the risk of being fussy, I do think McElroy is mistaken in her blanket assertion that "the researchers who draw draw a relationship between pornography and violencehold one of two contrary views on what the connection might be."  True, the "catharsis" theory proposes that exposure to porn may assuage one’s desire to act upon unseemly sexual impulses, while the "imitation" theory posits more or less the opposite view, but I fail to see how these positions are mutually contradictory.  I too am reflexively skeptical of attempts to draw direct causal linkages between behavior and word-image stimuli, but granting the potential validity of some independent relationship, it is certainly possible to imagine that some pornography may have a cathartic effect on some individuals under some circumstances while an imitative response might manifest in other individuals exposed to different flavors of porn under still different circumstances.  And so on.   

Moreover, socio-economic, cultural, psychometric, or even genetic variables may predispose markedly unlike people to markedly dissimilar reactions under varying sociocultural circumstances, implying an exceedingly complex cost-benefit approach to the whole inconvenient question — or raft of questions.  I’m not saying that such a nuanced view is necessarily more likely to be correct; I just find it hard to believe that all the researchers are so sharply polarized as to be unwilling to consider the range of possibilities.  What’s works for Japan may not furnish  an equally happy stasis for South Africa, or Texas. One man’s catharsis may be another man’s trigger. Social science is a swamp.

Of course, the better part of XXX is less concerned with the vicissitudes of behavioral research than with the intersecting issues of feminism, sexual freedom and the question of porn. And within this bog, the most salient second-order issue is force.  Are women, by whatever means, forced to go spread-eagle before the camera, or are they willing participants in their own exploitation?  Or does the answer, once again, yield to dread complexity? The noisiest academic consensus has long favored the former view, but for all the feminist cant about violence and coercion in pornoland, it’s almost shocking to discover how little the matter has actually been investigated.  Peek behind the sweeping generalizations and you find that most advocates of a porn-is-rape dogma rest their biases on a few secondhand stories, and the very dubious confessions of one Linda Susan Boreman, a.k.a. Lovelace.

To her credit, McElroy had the quaint notion that maybe someone should ask the women themselves.   Her  due diligence ensures that female power brokers in the adult entertainment industry have their say.  We hear from Nina Hartley, and Femme Productions founder, Candida Royalle, as well as a few B-list of performers, all of whom speak intelligently of the personal choices that brought them to pornography; all of whom deny ever having been forced to perform any sex act in it’s production (though some claim to first-hand knowledge of borderline cases).  And I suppose their words give lie to a certain class of antiporn histrionics.  Fair enough.

But while measured huzzahs may be in order for McElroy’s examination of the realpolitik of the porn industry, for interviewing the producers and players, and dispelling stereotypes, such as they are, there remains something very unsatisfying about her journalistic approach; indeed, about XXX in general.  On a superficial level, the problem is easy to pin:  the evidence McElroy submits is selective.  Honestly, what does one expect to hear from seasoned industry reps? These are contract players, veterans.  Porn is their livelihood, so of course they’re going to defend it.  It might have been interesting to seek out the views of at least a few of the women who got out.

Even if interview selectivity is excusable by good intentions, or as a kind of corrective, the use of plainly biased polling data is less defensible.  I refer to McElroy’s survey of 41 members of COYOTE, a "national sex workers rights organization" comprised mostly of high-end prostitutes (and no porn actresses).  As it turns out, a whopping 95% claim not to have been coerced into sex work.  A solid majority also profess never to have been victimized by any form of violence.  Not only that, but they like what they do! 

To belabor, what else should we expect to glean from a self-selected, politically outspoken subgroup of organized sex workers?  I’m sure nary a street whore in Chicago has even heard of COYOTE, and the views of a minority of its membership are almost certainly not going to be representative of prostitutes in general.  No way, no how. 

In fairness, McElroy does concede as much, pointing out by way of caveat that in addition to favoring the opinions of "socially aware" women, her survey is skewed in favor of sex workers who feel less vulnerable," and ultimately "proves nothing," but then she goes on to tout her bogus research as "an empirical and pioneering examination of whether or not sex workers consent to their professions." 

For McElroy, it seems the redeeming value of the survey is that it disproves what she seems to take as a standard anti-sex worker claim that just as "every woman in porn has been coerced into the industry," so are they "all prostitutes… drug abusers or victims of incest"   (emphasis added).   True enough, the COYOTE survey does effectively disprove this claim.  Trouble is, I can think of no one who seriously holds such an absurd view.  Even Catherin MacKinnon, the arch-antiporn feminist with whose words McElroy prefaces her "empirical" research, only goes so far as to assert that sex workers are "overwhelmingly… poor, desperate, homeless, pimped women who were sexually abused as children" (emphasis added).  Inaccurate as Ms. MacKinnon’s pronouncement most probably is, the point is that is not a categorical assertion and is therefore not disproved by the COYOTE survey.  Here and elsewhere in XXX, McElroy is debunking strawpersons.  Either she’s out of her depth, or she had a deadline.

But there is more to McElroy’s failing than methodological sloppiness.  I’m going out on a limb.  I think McElroy is disquieted by much of the material she strives to defend.   Indeed, her ambivalence — nay, squeamishness — comes across frequently.  Recounting a fairly tame display of ersatz S&M at a video convention, she writes "[a] sinking feeling always accompanies this memory" and "it never fails to disturb me."   When smut vet John Leslie speaks explicitly (and rudely) of his sexual escapades, McElroy turns "beet-red," unable to conceal her discomfiture.   "On a strictly personal level," she admits at one point, "the porn I viewed… provoked some strange reactions in me — uncomfortable reactions."

While there is nothing at all wrong with such feelings, McElroy fails to explore their meaning, and her porn-affirmative posture is left seeming disingenuous and at least partly contrived.  Her characterization of porn stars as rebels and sexual outlaws comes off as similarly forced. Infelicitous romanticism in the service of her see-no-evil apology.  Like Camille Paglia, she seems only to eager to lend them some profound sexual power, which, I’m sorry, just isn’t there.

"Pornography frightens people," McElroy tells us.  After reading XXX, I am sure she is among the frightened.  If she had taken the safe route, advancing a strictly libertarian defense of porn as a morally neutral individual right, this would not bear mentioning.  But her argument, while embracing porn rights broadly writ, goes further:  "pornography benefits women, both personally and politically," she asserts. She presents plausible reasons why this might even be true, at least for some women.  But I can never shake the sense that, "on a strictly personal level,"  Wendy McElroy’s heart is elsewhere.

Had she not gone in so stone determined to whitewash the industry, had she confronted her own demons and written more honestly about her personal reaction to pornography, then XXX might have been a groundbreaking book.   As it stands, it’s merely an entertaining footnote with moments of keen political insight.

It’s a shame, really.  Perhaps one day McElroy will lay her libertarian fealties aside, and write the book that XXX might have been.                     

“The audience doesn’t realize there’s a message hidden there”

In a must-read profile of Austrian director, Micheal Haneke, NY Times columnist John Wray writes, "[t]he experience of watching Funny Games is not unlike watching
snuff-porn clips late at night in your bedroom, only to have your
mother or Jacques Lacan switch the light on periodically without the
slightest warning."  That may read like fatuous hyperbole, but if you’ve seen the original film, you’ll at least appreciate the effort. 

Having seen it several times, I am increasingly suspicious of the the politically weighted theoretical justifications routinely deployed in defense of Haneke’s precisely calculated, genre-deconstructing denial of catharsis.  The safely subversive reading portrays Haneke as a deft manipulator of
cinematic convention, which is true enough, sans the moral gloss.  While it is invariably excused and discussed as a socially necessary work of intellectual provocation, Funny Games is better appreciated, I think, as an undiluted expression of nihilism, and contempt. When Haneke announces that he is "trying to rape the viewer into independence," he’s only telling half the truth.

In her excellent study, Offensive Films, anthropologist cum film critic Mikita Brottman reads Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as a film in which "a  sustained inversion of the symbolic rituals and  motifs of the fairy tale creates an apocalyptic narrative of negativity and destruction, wholly unredeemed by any single element of plot, mood or characterization."   The postmodern misdirection may  provide safe cover, but I think Funny Games yields to essentially the same transgressive MO.  Which may be why it stands as one of the most effective horror films ever made. I’m looking forward to the American remake; with the high-minded pretexts so well rehearsed, Haneke can pretty much do anything he wants.            


  • The ubiquitous TGGP flexes his cerebra in consideration of Robert Putnam’s baleful report on diversity and trust and ends up touting the benefits of "social anomie and isolation," albeit tentatively.   Being an unrepentant "performance cynic," I tend to agree.
  • Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis (summarized here), has been the touchstone of much lively discussion and commentary of late.  Haidt’s central idea that a broadly scripted suite of moral sentiments is rooted in evolution seems promising enough, if not obvious, and his points of emphasis should be taken to heart by lifestyle atheists and moral philosophers alike. Personally, I can’t shake the sense that Haidt’s ideas on the evolutionary utility of religion might bear exploration in relation to Roger Scruton’s disquieting critique of the recent spate of anti-religious polemics.
  • Me?  I continue to catch up on some non-required reading in preparation for the fifth and final post in my antinatalism series. I’m a slow reader, so while I plug and plod and ponder, I have elected to fill the void by posting some link-enhanced articles and reviews that originally ran in the long defunct print incarnation of The Hoover Hog.   The first one is a triptych of book reviews centered on pornography and feminism,  which should be up in the next few days. Thanks for tuning in.    

Memento mori.


Notes on Abortion and Antinatalism

If you’ve been following my series on antinatalism (here are parts one, two, three, and four), please be advised that the fifth and, I promise, final installment — which concerns antinatalism and abortion — may be delayed a bit longer than anticipated.   While my first intention was to suggest a roughly prescriptivist-libertarian refutation of David Benatar’s enticingly heretical "pro death" argument that abortion is morally countenanced under antinatalist ethics, I now find myself struggling with a number of fundamental assumptions and issues and can only conclude that further study is warranted.   Consequently, I will be taking the necessary time to read and re-read some key texts in meta-ethics and legal theory (and whatever else is suggested along the way), but I will do my best to keep The Hog afloat with occasional popcorn-posts until all the pointless hard thinking is through.  My thanks to those of you who continue to check in.  If you have any suggested reading, please share.    

P.S. – It’s funny, in Benatar’s discussion of abortion ethics, there is a more or less obligatory allowance for distinctions "between one’s moral views and what one thinks the law should say," but contextually the only default assumption permitted is that "one can embrace the pro-life position as the correct moral position, but think that people should nonetheless have a legal right to choose."  That’s well enough, I suppose, but I have yet to encounter explicit acknowledgment of the inverse legal-ethical stance that sees nothing morally or intuitively objectionable about abortion as such while upholding a rights-centered consequentialist case that it should nonetheless be legally proscribed.  Yet it is from this strange trench that I am compelled to craft my argument, for reasons I now half-hope to abandon.  It may be seul contre tous, and so be it if it is; I rather prefer the badge of lone irrelevance. I only worry that I am missing something crucial, or worse, that my thinking is clouded by some oblique prejudices that I have yet to overcome.  Very frustrating.

Memento mori. 

David Brooks and Twelve Friends Agree: IQ is Passé

Steve Sailer is having some good fun with the latest regurgitation of the old "let’s move beyond IQ, already" bromide, as presently punctuated in David Brooks’ strawman-surfeited NYT op-ed, "The Waning of IQ."  I don’t have much to add, except to note that Brooks’  bizarro-world pronouncements are emblematic of a certain brand of left-handed elitism that finds purchase in the bobo-inhabited cloisters of metropolitical cocktail culture.  To put a finer point on it, Brooks can be dismissive of cognitive ability because he doesn’t hang out with dullards.

This points up a central if oft-overlooked insight of The Bell Curve. It’s stated right at the outset, where Murray and Herrnstein use an apposite thought experiment to illustrate the culture-perpetuating mechanics of cognitive stratification.  Remember the "dozen closest friends" exercise? Addressing their "preposterously unlikely" readership,  Murray and Herrnstein wrote:

Think of your twelve closest friends or colleagues.  For most readers of this book, the large majority will be college graduates.  Does it surprise you to learn that the odds of having even half of them be college graduates are only six in a thousand, if people were randomly paired off?  Many of you will not think it odd that half or more of the dozen have advanced degrees.  But the odds against finding such a result among a randomly chosen group of twelve Americans are more than a million to one.  Are any of the dozen a graduate of Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Cal Tech, MIT, Duke, Dartmouth, Cornell, Columbia, University of Chicago, or Brown?  The chances that even one is a graduate of those twelve schools is one in a thousand.  The chance of finding two among that group is one in fifty thousand.  The chance of finding four or more is less than one in a billion.


The point of the exercise … is is to encourage you to detach yourself momentarily from  the way the world looks to you from day to day and contemplate how extraordinarily different your circle of friends and acquaintances is  from  what would be the norm in a perfectly fluid society.  This profound isolation from other parts of the IQ distribution probably dulls our awareness of how unrepresentative our circle actually is.

Thus David Brooks, who once penned a bravely evenhanded review of The Bell Curve, can unselfconsciously knock off  a howler like:

If people at Harvard are moving beyond general intelligence, you know something big is happening.

Yes, something big indeed. In David Brooks’ narrow sliver of reality. Which is all that matters.

I once stumbled onto a dirt-level version of the "twelve friends" exercise, which I have since come to refer to as the "piano test."  It began when my then-girlfriend-now-wife proffered an innocuous observation:  "Isn’t it funny," she said, "how everyone has a piano in their house but no one ever plays them?"  I must have worn a poisonously quizzical expression when I turned to her her and replied, "what the fuck are you talking about? I don’t know anyone who owns a piano."

This wasn’t entirely true, of course.  Most of her family members did indeed have mostly pianos on display in their home environs, and I knew them.  But no one in my family did. Nor, when I reflected on the matter, did any of my close friends growing up.  As I pondered this curious gulf in our respective referential experiences, I realized that the very thought of owning a piano struck me as odd.   

But my lineage isn’t far removed from the Scotch-Irish sludge that pretty much defines the demographic character of central Appalachia.   Growing up, I traveled in overlapping circles of rednecks, skatepunks, and self-styled misfits, whose homes were generally more likely to be strewn with dogeared Stephen King paperbacks and Thomas Kincade reproductions than anything resembling a piano. After I barely graduated from high school, I barely made it into a low-rung state college.  If we went out to eat when I was a kid, we went to Shoney’s.  That’s the way it was. The way my reality was colored.

My wife’s experience was different.  Her genetic stock boasted close ties to Eastern European Jewry and Methodist-bred WASPdom, with academic signposts on all sides.   Her friends were honor students who went to semi-prestigious schools, as did she. And her friends’ families, naturally, owned pianos.  That’s the way it was. The way her reality was colored. We met in the shadowy intersection of a venn diagram. It must have been fate.

Straddling both worlds provides a sobering vantage from which to discern the self-delusional habits of thought and opinion that serve to cultivate and ultimately entrench a casual Lake Wobegon worldview.  Nowadays, when dinner conversation with the extended family  turns to matters of education or "social justice" or the dread subject of race, my silence is practiced and frankly well-advised.   

Part of Brooks’ latest pitch surely traces to the same self-conscious humility that lay behind Stephen Jay Gould’s  success as a once-beknighted dispenser of middlebrow-marketed egalitarian-creationist palliatives. It’s easy enough to digest if your experience with the left side of the curve is limited to fragmented conversations with cab-drivers, Mexican maids, and dry-cleaning clerks. But part of Brooks’ problem, I am equally confident, is that most of his friends own pianos.

None of which would matter in the least were it not for the stubborn fact that these recurrent and predictable displays of easily sold wishful thinking serve merely to allay cognitive-elitist discomfiture. I suspect that Linda Gottfredson may be on to something crucial when she reports on the power of IQ to predict and explain trends in accidental injuries, mortal risk, and long-term health. Yet the humanitarian potential of her work will, in all probability, remain politely untapped.  And when Gregory Clark suggests that indigenous peoples throughout the world may be innately ill-suited to step up to their expected roles as rational agents under a Western-capitalist paradigm, his impolitic speculation may well be informed by practical concern.  But it’s another promising lead to be studiously avoided by David Brooks and most of his closest friends.

The beat goes on.  If our memory of Hurricane Katrina is tainted by just the right measure of media-facilitated rumor and myth, we can avoid thinking the unthinkable. Until the next seismic reminder comes along, the lessons you might have derived are safely predefined as gauche. Like talk of iodine deficiency in third world countries.  Nothing to be done.  But so what.  David Brooks is an important opinion-maker, and he says IQ is passé.

Best to move on, then. A colleague has been raving about that new Ghanan restaurant on Lexington.  The lunch crowd is a beast, but it’s worth the wait.  Perhaps a reservation for twelve will keep the goblins at bay.

UPDATE:  If you’re looking for an informed  analysis of Brooks’ op-ed, Gene Expression  has the goods.


  • Over at The Last Ditch, Andy Nowicki turns out some provocative and insightful observations on the politics of race and classical liberalism as telescoped through the Michael Vick case. And speaking of Andy Nowicki, I’ve been catching up on his online work-in-progress, Possessed by Death, a beautifully crafted and vaguely Schopenhauerian meditation on mortality and related subjects. Here is the first of five installments.   

Memento mori.

In Defense of Wasted Energy

Over at Overcoming Bias, a commenter writes in response to my latest and lamest musings on antinatalism and transhumanism:

I was disappointed by that
Chip Smith piece. He seems to live in a reality where thinkers like
Aubrey de Gray, Nick Bostrom, and Anders Sandberg don’t exist. I
suppose a good case could be made that all this clever writing
(particularly by the non-anonymous) is sexual signalling. If so, I’d
like it to be better harnessed towards pragmatic problem-solving (like
the problem of our appparent mortality!), rooted in empiricism, than
this fluffy "let me show you how clever I am in arguing this
counteruntuitive thing" sort of stuff.

A lot of the uncritical aspirations of transhumanism, Fukuyama’s
criticisms of transhumanism, and Chip’s criticisms of Fukuyama seem
like so much wasted energy to me. I’d rather they all be tearing apart
the weak points of Aubrey, Nick, Anders’, etc. ideas regarding solving
aging and minimizing existential risk. Sexually signal that way folks
-I think it does more for us, and we’re on an unforgiving deadline.

Later in the thread, the same commenter advises:

Drop this libertarian, etc. bullsh*t and focus on using empiricism to
try to solve aging in the next few decades. That would be my general
advice to all those white collar guys sold libertarianism, etc. as a
belief-as-attire counterhierarchy for second rung elites.

Sexual signaling?  Yikes.

The better argument, which I neither resist nor deny, is that I am masturbating.  Worse, that I am masturbating in the face of  a grave and looming crisis.  That Sartrean bad faith should now trace to scientific apathy is at least encouraging.  But still.  Drape me in shame.  I do not apologize.

My first order of defense is impotence.  Seeing as I never mastered high school algebra, I think it’s fair to say that the transhumanist mission will succeed or fail without whatever insubstantial cognitive grist I might add, or subtract. The best I refuse to hope for is to be a downmarket beneficiary of some biotech windfall.  For now, the antidepressants seem to be working. And that will have to be good enough, even if it isn’t. Those guys are nerds, anyway.

There should be a word for the bitter sense of awestruck humility that feels like the opposite of inspiration. The stunting afterburn that comes every time I read Nabokov.  It can be crushingly emphatic, the unalloyed weight of difference and distance. If you’re not careful, it can dash every shard of ambition. I tune into Gene Expression every day to clutch at the cadence of a discourse that will remain forever beyond my depth.  But masturbation feels nice.  And there is some consolation in knowing.  Even as the mermaids sing.

My second order of defense is laziness.  The psychic rut of low rung elitism turns out to be a cozy redoubt. Being untethered by the solipsistic biases that pollute better minds, I feel free to wallow in the vagaries of amateurish moral philosophy with no illusion, and no real satisfaction save for the occasional dimly liberating frisson of convinced hopelessness.  Immortalism is a preference; in substance and urgency, a rational counterpart to antinatalist ethics. It is also a philosophical ditch and a practical improbability. Alan Harrington is dead, and Aubrey de Gray isn’t looking so good. Despite my practiced outrage and incomprehension, I do not expect to escape death. Nor do I expect people to stop breeding.

The iterations are necessary, I insist, and the inflection is tuned the only way I know.  But there is absolutely nothing I can do.  From the shadows, existential rebellion is summoned by the first snow and the next drink.  Good luck with the project.  I’ll be waiting with the door locked.   

Initial Harm Part Four: Matters of Life and Death

Although they are born looking healthy, children with Progeria begin to
display many characteristics of accelerated aging at around 18-24 months of
age. Progeria signs include growth failure, loss of body fat and hair,
aged-looking skin, stiffness of joints, hip dislocation, generalized
atherosclerosis, cardiovascular  disease and stroke. The children have a
remarkably similar appearance, despite differing ethnic background. Children
with Progeria die of atherosclerosis (heart disease) at an average age of
thirteen years.

                                              — Progeria Research Foundation

Death is an imposition on the human race and no longer acceptable.

                                            — Alan Harrington, The Immortalist

I’m so sorry to hear about it.  I just thought things were magic and that it would never happen.

                                             — Andy Warhol, writing about death, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol   



Because I don’t want to die, I guess.  I’m not depressed.  I’m not sick.  Maybe a little hungover, but…


OK, I won’t say I don’t understand. It’s just — I think it’s a profound misapprehension.  A non-sequitur, really.  Just because it would have been better…


…just because I’m arguing that it’s better never to be born doesn’t mean you should kill yourself — or were you being more specific? Look, I despise the fact that I have to die at all.  At least on a good day.  It’s a bitter fucking pill, and for me it’s the biggest part of the problem with being born — that it means you have to die. There’s absolutely no inconsistency. And if you insist there is, I’m sorry but you’re missing everything.


Well, I could just as easily ask why you don’t just murder your kids right now.  I mean, since you already  set things in motion?  What’s a few decades, after all?


I don’t know.  I guess I’m half serious.  We’re obviously not going to agree.  Not that it matters.  Obviously, it doesn’t matter at all.


Progeria As Metaphor

In the closing chapter of Better Never to Have Been, David Benatar addresses the most commonplace counterpoint to antinatalist reasoning, that it is simply too absurd — or too counter-intuitive — to merit rational consideration, that the  idea may be summarily dismissed as a prima facie case of "reason gone mad."  He does his best to counter what might be called the arational objection:

…it is noteworthy that a view’s counter-intuitiveness cannot by itself constitute a decisive consideration against it. This is because intuitions are often profoundly unreliable — a product of mere prejudice.  Views that are taken to be deeply counter-intuitive in one place and time are often taken to be obviously true in another.  The view that slavery is wrong, or the view that there is nothing wrong with ‘miscegenation,’ were once thought to be highly implausible and counter-intuitive.  They are now taken, at least in many parts of the world, to be self-evident.  It is not enough, therefore, to find a view or its implications counter-intuitive, or even offensive.  One has to examine the arguments for the disliked conclusion.  Most of those who have rejected the view that it is wrong to create more people have done so without assessing the argument for that conclusion.  They have simply assumed that this view must be false.

It’s a necessary gesture, I admit.  But there can be no illusions. The plea to reason, in this instance alone, is doomed to fail.  I am convinced that human nature is, in some respects (and certainly in this respect), intractable. Even if there is some smolder of hope to be clutched in the malleable perturbations of ethical discourse, or in the implacable logic of the better argument, the extra-rational trajectory of our natural history remains locked on course. Considered as a conflict between genetic and memetic interests, the "don’t have kids" meme is intrinsically programmed for destruction.  Success means failure.  The game is rigged, snare-tight.  A trap.  I know. I am sorry.

And yet.  No one should ever have children.  If you subscribe to any Lockean or Kantian order of moral conduct, having children violates a person’s right against aggression, injury and death.  If you prefer a more plastic utilitarian calculus, even the slightest pinprick will trump the hedonic accounting that allows for the eternal painlessness of pre-existent nothingness. Even if life, always and everywhere brings with it sufferings and potential harms that are far from trivial, not least of which being the wholly avoidable harm of death.  If you believe in a wrathful god, then procreation entails risks of literally inconceivable magnitude.  So you take retreat in arguments from futility. Because there is simply no sustainable excuse.  I’m not wrong.

Progeria is probably the best known of several "accelerated aging disorders." Occuring in approximately one in eight million people, it is a fatal genetic condition characterized by the radically early onset of  a host of degenerative impairments, most of which are associated with the normal aging process.  A clinical survey published in the journal, Age and Aging, summarizes the typical progression:

Affected individuals show several characteristics of accelerated aging, exhibiting severe growth retardation in infancy, associated baldness, loss of  subcutaneous tissue, eyebrows and eyelashes. Skeletal abnormalities, including diffuse osteoporosis and resorption of distal phalanges are marked and sometimes predominate. Intelligence is unaffected and most deaths are due to the consequences of severe atherosclerosis, particularly myocardial infarction and heart failure, which occurs in the early teenage years.

I’m sure you’ve seen them.  Their grotesquely elfin facial features, their bulbous,  hairless, skin-sheathed skulls  webbed with fragile constellations of pink-blue veins.  These unfortunate boys and girls, so prematurely, so tragically, afflicted. Are shrunken and enfeebled, at what? Nine?
Ten years of age?  The lucky ones die in their teens.  Cardiac time bombs. 

Progeria is rare. Exceptional.  Anomalous. Not like you.  Not like us.  Life
flourishes, you tell yourself.   You have — what? — maybe a good seven
decades on those decrepit little tots.  That’s something.  A normal life span, followed by genetically driven cell death.  The cessation of vital signs in biological accord with the natural order of things. A coroner’s imprimatur certifies your demise was forgone.  I can’t promise I won’t
remind you again.

Occuring in exactly one in one people, natural aging is a genetically rooted condition characterized by the progressive onset of  a host
of degenerative impairments, culminating in death. 

Here is a short passage from the recent New Yorker article, "The Way We Age Now":

Even as our bones and teeth soften, the rest of our body hardens. Blood
vessels, joints, the muscle and valves of the heart, and even the lungs
pick up substantial deposits of calcium and turn stiff. Under a
microscope, the vessels and soft tissues display the same form of
calcium that you find in bone. When you reach inside an elderly patient
during surgery, the aorta and other major vessels often feel crunchy
under your fingers. A recent study has found that loss of bone density
may be an even better predictor of death from atherosclerotic disease
than cholesterol levels. As we age, it’s as if the calcium flows out of
our skeletons and into our tissues.

Say there’s a fifty percent chance your child will be afflicted with Progeria?  Do you roll the dice?  I didn’t think so.  A life cut  so short, and so fraught with physical pain, to say nothing of  frustrated aspirations. Is too tragic to contemplate. To knowingly take such a chance would almost certainly be a crime.

One of the more amusing responses to antinatalist arguments can be found in any number of online missives posted in response to David Benatar’s aforementioned treatise.  Here is an excerpt from one such:

And I do wonder–hoping it is neither uncharitable nor scandalous to do
so, and not in fact wishing the author to carry through on the thought
experiment–why, if existence is really so awful, he does not now
proceed to off himself.

And here is another, more typically hostile, sleight of snarkery:

Of course, one is tempted to accuse this guy of inconsistency, since he
finished the book before he slashed his wrists. Or is he still alive?

Finally, we find this ponderously phrased example, of arguably more sophisticated provenance:

If the life is overall worth living, it isn’t wrong to start it.  If it’s not worth living then suicide is rational. So there is, I think, still some way to go in countering the claim that if coming into existence is a serious harm so too, in general, is continuing in existence.

 (In fairness, I should mention that David Benatar’s response to the above-linked review is online here.)

So the anti-antinatalist meme reduces to a schoolyard taunt:  If you think life is so bad, then why don’t you just kill yourself already?   

The obvious answer, already adumbrated, becomes clear when you consider the simplest and most compelling argument for the evil of procreation: that it condemns its victims to death.  In addition to not being funny, suicide-baiting one-liners simply get it ass backwards. Death is the great problem that informs antinatalist ethics; the suicide ultimatum can only be sustained by overlooking the central problem of harm. 

It is no surprise to find that bioethically flavored admonitions against questioning the presumed right to have children are intoned with the same paternalistic authority that typifies oft-expressed platitudes advising that we make nice with our reaper. Death, we are assured by self-imagined sages, is but the bittersweet conclusion  of some sappy humanistic adventure.  We are thus obliged not to complain or voice objection, not too loudly anyway, about the longer run. And the continuum of which
fair-minded foes of abortion are fond to remind us is thoughtlessly
eschewed if it is visited at all.  Our natural plight as mortal beasts
is to be accepted and cherished in obedient humility.  Eighty odd years
is a gift.  Thirteen is a curse.  The quality of life is graded on a

Fuck them, of course.  There is nothing about death that is less than abominable.  I am forever bewildered by the placating palaver wasted in efforts to quell this natural and rational horror. I wish I had never been born, therefore I don’t want to die.  Not ever.  There is no contradiction.  I do not so much not fear death as, with ineffable clarity, I loathe it.  The cessation of all that is, the perfect unknown absence, the chasm that devours every memory, every fleeting intellection, every redeeming fragment of meaning and love and lust and friendship and hunger and hopeless vitality, and reduces it all to the inconceivable cosmic ash of nothing, is my enemy.  Fuck you mother, and fuck you father.  For allowing me to dream yet die.

Necrophilic Humility and  the Case Against Death

Out of pressing concern for liberal social order, Francis Fukuyama spins the pro-death sophistry from on high. Marginally acclaimed for his neo-Hegelian treatise, The End of History and the Last Man — a book which proclaimed that social progress had essentially reached its anomie-inducing synthesis with the emergence of enlightened democratic order — this top-flight public intellectual  now pronounces that the most dangerous idea of our age is the very one that promises (or threatens, I suppose) to reanimate and redefine our collective teleology. 

The ostensibly dangerous idea in Fukuyama’s sights is something called transhumanism, which for present and general purposes is signaled by the convergence of biotechnological and philosophical currents centered on the indefinite extension and enhancement of life and mental capacity through artificial means.

The irony is deadpan.  And the argument, concisely stated in a 2004 Foreign Policy essay,  is astonishingly stupid.  Like any well-coached debate team upstart, Fukuyama starts off with a slyly tainted presentation of the "other side," writing:

Although the rapid advances in biotechnology often leave us vaguely uncomfortable,
  the intellectual or moral threat they represent is not always easy to identify.
  The human race, after all, is a pretty sorry mess, with our stubborn diseases,
  physical limitations, and short lives. Throw in humanity’s jealousies, violence,
  and constant anxieties, and the transhumanist project begins to look downright
  reasonable. If it were technologically possible, why wouldn’t we want to transcend
  our current species? The seeming reasonableness of the project, particularly
  when considered in small increments, is part of its danger. Society is unlikely
  to fall suddenly under the spell of the transhumanist worldview. But it is very
  possible that we will nibble at biotechnology’s tempting offerings without realizing
  that they come at a frightful moral cost.

A dire preface.  But where precisely can a nimble-minded ethicist identify the "frightful moral cost" at the core of Fukuyama’s worry-fraught imagining?  The answer is exposited in a paragraph-long thicket of specious speculation.  "The first victim of transhumanism," Fukuyama warns, "might be equality."

Might be:

The U.S. Declaration of
  Independence says that “all men are created equal,” and the most serious political
  fights in the history of the United States have been over who qualifies as fully human. Women and blacks did not make the cut in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson penned
  the declaration. Slowly and painfully, advanced societies have realized that
  simply being human entitles a person to political and legal equality. In effect,
  we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct.

Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess
  a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and
  even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have
  inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that
  essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves
  into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and
  what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind? If some move
  ahead, can anyone afford not to follow? These questions are troubling enough
  within rich, developed societies. Add in the implications for citizens of the
  world’s poorest countries—for whom biotechnology’s marvels likely will be out
  of reach—and the threat to the idea of equality becomes even more menacing.

OK.  Even if we are to accept the myopic parameters of Fukuyama’s non-sequitur logic, it is simply wrong to suggest that the denial of rights to women and blacks can be traced to some subtle misapprehension of our common human nature.  If anything, the tenets of equalitarian liberalism derive from moral abstractions that demand expansive tolerance of human differences, which in itself may represent a triumph over our more primal nature as kin-selected apes.  Assuming one could structure a plausible argument that the blessings of civilization "might be" withheld on presumably transhumanist-elitist grounds, the argument would be subject to the same libertarian critique that still applies to any traditionalist-elitist defense of social subordination.  And it would fail. 

Throughout his essay, Fukuyama frets obtusely over biotechnology and the enterprise of changing human nature, as if these were new things. Yet whether through culturally abetted evolutionary selection or technological innovation,  the plain reality is that human beings have been engaged in artificial self-transformation from time immemorial.  As Ronald Bailey writes in his skillful takedown of Fukuyamian pessimism:

Our ancestors had no wings; now we fly. Our ancient forebears could not
hear one another over 1,000 miles; now we phone. And our Stone Age
progenitors averaged 25 years of life; now we live 75. Thanks to our
knack for technological innovation, humanity has by far the largest
extended phenotype of all creatures on planet Earth. Nothing could be
more natural to human beings than striving to liberate ourselves from
biological constraints.   

Transhumanism may be the domain of dreamers, dorks, and dilettantes, but there is nothing dangerous in its constitution.  Far from being a threat to to some falsely
imagined pristine ideal of human nature, the project of betterment
through science is the culminative  expression what it is to be human. In practice and theory, the war against natural death is only rational response to our mortal — and moral — predicament. 

Camus had a realistic handle on the crisis when he wrote:

If a mass death sentence defines the human condition, then rebellion, in one sense is its contemporary.  At the same time that he rejects his mortality,  the rebel  refuses to recognize the power that compels him to live in this condition.

For the most commonplace duo of truly "menacing" ideas, consider first the pro-natalist presumption that allows people to wantonly create conscious life without even considering the violative consequences of their doing; then consider  the corollary insistence that obliges us to accept and even embrace death as part of some higher natural order.  I object to the procreation, inter alia, because I object to the inevitability of death.

So eat a fart, Francis. Transhumanism is as American as light beer. 
At the safe end you have vaccination, antidepressants and a host of
designer drugs which alleviate mental and physical suffering.  At the
sci-fi cusp there is the promise of  harnessing  the potential of
nanotechnology and genetic engineering to radically extend human life,
to reverse the effects of aging, and to enhance cognitive ability. And somewhere in the distant philosophical ether is an idea as
hopeless and quixotic and implacable as antinatalism; an idea that gives tangible  prospect to Camus’ desperate call to rebellion.  That idea, to
which I now turn in conclusion, is immortalism.


The fundamental idea is deftly presented in an eloquent 1969 polemic by a largely forgotten writer named Alan Harrington. In The Immortalist, Harrington is silent as to the ethics of procreation, but his insistent outline stands as a prescient and preemptive affront to the Houellebeqian pessimism informing Fukuyama’s intellectual reboubt.  In address to another long-familiar strand of death-friendly counsel — proffered by Alan Watts — Harrington delineates the hopeless and hypocritical dialectic in appositely stark terms:

Such assurances have the ring of wisdom.  They may even be momentarily consoling.  Yet somehow the cool view of approaching oblivion seems a bit unreal.  Death is nonsense, but it will not be experienced as a "nonsensical problem" by you or me, or by the philosopher himself who probably moans when he has a toothache like anybody else, and who, when his time comes, will in all likelihood struggle just as frantically to keep his head out of the black sack.       

To Harrington, who died in 1997, the only project worthy of  zealous ardor was the scientifically ennobled battle against our corporeal degeneration and demise.  Unfettered by the transcendental temptation or the gravity of practiced social obeisance, the mission is clear:  defeat death.   

Appropriating the empty vocabulary of divine aspiration, Harrington corners the one true gospel with quixotic urgency:

The immortalist thesis is that the time has come for man to get rid of the intimidating gods in his own head.  It is time for him to grow up and out of his cosmic inferiority complex (no more "dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return…"), bring his disguised desire into the open, and go after what he wants, the only state of being he will settle for, which is divinity.

We have circled the moon, harnessed nuclear energy, artificially reproduced DNA, and now have the biochemical means to control birth; why should death itself, the Last Enemy," be considered beyond conquest?

A new act of faith is required of us: the kind of faith that we might have had a few decades ago, and did not, when Dr. Goddard was bravely projecting his rockets into the atmosphere, and a band of futurists was insisting that not just in comic strips but in reality we could lift earth.  This new faith we must have is that with the technology at our disposal in the near future death can be conquered.  This faith must also weld salvation to t Medical Engineering.

We must drive away the gods of doubt and self-punishment.  Our new faith must accept as gospel that salvation belongs to medical engineering and nothing else; that man’s fate depends first on the proper management of his technical proficiency; that we can only engineer our freedom from death, not pray for it; that our messiahs will be wearing white coats, not in asylums, but in chemical and biological laboratories.      

Notwithstanding the dated references, Harrington’s case against death stands. And stands unheeded. Whether it is promoted in the interest of spiritual solace or in fealty to some false notion of politically bound humility, death acceptance is bunk worse than religion.  Life is all there is.  Embracing the nullity, from any angle, is in every sense, a grave failure.  Pun intended.

And so.  With the foregoing I have attempted to show that in its rational constitution the idea of antinatalism in no way tempts an ethical imperative to suicide.  Genocide, maybe — but that’s another argument.  The central point is that to the extent that antinatalism poses a serious problem for ethical philosophy, the logical force of the argument against procreation derives from a proper understanding of the horror — and harm — that is death. Antinatalism and Immortalism are united not merely by futiltiy, but by the same unshrinking moral logic.

No one should ever die, which is why. Therefore, goddamnit.  No one should ever have children.


OK, I know I said this would be a four-part series, but the further I waded, the more I realized that Benatar’s views on abortion deserve a more careful response.  So a fifth and — I promise — final installment must remain in the offing. Please tune back in from time to time.