September 12th, 2006


Last of the pornotopians

"Explicit sexual imagery has erupted in every medium and on every surface. While there's plenty of laughing and pointing going on, hardly anyone has stopped to consider its impact." So runs the headline above the 2004 article that gives design writer Rick Poynor's new collection its title: Designing Pornotopia: Travels in Visual Culture. As a bit of a pornotopian myself, I thought I'd read it naked.

Very little of the book, it turns out, is about sex. This collection of journalism (most of it originally appeared in magazines like Eye, Print, Trace and ID) is a bit like Roland Barthes' "Mythologies" in the way it invests each twitch of pop culture -- from Bjork's homogenic neck brace through the covers of every edition of Ballard's "Crash" to the resurgence of gardening allotments -- with thoughtful attention.

The Britain of Poynor's book emerges as a bulimic, orgiastic place, a right-wing, post-Thatcherite parody of the ugly underbelly of the Sexual Revolution and the Me Generation. Poynor could be talking about himself when he describes illustrator Paul Davies' particular form of misanthropy as "the stance of someone struggling with dismay at the way people so often fall short of their potential to live good lives, behave decently and tell the truth".

Instead of owlish wisdom, we have magpie eyes. "We show no sign of abandoning our addiction to magazines," Poynor writes in an essay called This Month's Cover. "For sheer concentration of imagery in one place, there is no experience quite like going into a shop with a large selection of titles. At first sight your eye is overwhelmed by hundreds of shiny, brightly coloured rectangles, each one vibrating with pictures and lines of type. In a consumer society, we inhabit a ceaseless flow of images, coming at us at all times and from all directions, but nothing else has quite this degree of simultaneity: a field of competing attractions, in which all elements are equally present and vivid."

I'd almost compare Poynor's style to Craig Raine's "Martian" school of poetry. He somehow manages to state the obvious in ways which allow us to see it afresh, using each formulation as a springboard to thoughts we wouldn't otherwise have. For instance, it's clear that I've pinned "hundreds of shiny, brightly coloured rectangles" to my living room wall in an attempt to emulate exactly the kind of dense consumer environment that Poynor is talking about. I'm a magpie too.

"The problem with covers is you end up trying to catch the floating readers," Poynor quotes Robin Derrick, art director of British Vogue, as saying. "You ignore the 100,000 who buy the magazine every month and target the 200,000 who occasionally buy it." Suddenly it becomes clear why the British Labour Party is led by a conservative and the British Conservative Party by someone currently making every effort to appeal to environmentalists and anti-war activists. They're magazine covers.

Poynor's underlying, unifying attitude in Designing Pornotopia is an undercurrent of approval (or nostalgia) for old-fashioned British reticence -- and its corollary, a weary distaste for the brash, raunchy place Britain has become. Interviewing artist-illustrator Paul Davies, Poynor finds that "in other more private and emotional matters, which I hadn't asked about, he was almost too forthcoming". It's precisely this sort of interest in reticence which made Poynor (who used to be my mentor when we both blogged regularly at Design Observer) send me the book. He'd read my essay on The Century of the Self, with its tentative endorsement of repressed values like "guilt, repression, class consciousness, elitism, traditional society, duty, restraint, decorum, bottling things up, deferred gratification, introversion".

"I find myself thinking a lot about the old idea of corruption," Poynor wrote to me in an e-mail (quoted here with his permission) after reading my piece about The Century of the Self and The Queen. "We pay no heed to the possibility that individuals are corruptible... That you can cross a line. That you might have to struggle with yourself not to cross it. We believe you can and should say yes to anything if it's your thing. Because you want it. Because you're worth it. I think we've lost sight of a fundamental psychological, moral and social truth. Unrestrained libidinal excess as played out, promoted and amplified in the media seems to have led not to the promised utopian liberation but to a horrible kind of callousness and affectlessness (and stupidity), which the market cynically exploits. I think you'll probably detect more than a few strains of all this in the book."

Hmm, think I'll just slip into some clothes.