Michael Mann and the Neuroscience of Pornography

Most pornographic art is rubbish aesthetically, as you will know if you’ve ever done a Google search for hardcore to pave your driveway with, with Safe Search switched off. 

The only halfway decent pornographic artist since the Attic red figure vase makers that I can think of is Sassy Attila.  (That’s his real name. Attila is a common first name in Hungary, where the first name comes last.) He learned to draw first and do the other stuff after, unlike, say David Hockney. (Though Hockney’s early illustrations to the erotic poems of Cavafy, recently exposed at the British Museum, are not bad at all, and certainly better than his bloody apple trees in Normandy.)

The problem with pornographic art comes from the fact that the human body, like that of all living things above the level of ectoprocta,

is bilaterally symmetrical about the vertical axis, with a few minor anatomical exceptions like hair partings, beauty spots etc. (At least, mine is, last time I looked.) Unlike, say, the cypress, mushroom, or jellyfish, which is symmetrical in the round. 

It follows that the sexual act, as performed in the best manuals (but not manually) is unidimensional in direction and largely performed symmetrically. In this it is almost unique among physical activities. Offhand, (and hands off) the only other actions I can think of which are performed symmetrically are the breast stroke and the butterfly, (but not the crawl or backstroke) the jerks of weight lifters, and the playing of a very limited number of musical instruments, of which the English concertina

(but not the melodeon) is one. Illustrating a symmetrical action such as the act of copulation is a job for a technical draughtsman, about as interesting aesthetically as riding a bicycle with no pedals, which is why it’s best done on a large vase. 

Catastrophic climate change, unlike mainstream environmentalism, has never been a popular cause, having always existed more as a headline grabber for desperate subeditors rather than as political substance to arouse the masses. Disturbed adolescents and adults who like dressing up in red robes may go in for it once or twice, but the pleasure soon wears off. The planet, and the gases surrounding it, are not something you can see or easily visualise – unlike, say, David Attenborough, who is always there. 

Biodiversity on the other hand is visually thrilling. Save the Whales caught the imagination because of Greenpeace’s daring and well-publicised maritime stunts. Even Left wing firebrand and first elected London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s intriguing plan to save the capital’s hedgehogs by providing them with little ladders to climb out of ditches into which they’d fallen might fire the imagination, in a boy-scout-with-two-sticks-kind of way, if your imagination is easily fired. It was the seventies after all, and anything seemed possible. 

The point is that actions like battling whalers on the high seas or climbing the clock tower on the parliament building provide satisfying visual images, as does anything to do with rhinoceroses, orang utans or sea turtles. 

Then climate was added to the list of things that needed saving, and took off politically in a way hedgehogs and whales never managed to do. Why is that? Biodiversity and species loss was already on the agenda in the eighties, but it never got journalists and politicians fired up. Of course, the images of the lone polar bear and the walruses falling off cliffs captured the imagination, but only after the politics and the media had established global warming as something of catastrophic importance. Jane Harrison said of the origin of myths: first came the mask, then the ritual dance to explain the mask, then the hero who decapitates the monster to create the myth. The image starts it off, but it must be simple and symmetrical, like the head of Medusa. 

I have a book of political science somewhere written in the seventies which already identifies climate as an issue the Labour party should be addressing. The author isn’t sure whether the climate is warming or cooling or disappearing up it’s hole in the ozone layer, but he’s sure it needs saving, and only the Left can do it.

How wrong he was! Prince Charles does it. The Goldsmith brothers did it. Richard Branson is doing it like mad in his solid teak bathtub on his Virgin Isle. How many low-lying British, Spanish and American Virgins would be underwater now if it weren’t for these scions of the upper classes beavering away? Any millionaire who didn’t go down on Epstein’s will likely be up to his neck on Branson’s.

Andy West will tell you (at least iI hope he will) that climate hysteria was just a culture waiting to pounce and go viral. But why that one? And why then? What does it take to transform a vague existential anxiety into a dogwhistle note for a herd of nerdy lemmings? 

Here’s my new neurological theory. We like images of complex action in three dimensions, especially when accompanied by loud noises, as in Star Wars, because they absorb the attention of every cell of those superior bits of the brain that allow us to perform complex actions ourselves, like shooting bison or zapping planets. But to get us really involved at a deeper emotional level, we need to reduce them to a two dimensional image which the more primitive brain bits can bite on. Hence the fascination of Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel if you’re a Renaissance theologian, or a graphic representation of annual global temperature anomalies by HADCRUT, if you’re the environmental correspondent of the BBC. 

But to really stir us at the mental level of our sea cucumber cousins, there’s nothing better than a uni-dimensional image with near perfect vertical symmetry, like a line on a graph going up and up and up. Your invertebrate unconscious can really get off on that.

And no, a hedgehog climbing a ladder is not an example of vertical symmetry. Look at those little legs. 

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February 7, 2021 at 03:05PM

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